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Professional Issues

Giving Back: Pro Bono Accounting Services

Resources for CPAs who want to make a difference.

By William E Shafer, L Jane Park and Alice A Ketchand
November 1999
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • THERE ARE NUMEROUS OPPORTUNITIES for CPAs to make a difference in their communities. Many volunteer accounting services are provided through such not-for-profit groups as Accountants for the Public Interest (API).
  • VOLUNTEERS COME FROM ALL SECTORS of the accounting profession, including public accounting firms, private industry, government and education. Services offered commonly include consulting on accounting and auditing matters and providing accounting or income tax assistance and help in preparing for audits. Services are offered only to qualifying organizations, such as small not-for-profit organizations or businesses that cannot afford to pay, and individuals, such as poor, elderly and disabled taxpayers.
  • MOST VOLUNTEER WORK is motivated by the personal satisfaction that comes from helping others. Public service can also contribute to the development of a practice and help CPAs expand their professional skills and their areas of expertise.
WILLIAM E. SHAFER, CPA, PhD, is a professor of accounting at California State University, Los Angeles. His e-mail address is wshafer@calstatela.edu. L. JANE PARK, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor of accounting, also at California State University. Her e-mail address is ljpark@calstatela.edu. ALICE A. KETCHAND, CPA, PhD, is an associate professor at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas. Her e-mail address is aac_aak@shsu.edu.

fter Gary Skerik’s father died of cancer, the Los Angeles CPA decided to volunteer his accounting expertise to assist the American Cancer Fund for Children. In 1997 Barbra Sanders, an Illinois CPA, served as treasurer for the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, taught a free course on not-for-profit reporting for board members of several Illinois resource conservation and development corporations, and helped achieve tax-exempt status for a group that provides free medical services in Central America. Every year since 1993, Cheryl Cruz, a CPA, attorney and accounting professor, has trained a group of her students to participate in the IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. These are but a few examples of the thousands of CPAs who volunteer their time to worthwhile causes.

FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

CPAs have numerous opportunities to make a difference in their communities. Many provide pro bono accounting services through not-for-profit groups such as Accountants for the Public Interest (API). API has 21 affiliate organizations nationwide that coordinate pro bono efforts by matching volunteer accountants with individuals and organizations that need their expertise. The volunteers come from all sectors of the accounting profession, including public accounting firms, private industry, government and educational institutions. Although the services offered through API affiliates vary widely, they commonly include consulting on accounting and auditing matters and providing accounting or income tax assistance and help in preparing for audits. Services are offered only to qualifying organizations, such as small not-for-profit organizations or businesses that cannot afford to pay for them, and individuals, such as poor, elderly and disabled taxpayers.

The types of services offered by various API affiliates (see exhibit 1, below) illustrate the breadth of public interest accounting work. In a recent year, more than 7,400 API volunteers provided assistance to over 45,000 organizations and individuals. In addition, CPAs from all areas of the profession also participate in other groups in their communities, doing various forms of public interest accounting work.

Exhibit 1: Services Provided Through API Affiliates
Direct Accounting Assistance
  • Tax preparation, including participation in IRS-sponsored
  • Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs.
  • Preparation for the annual audit.
  • Reduced-rate auditing.
  • Designing and implementing accounting and control systems.
  • Staff training.

Consulting or Advisory Services

  • Tax matters.
  • Financial management.
  • Budgets and forecasts.
  • Computer software selection.
  • Loan or grant applications.
  • Responsibilities in reporting to government agencies.
  • Business start-up consulting.

Community Service

  • Providing free or low-cost seminars and workshops on accounting and finance.
  • Publishing accounting guides and newsletters for not-for-profits.
  • Serving on a not-for-profit’s board of directors.
  • Advising local government agencies or public schools on a variety of accounting, tax and other financial issues.
  • Assisting in reconstructing records for victims of fires, floods, hurricanes and other disasters.
  • Speaking at high schools about accounting careers.
  • Giving lectures at high schools on basic accounting concepts, such as taxes, financial planning and personal cash management.
  • Sponsoring conventions for not-for-profits.
  • Mentoring for women or minority small business owners.
  • Offering bilingual assistance to small, minority-owned businesses.
  • Mentoring university accounting students.

Most large CPA firms encourage employees to participate in volunteer activities— some even provide time off with pay for such participation. Frierson and Associates, P.C., a midsize local firm in Houston, provides a good illustration of pro bono work among smaller practitioners. The firm’s managing partner, Ray Frierson, has provided a variety of volunteer services, such as serving on not-for-profit boards of directors and helping with fund-raising events. The firm has also provided auditing and accounting services for a number of emerging not-for-profits at significant discounts. According to Frierson, “The discount is a function of several factors, including the type of organization, its ability to pay, and the ancillary benefits of being involved with it. For instance, several years ago I was introduced to an organization created to protect the habitat of the Monarch butterfly in Mexico. After one visit to the nesting grounds high in the mountains of Mexico—and having my entire body covered with butterflies—I was so overwhelmed I provided my accounting services free for years.”

WHY CPAs VOLUNTEER THEIR SERVICES

Most people volunteer primarily because of the personal satisfaction they get from helping others. Gary Condie, incoming president of the Los Angeles chapter of the California Society of CPAs, says he gains a sense of fulfillment when he volunteers. Condie has provided an array of services, among which was serving on boards of directors for both a hospital and the Boys and Girls Club. Rachel Murray, a sole practitioner in San Francisco who provides free accounting services for a small not-for-profit organization, says her volunteer efforts were motivated by the realization of what’s really important in life.

CPAs often volunteer for organizations whose goals they support or with which they feel an emotional connection. A good illustration is Bob Mayeri, a Beverly Hills CPA who serves as volunteer treasurer of the World Children’s Transplant fund, a not-for-profit organization that sets up organ transplant centers for children worldwide. He became interested in helping this group when his mother had a successful liver transplant in 1994. Gary Skerik not only volunteers with the American Cancer Fund for Children, but also for Film Makers United, a small organization that assists young film makers. Because Skerik’s firm has many ties to the film industry, he has been able to use his contacts to aid this group.

Ray Frierson says his volunteer work not only has been personally fulfilling but also has contributed to the development of his practice. In addition to the personal contacts that can be made with managers and directors of not-for-profits, community service can enhance a firm’s public image.

Volunteer work can also help CPAs develop their professional skills and expand their areas of expertise. Paul Glass, president of the Clearinghouse for Volunteer Accounting Services in California, said many volunteers develop valuable skills—for example, in communication and interpersonal relations. After Rachel Murray volunteered to help a not-for-profit organization achieve 501(c)(3) status, she felt she could offer the same service to potential clients.

Pro bono services can benefit the accounting profession by enhancing the public image of CPAs. The AICPA Code of Professional Conduct recognizes a commitment to serve the public interest, and participation in pro bono services is one way CPAs can demonstrate this commitment, thereby increasing public trust in the profession.

Exhibit 2: API Affiliates
Parent Organization

Accountants for the Public Interest
at the University of Baltimore

Thurnel Business Center, Room 155
1420 North Charles Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21201
Phone: 410-837-6533
Fax: 410-837-6532

California

Clearinghouse for Volunteer Accounting Services

Castaic
Phone: 805-295-8912
Fax: 805-295-8333

Connecticut

Community Accounting Aid and
Services, Inc.

West Hartford
Phone: 860-570-9113
Fax: 860-570-9107

District of Columbia

Support Center of Washington
Volunteers for Community Service

Washington, DC
Phone: 202-833-0300
Fax: 202-833-0077
Web site: www.scw.org

Florida

Florida Association of Nonprofit
Organizations

Miami Lakes
Phone: 305-557-1764
Fax: 305-821-5228

Georgia

Nonprofit Resource Center

Atlanta
Phone: 404-688-4845
Fax: 404-521-0487

Illinois

CPAs for the Public Interest

Chicago
Phone: 312-993-0407
Fax: 312-993-9432

Indiana

Quality for Indiana Taxpayers, Inc.

Indianapolis
Phone: 317-974-0736
Fax: 317-974-0768

Maryland

Maryland Association of Nonprofit
Organizations

Baltimore
Phone: 800-273-6367
Fax: 410-727-1914
Web site: www.mdnonprofit.org  

Michigan

Accounting Aid Society

Detroit
Phone: 313-961-1840
Fax: 313-961-6257

Minnesota

Minnesota Accounting Aid Society

Minneapolis
Phone: 612-636-8770
Fax: 612-636-8772

Mississippi

Mississippi Center for Not-for-Profits, Inc.

Jackson
Phone: 601-968-0061
Fax: 601-352-8820
Web site: www.missnp@netdoor.com

New Jersey

API—New Jersey

East Brunswick
Phone: 732-249-7565
Fax: 732-249-8158

New York  

Community Tax Aid, Inc.

New York City
Phone: 800-225-0256 ID #98741

Pennsylvania

Community Accountants

Philadelphia
Phone: 215-893-9333
Fax: 215-893-9339

Western Pennsylvania Community
Accountants, Inc.

Homestead
Phone: 412-462-9722
Fax: 412-462-3275

Rhode Island

Nonprofit Resources of Southern New England

Providence
Phone: 401-861-8930
Fax: 401-273-0540

Virginia

Virginia Society of CPAs
Public Service Volunteer Program

Richmond
Phone: 804-270-5344
Fax: 804-273-1741
Web site: www.vscpa.com

Wisconsin

Wisconsin Institute of CPAs
Public Interest Committee

Brookfield
Phone: 800-772-6939
Fax: 414-785-0838
 

API Student Chapter

Lincoln University Accounting Club

Lincoln University, Pennsylvania
Phone: 610-932-8300
Fax: 215-932-8317

HOW TO VOLUNTEER

CPAs are probably already aware of numerous not-for-profit organizations in their own communities. For more information, the API affiliates shown in exhibit 2, page 99, typically maintain a roster of organizations and people in need of assistance and attempt to match them with the skills and time commitments of volunteers. There are also other sources of volunteer opportunities. For example, some state CPA societies conduct public service programs not affiliated with API. In addition, through its VITA and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs, the IRS assists poor, elderly, disabled and non-English-speaking taxpayers to comply with federal and state tax laws. While some VITA/TCE programs are administered through API affiliates, most are conducted directly by the IRS and state tax authorities with the assistance of “volunteer coordinators” who are often experienced CPAs. Information on participation in the VITA/TCE programs may be obtained from state tax authorities. No matter where CPAs channel their energies, they will find pro bono work to be a satisfying experience.

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