Volunteer to Enhance Your Career and the Profession

There's an AICPA committee out there that needs your input. And you might be surprised to find what's in it for you.
BY MELINDA HARPER AND STEPHANIE ALLEN

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF CPAs NEEDS a diverse volunteer population with a wide range of skills to serve on committees in order to position itself for the future where CPAs are the premier information professionals. The AICPA has reached out to women, minorities, CPAs in business and industry and small firms to increase their committee participation.
  • COMMITTEE MEMBERS BENEFIT FROM volunteering in many ways: they gain confidence, become better informed, improve the quality of their work and gain access to information.
  • CPAs WHO VOLUNTEER CAN DEVELOP skills, from handling the media to speaking in public and working with difficult people. They can hone leadership skills among a supportive group of peers instead of in front of clients or superiors at work.
  • SUPPORTING VOLUNTEERING CREATES costs for a firm, including lost time and billable hours. But most firms see the benefit of investing in employees as volunteers when these individuals have the potential for growth, are ready for the opportunity and are committed to staying with the firm.
  • VOLUNTEERING IN A COMMITTEE benefits a firm by increasing client generation, access to resources and access to individuals who may be interested in employment opportunities.
MELINDA HARPER, CPA, is a shareholder and the director of dispute resolution services for Shenkin Kurtz Baker & Co., P.C., Englewood, Colorado. She currently chairs the American Institute of CPAs management consulting services executive committee.
STEPHANIE ALLEN is president of the Athena Group, a management consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, dedicated to bringing more equality into the workplace.


Why would any accountant—with barely enough hours in the day to plow through the regular work tasks on a to-do list, let alone have a personal life—volunteer to participate on an American Institute of CPAs committee? Many are finding that volunteering pays off.

Every year, about 2,900 people apply for approximately 320 openings on roughly 100 AICPA committees. From the AICPAs perspective, the accounting profession needs a diverse volunteer population with a wide range of technical and leadership skills and vision in order to position itself for the dynamic future where CPAs are the premier information professionals. The AICPA also must represent the diversity of the profession in terms of firm size, geographic location, area of specialty and business venue, as well as sex, race and ethnicity.

CPAs who volunteer for AICPA
committees cite several
rewards, including:
  • Greater confidence.
  • Expanded network.
  • Improved work quality.
  • Enhanced professional
    reputation.
  • Increased professional
    expertise.
  • Stronger leadership qualities.

For the last decade or so, the AICPA has taken initiatives to increase some segments committee participation. For example, 12 years ago, the AICPA charged the upward mobility of women committee, now the women and family issues executive committee (WFIEC), with recommending strategies to reduce obstacles in the career paths of women—including identifying and eliminating barriers to AICPA committee participation. In 1992, the WFIECs predecessor, after studying the committee appointment process, recommended the AICPA gather statistics annually on the number of women volunteering for, selected for and presently in leadership positions on committees. Each incoming chairman of the AICPA board of directors now uses that information when putting together the AICPA committees and selecting chairpersons. In addition, the WFIEC implemented a strategy of suggesting candidates for committee service directly to other committees, a method that also is used to find other minority volunteers. In 1994, the WFIEC also began asking state CPA societies and other organizations, such as the American Womans Society of CPAs and professional groups in industry, government and education, to encourage female members to submit their names. These efforts have caused the voice of women on AICPA committees to grow so that, in the 1995-96 committee year, 20% of all committee members were women—a figure that more closely mirrors the 24% of AICPA members who are women today.

The 1996-97 AICPA board chairman, Robert Mednick, recognizes that the AICPA still faces challenges in its efforts to place women on committees. The five AICPA management consulting services (MCS) committees illustrate the challenge. For the current committee year, no women applied for the MCS executive committee, and five were selected from the 11 who volunteered for the other four committees. In addition, the AICPA is concerned about reaching the other groups that should be better represented on committees, including minorities, CPAs in business and industry and small firms.

The Institute has also begun to explore the idea of virtual committees, which would meet and discuss issues online via the Internet. These could absorb some of the spillover of interested applicants who dont get chosen for the committees. They also would help CPAs who, with so much downsizing and reengineering going on in the business world, dont have the luxury of extra time to volunteer but would still like to get involved, albeit on a more limited basis.


VOLUNTEERS REAP REWARDS
The most successful volunteering is based on a passionate, or at least a strong interest. These volunteers believe in an issue and want to have input in shaping it. Marilee Hopkins, a partner of Crowe Chizek, who chairs the litigation services practice in the firms Oakbrook, Illinois, office, was selected to serve on the 1994-95 litigation and dispute resolution services subcommittee the first time she applied in 1994. She had seen the AICPA volunteer application in the CPA Letter and had volunteered, she says, because she thought she needed more specific professional stimulation. "I wanted to come together with other practitioners in my professional area," she says.

As a committee member, Hopkins has committed herself to two-day committee meetings every quarter and another 40 hours annually to review committee materials, edit articles and prepare for committee meetings. That time commitment can increase dramatically, she says, if a committee member volunteers to produce a practice aid. Writing even one small nonauthoritative document—because of how carefully written, researched and reviewed it must be—can add many more hours.

Steven J. Shuster, of Shuster & Co., P.C., in Denver, who has just wound up a three-year term on the AICPA peer review board, also agrees that committee work can be a real time commitment. "It was not unusual for me to have a two- to four-hour teleconferencing meeting every month or every other month, plus a half day or day of preparation time for each meeting," Shuster says. "And it does take up personal time, on nights and weekends."

Shuster was recommended for the AICPA committee after serving on a similar board at the state society level, and threw himself into it. He found the focus of the AICPA committee, compared with that of the state society board, "more theoretical and guidance-oriented. The state level is more about implementing," Shuster says. "Its similar to the difference between being an attorney general and a policeman on the street." To attend the committee meetings, Shuster was able to travel to several vacation spots, and he particularly enjoyed the update on what was going on at the AICPA given before every committee meeting. He even got some referrals out of his volunteer experience. But "feeling strongly that the peer review concept is a marvelous concept," what he most enjoyed was contributing to writing new standards for a profession he sees as on the move, as well as helping to train and educate representatives and peer reviewers about the current implementation requirements of the process.

Many volunteers say the benefits far outweigh the costs. "Youre focused on your own practice, and your own little world, and then you serve on a committee and suddenly you see how your firm fits into the profession," Crowe Chizeks Hopkins says. Shes more informed about whats going on in her practice area, including legal issues, new areas of practice and new types of training—issues she says she wouldnt know about without her service on a committee. "The greatest overall benefit to me has been to increase my confidence in the quality of my own practice and work product and in dealing with other litigation practitioners," she says. "My access to a network of information and resources is unparalleled."

Gaining a network was also an important benefit for Hubert Glover, a CPA with Enterprise Advisory Services Inc. in Houston, who last year finished his stint on the minorities iniatitives committee and is now on the MCS executive committee. That networking is important, he says, when it comes to "enhancing my marketing goals and gaining professional information." His committee work also helped him gain a better understanding of how the AICPA works to support its membership. He cites the minority initiatives committees input into the Room Zoom CD-ROM project and the AICPA Web site as "further diversifying my professional skills for planning and organizing."

Hopkins cites another benefit—she referred a case to a fellow committee member she would never have known had they not worked together on the litigation and dispute resolution services subcommittee. That referral turned into a $170,000 engagement for her fellow volunteer, and Hopkins received a small fee for her arbitration services related to the referral, a testament to networking in action.

Volunteering can be a great way to hone skills—from handling the media to speaking in public and working with difficult people—that you can carry over to your job. Many successful professionals say volunteering played an important part in their learning process. Mednick, who served on his first committee—the SEC regulations committee—at age 33, remembers the experience as a wonderful opportunity to learn and speak out even though he was a junior member. "Im a strong supporter of volunteering," he says. "It assists people in their careers and it broadens their vision—just by working with a diverse group of individuals who all bring varied skills to the table. Committee work—and volunteer work in general, not just at the AICPA—has expanded my horizons and interests and made me a more thoughtful, well-rounded and complete individual." Volunteering provides an opportunity to test the leadership skills that are crucial for reaching the ownership levels of firms. Learning to be a leader in a volunteer organization with friendly colleagues is far less stressful than doing it "for real" with paying clients and colleagues who are counting on fees from those clients. Committees can also be a valuable place to find a mentor.


WHATS IN IT FOR THE FIRM
Supporting volunteer committee work results in costs to the volunteers employer, including lost time and billable hours as well as out-of-pocket costs for dues and fees. Volunteering creates a need for flexible schedules and increases the difficulty in scheduling work activities with the volunteer. Other costs crop up, as well—for example, one committee member says that if, through committee work, she becomes involved with a not-for-profit organization, she would ask her firm to buy a table at the NPOs fundraisers. But most firms make the investment to support volunteering if they believe employees have the potential for growth, are ready and well-matched for the opportunity and are committed to staying with the firm.

Most firm and company leadership realizes that volunteering for AICPA committees can result in improved profitability and growth for them. Benefits include

  • Client generation through referrals from volunteer connections, an enhanced image in the community and visibility and publicity.
  • Access to resources that enhance client retention and referrals.
  • Access to individuals who may be interested in employment opportunities.

Crowe Chizeks Hopkins believes the firm is benefiting "more than it realizes" from her service. She was able to learn how her peers at other firms handle different work situations, from developing and retaining employees to approaching litigation assignments. "Information obtained through committee service has raised the level of litigation practice throughout the firm," she says.


VOLUNTEERING AT THE AICPA
Individuals selected for AICPA committee service are generally experienced, with specific skills to offer. In accounting firms, this generally means partners or senior managers. At larger firms and also in business and industry, volunteering provides opportunities to reward potential superstars with chances to shine.

Committees can also be a place where firms can demonstrate their support for the upward mobility of women and minorities. Hopkins thinks the litigation dispute resolution services subcommittee mirrors that desire to air diverse views. "Overall," she says, "the environment is one of fairness. Every opinion—male, female, large firm, small firm—is considered."

Glover expresses a similar view. "Im a CMA, CIA and CPA, and what impressed me most is that of the three organizations, the AICPA is the one with the strongest long-term commitment to diversity, to recruiting into the profession. And the minorities initiatives committee was a great vehicle for attracting people into the profession." 

Will You Be Chosen?

With nine volunteers for every opening, applying for an American Institute of CPAs committee position is like applying for a job. As with a job, you can enhance your potential for selection. The following "hints" from Melinda Harper, current chairwoman of the management consulting services executive committee, are based on her experiences applying for committee service and selecting committee members.

  • The application does matter, especially if it is the only source of information the selectors will have about you. Sell them on why your membership on the committee will help them accomplish their goals.
  • Dont be afraid to toot your own horn. You, after all, are in the best position to know your strengths.
  • Before applying, try to talk with committee staff, members or the chairperson. Introduce yourself to them at conferences or volunteer to write articles or work on task forces.
  • Use other peoples power—request referrals from those perceived as influential in the committee process. The committee chairperson and staff aide make recommendations on committee appointments to the incoming board chairperson. Other influential contacts include state society executive directors, past presidents of the AICPA and committees supporting diversity. Any support helps you stand out in a sea of applicants.
  • Select the committee that best matches your interests and the specific opportunities you have targeted, and make that your goal. Realize, however, that you may have to serve on another committee first and that you may need to apply more than once to reach your desired committee.

Once you are selected for a committee, wade in; but learn the landscape before you suggest alterations or criticize past work results. To maximize the benefits of your committee service:

  • Value and support the staff.
  • Cultivate relationships with committee members and staff.
  • Whenever it comes up, take credit for your own work, but share credit for the committee work.
  • Ask for leadership positions when you are ready.
  • Pick allies carefully.
  • Volunteer for projects.
  • Follow through on anything you commit to do.

The process for volunteering for AICPA committees begins each year with the request for volunteers published in the November issue of the CPA Letter . This outlines the application process and answers questions volunteers might have.

For AICPA committee appointment information, call 212-596-6097.

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