How young CPAs can help save the world

Want to make a difference? Your professional skills are all the superpowers you need
By Eddie Huffman

Fueled by passion and idealism, young adults have long sought to change the world for the better. A few select professions are often specifically associated with these types of endeavors: Doctors, journalists, and teachers readily come to mind. And every lawyer can cite big cases in their profession that made the country, or at least their corner of it, a better place.

For some, accounting appears more associated with capitalism than altruism. Many Millennial CPAs, those born after 1980, are making a bid to sweep aside traditional stereotypes.

Certainly, there is no shortage of problems for Millennials to address. They've started their careers at a time when climate change, income inequality, and terrorism are all regularly trending topics on their social media feeds.

"I think this generation may see the challenges that are present, and they want to meet them and fix them and make the world a better place," said Zach Levin, CPA, a 30-year-old controller at Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville, N.C.

Of course, CPAs can't "save the world" in the same way that the superheroes they grew up watching in blockbuster movies do. But the accounting profession offers altruistically minded Millennials unique advantages in giving back to society. Often a healthy salary from which to provide impactful financial contributions is one of them, but CPAs also can draw from other advantages:

  • They possess specialized financial acumen essential to many worthy, world-benefiting endeavors;
  • They know how to pull the levers of power in organizations of all shapes and sizes; and
  • They command the respect and influence typically afforded successful white-collar professionals.

CPAs have a long commitment to serving the public good. The work they do gives the public confidence in everything from investing in companies to fraud prevention to the health of not-for-profit organizations. The profession has long adhered to the notion that with power comes responsibility.

CPAs from the Millennial generation contribute in many ways, including volunteering, working for not-for-profits (NFPs), serving on NFP boards, donating money, and promoting practice areas such as sustainability accounting. Here's a look at specific examples of how Millennials are working to make the world a better place, one CPA at a time. They're both inspirational and instructional. Not only will they make you want to don a figurative CPA superhero cape, but they'll also identify how you can get started.

Time well spent

When Diego J. Baca, CPA, mentors a teenager, it's almost as if he's gazing into a mirror reflecting his own past. He grew up in a small town about three hours south of Denver, where his single mother juggled jobs as a hair stylist and nursing assistant to support Baca and his brother. Nobody in his extended family had gone to college.

"I enjoy those mentoring relationships, just being an example to young Latino and young black students who don't see a lot of white-collar, college-educated people in their lives," he said. "I think it's a powerful example, and even though I've been a part of this program for five years now, I'm still in awe at the looks and the expressions I get from the students when I tell them my story or share my experiences with them."

Baca, assurance manager at EY in Denver, has worked to give back to the community since he graduated from the University of Colorado in 2009. He acknowledges that he wants to earn a lot of money, but he also spends hundreds of hours per year volunteering—using the respect he gets as a professional to influence young people's lives.

Baca works with several mentorship programs and serves as local co-director and assistant regional leader for the College MAP program. He also does a little freelance mentoring on the side. His efforts are often aimed at giving high school and college students the kind of guidance he never received.

"Not knowing the process, not knowing how it works, not knowing what to expect, it really caused a lot of doubts," Baca said. "Throughout my college career, even though I was blessed and fortunate enough to have gotten through it successfully, there were a lot of times when I really doubted my decisions."

NFPs profit from CPAs' skill set

Generations of CPAs have helped make the world a better place by providing their services to NFPs—whether by working directly for them or by serving on their boards.

Shauna Duffy, CPA, has found a way to support causes that she's passionate about using her accounting skills. As the managing director at AS220, an arts NFP in Providence, R.I., Duffy is an example of a young CPA using the knowledge and perspective she has gained from accounting to influence the direction of NFP organizations—and, by extension, the people they serve. Duffy, a musician whose bachelor's degree is in ethnomusicology, grew up much more focused on art and social justice than business. She pursued an MBA in accounting with a goal of bringing business skills back to the NFP world.

"I'm literally only an accountant because I wanted to do something that I thought would be useful and valuable in the community," she said. "I didn't come to community service as an accountant looking for something to do; I came to accounting as somebody working in community service looking for what would be a really useful skill set and set of tools."

Before working directly at an NFP, Duffy spent eight years at Kahn, Litwin, Renza in the NFP Services Group. Small arts organizations where Duffy has volunteered need help with the basics, such as understanding how accounting and finance can be useful tools and how to create an effective budget. Larger NFPs she served professionally while at KLR have other needs.

"They tend to have a decent level of competency within their own accounting and finance staff, but they need a broader understanding of what's going on within the community," Duffy said. "I find that nonprofits are not always communicating with each other on the business side of things. I try to get involved with everything from what's going on with the local community foundation and how they're changing, how they support innovation, to what's going on with insurance risks and cybersecurity. Being a trusted adviser to many NFPs enables me to share knowledge and best practices."

She encourages clients to look at their Forms 990, Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax, as less of a compliance document and more of a public relations piece. "Any significant funder, one of the first things they're going to do before they think about giving you money is look up your 990," Duffy said. "So your 990 needs to really concisely tell your story in a way that's going to make them want to ask more questions."

CPAs can also share such big-picture knowledge by serving on NFP boards. Duffy serves on two boards for organizations promoting the arts and community media, and previously served on two others. Baca serves on the Career Development Advisory Board at the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business, which helps direct the school's mentoring program.

Staying sustainable

Some CPAs focus their world-improvement efforts on specific practice areas, such as promoting socially conscious investing or sustainability accounting. The latter is a passion for Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., assistant professor of professional practice at Rutgers University–Camden in Camden, N.J. Smith served on the industry working group for the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). Sustainability accounting is a form of accounting that involves analyzing factors such as savings tied to energy usage and efficiency, and controlling costs by studying the life cycle of products.

Sustainability's importance is growing in the United States thanks to how it can help companies be more environmentally and socially friendly. "The concept of sustainability operating and practices has really moved from the world of academics and is now starting to become embedded in how companies are being measured and evaluated," Smith said.

Millennials are helping to shift the focus to a broader picture of business health, Smith said. He sees two driving forces behind Millennials' collective push for a new paradigm that moves beyond profit and loss: "One, doing business as usual isn't going to work anymore, whether for us as individuals or on a more macro level. Things have to change," he said. "Two, the whole idea of being sustainable and environmentally friendly—it just seems to make business sense on top of obviously being better for the planet."

Give it away—effectively

One of the most basic ways Millennial CPAs give back is by donations. Duffy contributes to many causes, including the animal shelter where she adopted a dog, a community mental health center, and an organization that works with vulnerable children in her state, in addition to AS220.

"I actively manage my 401(k) to ensure my investments are positive and sustainable," she said. "In addition, when it comes to giving, I try to be very aware of what I am supporting. I have an annual budget for giving and set aside some funds to support friends and colleagues who might be engaging in fundraisers for NFPs that might not be on the top of my list."

But the bulk of her giving, Duffy said, is to organizations with which she has a personal connection, so that she can directly see the impact of their work.

Due to their financial acumen, Millennial CPAs also are uniquely positioned to help lead the way toward effective altruism. This movement works to produce the biggest returns on charitable investments by asking, "how can we use our resources to help others the most?" As a CPA would do, effective altruism uses evidence and analysis to answer this question. One of the goals of the Centre for Effective Altruism is creating "a global community of people who have made helping others a core part of their lives, and who use evidence and scientific reasoning to figure out how to do so as effectively as possible." The CPAs featured in this article, as well as many others across the profession, are part of this community.

Continuing the legacy

Millennial CPAs work every day to make a difference in the world, whether by giving their money, time, or expertise. Some of these activities, such as serving on boards, build on the precedents of previous generations. Others, such as promoting sustainability accounting, blaze new paths. Either way, they continue to expand the profession's proud tradition of public service. And for some young CPAs, there's just no other way to live.

Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

Where to find March’s flipbook issue

The Journal of Accountancy is now completely digital. 





Get Clients Ready for Tax Season

This comprehensive report looks at the changes to the child tax credit, earned income tax credit, and child and dependent care credit caused by the expiration of provisions in the American Rescue Plan Act; the ability e-file more returns in the Form 1040 series; automobile mileage deductions; the alternative minimum tax; gift tax exemptions; strategies for accelerating or postponing income and deductions; and retirement and estate planning.