CPA INSIDER

Public accounting firms benefit by giving back

Volunteering helps communities and builds camaraderie.
By Cheryl Meyer

Wolf & Company P.C. in Haiti
Like Wolf & Company, many public accounting firms nationwide choose to aid their communities and, in turn, inspire their staffs.

Employees at Wolf & Company P.C., over the past two years did something unusual and remarkable: They lived in a Haitian orphanage and built three homes for Haitian residents.

"It was an incredibly moving experience," said Mark O'Connell, CPA, president and CEO of the Boston-based firm. O'Connell and members of his staff visited Haiti three times under a local program run by The Be Like Brit Foundation. The charity was founded in memory of 19-year-old Britney Gengel, a college volunteer from Massachusetts who perished in the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

For each of the three trips to Haiti, Wolf & Company paid $1,500 for each employee, leaving staff to raise the remaining $600, O'Connell said. The firm also gave traveling employees paid time off.

While the Haitian trips may have been the pinnacle of charitable work of the century-old firm, Wolf & Company helps its community in other ways. Employees at Wolf's four offices engage in some act of giving monthly: painting gymnasiums, working at soup kitchens, or buying gifts for needy children. To help fund and direct these efforts, the firm established the Wolf & Company Charitable Foundation and gives staff members at least eight hours annually to volunteer as well as $50 per year of service for each employee to donate to a charity of his or her choice.

"We as an owner group and as an employee base believe strongly in giving back to the communities that we serve," O'Connell said.

Like Wolf & Company, many public accounting firms nationwide choose to aid their communities and, in turn, inspire their staffs.

The benefits of charitable work are many: People feel great when they help others; employees grow personally from the experiences; volunteering creates camaraderie. In addition, community-focused firms attract new recruits and the firms gain exposure, which can help bring in more clients, noted Scott Weber, CPA, principal at Scheffel Boyle in Edwardsville, Ill. Over the years his firm, with seven offices in Illinois, has collected food for pantries, planted trees at a local university, and built homes for Habitat for Humanity  under the Scheffel Boyle Shares program.

"It strengthens your bond to the community and makes you realize how fortunate you are," said Natalia Walls, CPA, senior accountant and head of the volunteering efforts at Boldt Carlisle + Smith in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Her firm, with three offices and roughly 40 CPAs, holds an annual day of service when partners and other staff members donate their time to a local organization.

Public accounting firms, no matter how large or small, can develop a strong volunteer program, O'Connell and others said. They offered the following tips:

Create a committee. Before you embark on a charitable quest, form a volunteer/philanthropy committee to help direct and organize. Wolf & Company established an employee-led philanthropy committee to identify and organize volunteer activities. But even small firms can create a group devoted to volunteering. "If you get two or three employees to be on that philanthropy committee and help organize, you are giving them a leadership opportunity and doing good things for the community," O'Connell said.

Secure leadership buy-in. Prior to selecting a charity to help, make sure the firm's leaders are on board, since employees may have to give up work time and the firm may choose to bestow matching funds for a particular event.

"We want to make sure when we're supporting organizations that there is an organic level of support within the firm," said Brett Bradford, CPA, a partner at Pisenti & Brinker in Sonoma County, Calif.

In 2017, his firm put together a team of employees and their families to participate locally in the Human Race, a nationwide run, walk, and community fundraising event for nonprofit organizations. They plan to repeat the race in the future.

Know your staff and choose a champion. Before engaging in a firmwide or officewide project, study your employees. What types of charitable work would they enjoy? Ask if any are involved in a nonprofit and what sparks their passions. Pick an office champion enthused about a cause to help organize an event.

"Many of our staff members are younger, with recent college graduates and people in their early 30s and late 20s," Walls said. "So, for us, we like to be active." In 2018, Boldt Carlisle + Smith employees helped pack over 9,000 pounds of food and, in turn, provided over 7,500 meals through a local food share organization.

Start planning early. Once you get buy-in from leaders and feedback from employees, reach out to the organization you would like to help. Then, speak with its volunteer coordinator and establish several potential dates that work well for the nonprofit and your staff. "I start reaching out and researching and talking about it before tax season," said Walls about planning her firm's volunteer outing.

Avoid busy season or overburdening staff. Balance the needs of your clients with time devoted to outside charitable activities. Don't schedule events during busy season, and make sure volunteer work doesn't conflict with the firm's professional obligations. "Our staff works a lot of hours, and we don't want to put more hours on them outside of work," Weber said.

Make it fun. CPAs spend a lot of time at their desks and on their computers. Try to choose an activity that differs greatly from their daily routines. "If you make it fun for people, they will want to continue doing it," Walls said.

Some firms create a contest in-house to get employees revved up. Last year, Scheffel Boyle held a firmwide competition to see which of its seven offices could collect the most food per capita, as part of its Write-Off Hunger program. Workers raised money in various ways and collected more than 5,500 food items, which they distributed to local food banks.

"The office that had the most pounds received a happy hour on us," Weber said.

Finally, just do it. If you're contemplating creating a volunteer program for your firm, don't delay. "You won't regret it," O'Connell said. "The time and energy and finances that it may take, you get back fivefold. It's all worth it."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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