Beyond boundaries


By CA magazine

ICAS Deputy President Indy Hothi CA says his work at Khalsa Aid International is just one example of how accountants can use their skills to support their chosen causes

Back in 2014, parts of Bosnia and Serbia suffered their worst floods since records began some 120 years ago. Three months’ worth of rain fell on the Balkan countries in just a few days. Buildings were destroyed by landslides and thousands were left homeless in some of Europe’s poorest communities.

As a volunteer for UK-based NGO Khalsa Aid International, ICAS Deputy President Indy Hothi CA visited Bosnia to provide support and see first-hand the extent of the destruction, chaos and human cost caused by a natural disaster. Not surprisingly, the visit had a profound effect on him.

“You saw the hope,” he says. “You saw what aid provides for people, especially when they’ve been impacted by flooding and they’ve lost everything. But there was also something else. We were connecting with people on a human level. The key thing that Khalsa Aid does is to deliver humanitarian aid with compassion.”

More recently, the charity has been providing vital support in India. As the number of Covid-related deaths surged across the country, suddenly there was a thriving black market for oxygen concentrators. Prices were doubling as people were dying.

“We’ve been working with suppliers to provide key areas of support around three areas – oxygen supplies, critical care equipment and PPE kits. In the space of five days we received 400 oxygen concentrators from donations from the British public, and partnered with Virgin and then British Airways to deliver that support. All of this was coordinated within a week. It was a great example of businesses and NGOs working collaboratively for the common good.

“To date, we’ve distributed more than 2,000 oxygen concentrators across 24 states in India. We’ve been actively supporting state hospitals, providing them with supplies, as well as for emergency community hospitals where people have set up makeshift facilities. We’ve also been working with the Punjabi health ministry, one of the state health departments, and set up a virtual doctors network.

This was an initiative to connect medical professionals to share best practice and insight to support the battle against the pandemic in India. We’ve had more than 250 doctors from states across India join in with doctors from the UK, Canada and the US to share key learnings. And that was something that’s been facilitated by Khalsa Aid International.

The charity, which was founded in the UK in 1999 and now has chapters spread around the world, including Canada, the US, India, and Australia, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year. It takes its name from the Punjabi word for “pure and free”.

“It is a faith-inspired charity, guided by the Sikh teachings of recognising the whole human race as one,” says Hothi. “So we don’t see borders, ethnicity, gender, faith or any other factor that differentiates us. We see humanity as one and are there to support any person who requires aid in a disaster zone, be that war, natural disaster or civil conflict. In Bosnia we had so many instances of people saying, ‘You are now our family, part of this village, part of this whole community’. And we were also breaking down cultural barriers. A lot of these people had never met a turban-wearing Sikh.

“I’ve witnessed the height of the refugee crisis, at the borders of Europe when boats were coming into Greece and people were fleeing from the war in Syria. I’ve been at the border of Zambia and Congo, and saw people who were fleeing civil conflict. We’ve been operating in Iraq, supporting the Yazidi community persecuted by Isis. We provided aid following the bushfires in Australia and closer to home supported communities in Somerset and in northern parts of the UK following the floods in 2014.

We are a small charity compared with the large NGOs, but we can act nimbly and fill the gaps in aid where it is needed. And for me, when you see the impact of these disasters, something profound happens. You cannot witness the devastation around you and not feel compelled to do something.

Transferable skills

Those experiences made Hothi consider how he could apply his skills as a CA within Khalsa Aid. “When I was out in the field, I realised there were so many learnings I could bring, and that I could add value to the organisation, which ultimately means having a greater impact. Every organisation has a finance function and there is an acute shortage of professionals to work in these spaces. It’s anything from financial reporting to redefining the strategy to helping to define the systems and processes. It all has a huge impact on the way that humanitarian aid is delivered.”

Hothi went from volunteer to trustee at Khalsa Aid before being appointed one of its directors last summer. Becoming a trustee of any organisation is, of course, a well-trodden path towards becoming a director or non-exec. But having that role within the charity sector brings its own unique challenges and rewards.

Charities are always in need of trustees with specific skillsets and experience and one of those skillsets is always in finance,” he says. “It is more structured and formal than being a volunteer in the field. But it provides a huge benefit to the organisation as well as the individual, especially if they are trying to get more knowledge and non-exec experience. You are sharpening your skills as a professional because you’re working in an emergency environment but you’re bringing so much else to the table in terms of operational efficiencies.

So what advice would Hothi give to a CA who is thinking about joining a charity or NGO? “I always talk to people about this and the first thing I say is to understand what you’re passionate about,” he says. “If you’re unsure, there is a really useful framework, which is the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs represent the most important issues facing our world right now. So if you’re not sure where your focus is, you can start by looking at that.

It could simply develop into working with a community group or a local charity. Many people who volunteer give their support in terms of frontline operations, whether it’s providing services, support or education. But I’d urge people to think more broadly about the support one could provide in a professional capacity.

Hothi saw first-hand the enthusiasm among ICAS members and students to lend their skills across a range of organisations during National Volunteers’ Week in June. Indeed, one of the few positive aspects of the Covid crisis was the extraordinary number of Britons, especially young people with little prior experience of volunteering, who stepped up to help vulnerable individuals and families in their community. Some 750,000 people signed up to the NHS volunteer scheme within just four days, three times as many as expected and five times the number needed. The question is how many of those will continue to volunteer for charities, community groups or NGOs, because this crisis is far from over.

A survey of 600 voluntary organisations for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, published in March, revealed that two in five have just six months of reserves left and that most charities are running fewer services than pre-pandemic. There has rarely been a greater need within the third sector for the skills that CAs are able to provide.

“You know, we’re going through this huge shared global experience,” adds Hothi, “and we’ve seen businesses, organisations and people recognise that there is a broader purpose. It’s not just about making a profit but how we can support the community and environment around us. We can’t compartmentalise our lives and wider society into silos.

Whether it’s through addressing the SDGs or mobilising teams during a humanitarian crisis, the principles remain the same. The only way we’re going to see change more broadly in society, is through collaboration, forming alliances, to come together and create that change.

And CAs clearly have an important role to play in delivering positive, meaningful improvements for all. “The pandemic has had a huge impact on all of us at ICAS, including students and newly qualified members,” he concludes. “I sincerely hope that sense of togetherness and social activism will continue across the CA community and we will continue to be a force for good in society.”

Visit the ICAS volunteering hub to learn more