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Harnessing the power of accounting to drive social change

Emma Young ASA believes that the smallest acts of kindness can have a profound impact on people’s lives. On a wintry 2011 night, Emma – who’s currently undertaking the CPA program on a full scholarship – was working as a financial analyst in London and came across a homeless person on the street. The encounter sparked an interest in volunteering and re-ignited the passion for social inclusion that she had been nurturing, alongside her accounting ambitions, since high school.

“Working for a not-for-profit has given me a different level of connection to the organisation and care factor for how the money is spent and invested in operations.”

Emma Young

It also led to her job as the Chief Financial Officer of Orange Sky, a fast-growing not-for-profit that offers a mobile laundry and shower service, conversation and connection to homeless people across Australia and New Zealand. 

“Volunteering showed me that everyone has a story,” says Emma, who started volunteering at a London shelter, serving meals and sharing conversation with people experiencing homelessness after that fateful night. 

“In London, a lot of the guests were highly educated and were good people, but through a series of events, they'd found themselves in the situation that they're in. I got to know a lot of the guests and started to genuinely care about their successes. One man got a job and that was really exciting. Another one started to study, because he had qualifications back in his home country that weren't recognised in London. [Volunteering] changed me as a person.” 

Below, Emma shares insights into her lifelong interest in social justice, how the not-for-profit sector benefits from accounting principles, and the challenges of ensuring a charity can carry out its mission while achieving sustainable growth. 

How did you start volunteering with Orange Sky and how did your time as a volunteer lead to your role as a full-time CFO? 

“When I moved back from London to Australia, I had a full-time job as an accountant [at a software firm] but wanted to continue volunteering in the sector. I started researching the services that were available and found out that Nicholas Marchesi and Lucas Patchett had started Orange Sky. I put my hand up to do whatever they needed at the time, and that was to help with their Brisbane service.

“I started [helping them] in addition to my job but never really dreamt that I would be able to combine the two. Luckily, I was able to work my full-time job in four days to free up a Friday and then weekends and after hours. The organisation was quickly growing. We were fortunate enough to have a lot of public support so I started helping in the office, doing the books, and putting all the financial processes in place. I had to create everything from scratch.”

Why do you think that accounting skills are so invaluable in the not-for-profit sector? 

“[At Orange Sky] donor dollars need to go a long way. In the charity sector, making sure that every dollar is really nurtured, and that you're running as efficiently as possible is super important. Soon after I started helping, things grew to a size where we really needed full-time people in place to be able to run the organisation on a day-to-day basis. But we are still heavily reliant on volunteers. We currently have about 2,000 volunteers across Australia.

“Last year, we also launched a service in Auckland, New Zealand and I’ve been establishing the financial processes and the legal structure as well as the human resources side of the business, including recruitment and company culture. Because I’ve been able to watch the organisation grow, it’s put me in a strong position to be able to make good decisions about what's best for the organisation. I’m really passionate about wanting Orange Sky staff to be happy and engaged.”

What are the most rewarding aspects of your role as the CFO?

“I think when I originally realised I was going to be an accountant, I was worried about being stuck behind a desk all day or that I’d be working somewhere where it was just a job. I've been so lucky to work at a company where I genuinely believe in what the organisation does. I also love going out on shifts – this is important for anyone who works here and helps staff connect with our cause.

“Because Orange Sky is young, we're always looking at how we can run our services as efficiently and effectively as possible. All our volunteers, and employees, and supporters are passionate about helping our friends on the street and strive to do things differently and continually improve.

“We have what we call the characteristics of an Orange Sky person. One of them is that an Orange Sky person gives things a crack. If Nic and Lucas had stopped at the first hurdle, Orange Sky wouldn't have been born. The washers and dryers broke the first three times they tried to get them to work in a van, but they didn't give up because they really believed in it. With more established charities, it's much harder to try new things, whereas we’re able to make improvements or implement change quite quickly. It’s rewarding for me to be a part of that action-oriented approach.”

How has your CPA scholarship helped you further hone your skills in the profession, and what can the accounting sector learn from the way not-for-profits run? 

“Credibility and reputation goes a long way and having this designation adds extra credibility to my ability. If I worked for a firm, they probably would have paid for me to get my CPA, but I didn't want to put that sort of pressure on our organisation. Orange Sky is very passionate about continuous learning and very supportive of me doing it so, being awarded the scholarship was a real positive not only for me, but the organisation and therefore our friends on the street.

“I think you come across the ethics and governance side of things in any organisation and these are going to play a huge part in an accountant’s daily life. With every [CPA] subject I’ve completed, the program is confirming my belief that an accountant needs to step beyond a traditional, narrow financial focus, and become the organistion’s business partner.
“Working for a not-for-profit has given me a different level of connection to the organisation and care factor for how the money is spent and invested in operations. I think every sector could benefit from creating that kind of strong relationship between their employees and other stakeholders.”

How do you think that your work as CFO of Orange Sky will evolve? 

“I’ve learned more in the last couple of years at Orange Sky, than I have working throughout my whole career. Because things are fast-growing and it's such a unique environment, I've had to progress my skills at a really fast pace. Because the organisation has evolved from a start-up to a growth phase, it has brought teething issues that have really challenged me. But it’s also brought a huge amount of personal and professional development and I don’t see that slowing down any time soon. I try to learn from every situation and use these learnings to make better decisions.”

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