Look around the offices of Gelman, Rosenberg & Freedman, and you'll probably notice a number of international souvenirs. Most were brought back by the Bethesda, Md.-based firm's accounting professionals from their travels to places like Nigeria, Indonesia and Zambia to conduct on-site field office audits and internal control reviews for international non-governmental organizations.
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GRF has spent the last two decades working with NGOs that are engaged in a range of humanitarian assistance projects, which are funded by various agencies in the U.S. government, as well as international and multilateral institutions. GRF lets the donor organizations know that the funds are being utilized in the agreed-upon manner, and that the NGOs are complying with the requirements attached to the funding awards.
"In the early to mid-1990s, we decided that we really needed to understand how our clients were spending the donor funding in the countries in which they worked; thus, we felt it important that we travel to the locations and see firsthand the programmatic activity, as well as review the financial controls in place," said GRF audit partner Bob Albrecht. "At that time, we were one of the only accounting firms that would go. This was during the Bosnia conflict and we were crazy enough to go over. The rest has been history and we have now been to all parts of the world."
Audit partner Amy Boland said that the trips were necessary because the numbers weren't adding up: "We started to realize just having them tell us what was going on in those countries wasn't always the case."
These days, GRF's auditors spend a lot of time in Haiti and East Africa, and it has performed work as far afield as Colombia, Bolivia, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and both North and South Sudan. "We usually follow disasters, which is where government funding is going right now," said Albrecht. Partners and staff have made several trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. Approximately 30 to 35 percent of the firm's work involves audit work for NGOs and approximately 50 percent of the audit work is conducted overseas. "On any given week, several GRF staff are usually working out of the country," Boland noted.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
When heading abroad, auditors don't worry about investing in a language-learning software program like Rosetta Stone to get them through their visits. There's usually somebody there who speaks English, though the audit team may sometimes require a translator. "I've been doing this for more than 20 years, and at times I feel inadequate, with respect to not being fluent in a second language, but at least I can order from menus in more than five languages," said Albrecht.
Audit partner Jim Larson, on the other hand, can read contracts that are in different languages and can generally understand what people are saying, but he still can't speak the local language well enough.
As for blending in with the different cultures, GRF's auditors get a few pointers from the directors and senior leaders in the NGO offices of what they should and shouldn't do, but for the most part, the auditors don't have to match the local business culture.
REELING IN THE AUDITORS
The typical auditor is not somebody who is a risk-taker and wants to leave the comforts of home, Albrecht said. "It takes a certain mentality to be willing to go overseas to some of the toughest places in the world to do audit work." As part of the hiring process, the firm informs candidates that travel will be involved. There are some who don't want to travel, but there are a lot who do. Boland said it's actually a selling point for the staff: "We tell them about the opportunities that they will have and that it is not just your normal accounting audit firm."
"I never expected a new college graduate, majoring in accounting, from outside Pittsburgh, would be traveling the way I do," said audit supervisor Sara Kennedy, whose first trip took her to Afghanistan. "Most of the places I visit for work are ones that I would not get the opportunity to visit outside of work -- most are not vacation destinations."
Heading overseas isn't all glitz. Depending on where the auditor's next flight takes them, immunization shots are usually required, and they have to watch their exposure to local food and water. The audit partners explained that everyone has to be very smart about what they eat and drink, and even brushing their teeth. "You even have to be careful not to breath in the shower, because getting sick in one of these countries is not fun," said Larson.
New auditors actually have to learn the hard way. "The young staff goes in thinking that the traveling aspect of the job is glamorous, but later gets hit with a dose of reality when they get sick or come down with a bug and don't have the comforts of being able to stay at home," Albrecht said.
Coming down with a bug isn't the only thing to worry about. Auditors travel to countries that are in turmoil and their lives may be at stake. "We do monitor situations because not too long ago, a staffer was in Afghanistan and things started to flare up in the Middle East and we made him leave," said Larson. Most of the firm's clients are large humanitarian relief organizations and they have security procedures in various countries, some of which are tied into the United Nations and conduct daily security briefings.
One of the first trips Larson took was to the Kenya-Sudan boarder, where the clients offered "runway packs" -- backpacks filled with five or six days' worth of supplies. Larson asked why the packs didn't include some form of telecommunication device, like a satellite phone. "Their comment was, if you got caught with a satellite phone they'd shoot you as a spy," he shared.
"Some of us have been stopped at gunpoint, and in fact have been in places where bombs have gone off," Albrecht said. "While unnerving at times, you have to trust your client, as this is where they work and their security personnel are trained to deal with these issues."
When the auditors get down to work, they log into the firm's network through Citrix, where they are able to check their e-mail. E-mail is by far the most important technology that the firm counts on when traveling abroad, and GRF's auditors are equipped with laptops and cellphones that come in handy for phone calls and e-mails.
For CPA firms interested in expanding their horizons into serving non-governmental organizations, Albrecht warns, "It's going to be tough," and that there aren't a lot of firms that do what GRF does.
As for accountants thinking about spending time outside of the U.S., audit supervisor Jeff Freedman -- who recently returned from fieldwork in Africa, where he spent three days each in Rwanda and Malawi -- advises that one should have a very open mind and a lot of patience for the inevitable challenges of air travel, and be willing to experience new things. That said, "The opportunity to experience different cultures and meet people from around the world in their homelands is tremendous."