by Cynthia Harrington

Accountants are way ahead of President George W. Bush on one issue -- volunteering. CPAs have volunteered their time and expertise for decades. While the president’s new Council on Service and Civic Participation might give a push to some, others have long been donating a range of skills, from donating free tax returns to affecting public policy and spending.

"CPAs uniquely offer tax help but I believe we shouldn’t get pigeonholed by that," said Stuart Kessler, CPA/PFS, JD, of Goldstein Golub Kessler LLP, in New York. "I think we’re also looked to for making hard decisions because of our objectivity and calm demeanor."

Kessler sits on the boards a number of nonprofits, and works with the New York State Society of CPAs’ initiative to put an accountant in each high school to talk with students about the profession. He focuses much of his attention on working on behalf of his high school and college alma maters. Kessler lectures to alumni and friends of Brooklyn Technical High School on how to include the school in their estate planning. He and three others established the Nathan Schmuckler Memorial Fund, named for a revered accounting teacher, to provide scholarships to Brooklyn College for needy students wanting to study accounting.

The first step in effective volunteering is finding the right fit.

Stanley Breitbard found it with the JumpStart Coalition, a national organization whose mission is to place financial literacy education in the public schools. Breitbard, a retired director in charge of all of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ PFP offices, had been on the national JumpStart board for five years before starting the California state initiative. "The largest issue is to define ones’ skill set, and then to find the organization that will put that skill set to work," said Breitbard. "There’s no single path to doing that."

Breitbard found he also likes the ability to contribute his skills in running an organization. "One of the interesting things about volunteering is finding the right level of activity and an activity that’s right for you," said Breitbard.

Some states assist CPAs’ search for volunteer opportunities. In Illinois the community service arm of the state CPA society, CPAs for the Public Interest, links pro bono volunteer professionals with financial, tax, technical, accounting and management expertise to community service projects and not-for-profit organizations.

Director Karen B. Rosen clicks off a list of things that professionals should investigate before agreeing to serve. In addition to scouring the organization’s financial and legal history and condition, volunteers should have a mutual understanding of what’s expected from him or her. "Sometimes, especially with smaller organizations that have limited staffing, the volunteer CPA is expected to handle much of the financial responsibilities for the organization, which can be a significant time commitment for someone already working full-time," said Rosen.

One CPA found his time increasingly absorbed by his volunteer activities. A decade ago, Randall Ramey started volunteering time on the finance and operations board advisory committee of Community Support Services, serving the developmentally disabled in 54 communities. Today he serves on the board of a national organization for the same cause, named ARC. "When I started with Community Support Services, I knew little about the issues of the developmentally disabled or about volunteer activities," said Ramey. "I’d led a fairly sheltered life and didn’t know that life could be so complicated."

From a few hours a week reviewing and advising Community Support Services on their finances, Ramey spent two years as president of the nonprofit. As president, Ramey led efforts to change how nonprofits got funding throughout the state. "I spent the first six months learning the complexities of our funding from state, federal and private sources," explained Ramey. "I found that Illinois was leaving $200 million on the table from the federal program to match dollar for dollar on Medicaid spending. We could have served another 20 to 30 people with our portion of those funds."

The increased role demanded new skills and much more time than he thought he had signed on for. Though not complete, Ramey’s efforts to affect state funding raised enough to add a half dozen to their service rolls. "It was lots of hours as a volunteer but I was able to provide the leadership on financial issues that was really needed," said Ramey.

Not every working professional can devote that kind of time to outside activities. Ramey’s firm, Heitman Financial, which is the seventh largest real estate investment advisory firm in the country, backs him up. In addition to its own charitable contributions, Heitman Financial encourages employees’ volunteerism. "There’s plenty of work here, but as long as we get it done, the firm doesn’t care if we handle personal or volunteer activities when we need to," said Ramey. "Of course that means many late nights, but that’s OK."

Giving back is the common theme for why busy professionals add more to their schedules. "When I went into high school and college I was really impoverished and couldn’t have afforded to go without help," said Kessler. "Any success I’ve had because of my high school and college education. I want to give back."

Breitbard taught financial literacy while in practice. He also recruits other CPAs to join with him in the cause of educating young people to be financially literate. "Accountants can teach the curriculum in a local classroom, could join a local state JumpStart coalition, or could help teach the teachers," he said.

Ramey sees all the hard work and long hours pay off when he visits some of the people served by their programs. He relates the story of a family with two little girls suffering from cerebral palsy. The girls are physically, but not mentally, disabled. The family participates in the Respite program, which provides highly trained support workers to give some relief to the full-time care demanded of parents.

"I asked the girls what they liked to do best with their support worker and they both said they liked to swim," relates Ramey. "Their reason is that because when they’re in the water, they’re just like everybody else."

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