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The reluctant accountant

Amnesty International’s Nicki Deeson was the star turn at the recent ICAEW prize-giving ceremony. She explains how auditing nearly put her off accountancy for life!

June 2017

Can you pinpoint the moment when you first thought about being an accountant? The International Financial Director at Amnesty International, Nicki Deeson, certainly can! She told the packed ICAEW prize-giving ceremony that it was a neighbour who made the suggestion when they found out she was good at maths. They told her mum: “She should be an accountant, then she can keep you in your old age.” She claims that, being a dutiful daughter, the suggestion lodged itself in her mind.
She went to Nottingham University, where she won her only accounting prize – coming top in the first-year book-keeping exam. This opened doors, and she was offered a summer job at KPMG.
Deeson (pictured right) admits she never worried about the accountancy exams. Her problem was she just didn’t find auditing exciting enough. Her first task at KPMG was to use a calculator to add up a massive computer print out. After 90 minutes she had three different answers. Luckily someone else in the audit team had better calculator skills.
Following the summer job she had real doubts about an accounting career, but despite considering other options she kept coming back to it. So on graduation she took a job at PwC and came down to the bright lights of London.
To her relief, although she still had to use her calculator, organisational skills, relationship-building and problem-solving were even more essential. She actually started to enjoy accountancy!
But audit was still there and she admits she never wanted to work on the same audit twice. That meant as soon as she qualified in 1992 she got a role in Bangladesh as a volunteer accountant for an Irish charity. This was the start of a hugely successful career in the charity sector that has spanned 25 years.
Her biggest project while working in Bangladesh was to develop and implement a new accounting system, and she was then asked to spend six months rolling it out in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burundi. Deeson admits flying into Burundi in 1994 was scary as the country was in the middle of a civil war. Although she was not directly saving lives she felt her role was essential. Her finance system meant money spent on the emergency services wasn’t wasted and could be tracked to where it was needed. But how could she possibly expect people to prioritise forms and spreadsheets when they had lived through such terror? Yet, despite it all, she found everyone warm, friendly and positive.
Returning to the UK was a strange experience. Her old colleagues thought she had been on holiday for two years and Deeson admitted it was all a bit of a culture shock.
Her next role was as a project manager, a largely non-accounting role, with a large international charity called Plan. The aim of her project was to measure and maximise its impact on communities where Plan worked. Unfortunately, it ended with her firing the project team, writing some simple questionnaires herself and fiddling with the new IT system so she could start producing reports. The second challenge came when Plan saw the initial reports from West Africa. Although the charity had run programmes there for 20 years data showed that literacy and health indicators had actually got worse in the villages where it had been working. This wasn’t what the organisation wanted to see and senior management started talking about exiting Burkina Faso due to its negative impact on the country.
However, Deeson decided to delve deeper, and she found that successful graduates of its vaccination and schools programmes had left the community for jobs in the city, reducing the indicators but increasing the wealth of the village through the money they sent home. So beware the dangers of the statistic.
Deeson is now at Amnesty and content to be back in an accounting role. She stressed it is vital young accountants hold on to their dreams. She said: “Follow what you love, and you can change the world… one spreadsheet at a time.”

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