This CPA finds inspiration as director of operations for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan – CPA Canada

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When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, the repressive regime imposed harsh restrictions on Afghan women, barring them from employment and banning them from leaving their homes without being accompanied by a male relative. Afghan girls were prevented from attending schools and pursuing higher education. That same year, in a grassroots effort to help Afghanistan’s women and girls, an informal fundraising group was created in Toronto by Deborah Ellis, acclaimed Canadian writer of The Breadwinner novel series, which revolves around the life journey of an 11-year-old Afghan girl. 

The grassroots organization initially collected donations for community literacy classes, health clinics and vocational training for women in Afghanistan, as well as Afghan refugees in neighbouring Pakistan. It soon added chapters in Calgary, Victoria and Vancouver. After the Taliban’s rule ended in 2001, the organization—which incorporated as a not-for-profit organization called Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfghan) in 2003—additionally began creating a network of village libraries and school science labs. They became a registered charitable organization in 2009. Over the next several years, CW4WAfghan helped more than 5,000 Afghan women learn to read and write, trained 10,000 teachers and launched the Darakht-e Danesh (which means “knowledge tree” in Dari (one of Afghanistan’s languages) Library, the first multilingual collection of online educational resources for Afghans. Today, the library receives upwards of 65,000 visits a month.  

In 2021, after the United States and NATO withdrew their military forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban quickly returned to power, reinstating many of the restrictions it had previously imposed. “This is why our work is now more important than ever,” says Cheri Burke-Gaffney, a Calgary-based CPA who has been CW4WAfghan’s director of operations since 2022. With no end in sight for the Taliban’s regime, and, as CW4WAghan enters its 28th year, Burke-Gaffney and her team plan to introduce comprehensive virtual education for Afghan women and girls over the next decade.  

How did you first get involved with CW4WAfghan? 

I started my career in Alberta’s oil and gas industry. After 10 years, I became a self-employed CPA so I could have more work/life flexibility while raising my three children. I provided bookkeeping, advisory and tax services for clients in various sectors, and took on my first non-profit client in 2013. Through that client, I met Janice Eisenhauer, one of CW4WAfghan’s co-founders. She was looking for someone to replace their treasurer, and I felt so inspired by her work and the passion of everyone involved. CW4WAfghan was providing hope by tangibly improving the lives of Afghan women and girls caught in a hopeless situation, and I wanted to be part of that. I started as their accountant, and eventually became their director of finance. Today, I’m in charge of operations, including fund development, public engagement and human resources.  

How did you handle the challenges of managing the financial aspects of a non-profit? 

The first thing I did when I joined CW4WAfghan was train to become a certified non-profit accounting professional (CNAP), a certification provided by Humanity Financial Management, a Vancouver-based accounting firm. Of course, there are certain different accounting principles and tax requirements, but overall, I learned that a non-profit’s financial aspects aren’t that dissimilar from the for-profit sector. Profit might not be the end goal, but you still have to monitor your expenses and you still have to generate revenue. We may not be accountable to shareholders, but we do provide detailed impact reporting to our donor base of 6,000 Canadian individuals and organizations.  

What about challenges in providing services within a volatile country like Afghanistan?  

We have to accept that there are a lot of constantly changing variables in Afghanistan. All we can do is adapt and do our best. For example, we had a four-year Canadian government grant in place from 2019 to 2023, but when the Taliban took over in 2021, the government explained its funding had to end. It couldn’t maintain a presence in Afghanistan since it was now being controlled by an unrecognized government. We scrambled to provide a comprehensive outline of how we can deliver our programs virtually—without being present in the country—and still make a big difference. I was overjoyed when the government was swayed to maintain our grant and adapt its funding towards our virtual programming. We now provide online teaching courses for Afghan educators, both men and women, in Afghanistan and in other countries. We’ve also launched virtual classrooms for girls who are locked out from regular school because of the Taliban’s policies. Moving all our programming online has had the added benefit of helping to keep our students and teachers safe.  

What are some of the most rewarding experiences you’ve had while working with CW4WAfghan? 

A memory that always sticks out for me is a recent celebration where two of our seventh-grade students expressed their gratitude to one of our donors with special gifts. One of the girls shared a thank you message in flawless English, which she learned through our virtual classroom. The other student sketched a beautiful portrait of the donor. Witnessing how these girls are thriving and positively brimming with talent and ambition was truly heartwarming. Their stories have also inspired my children—my daughter and youngest son are both accountants who’ve taken up volunteering, while my eldest son is studying infectious diseases and the impact of malaria vaccines in Ethiopia. One day, I hope we can all safely visit Afghanistan and meet the wonderful women and girls who’ve crossed our paths. 

What are the future objectives of CW4WAfghan? 

We’ve all seen the destructive societal and economic impact of just five years of denying women education when the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001. An entire generation of girls didn’t attend school and grew up to be illiterate adults. In order to prevent another lost generation, we need to break that cycle of illiteracy and poverty. Education is power. It can shape your life and it empowers you to make your own choices and influence change. That’s why we’re scaling up our virtual programs and expanding our scholarship program, which provides girls with money for tuition, computers and other educational resources. We are also working to create an accreditation program so girls will be able to obtain high school diplomas that will ensure they’re eligible for higher education.  

What role can CPAs play in advancing the cause of women’s rights and human rights globally? And what advice do you have for CPAs considering a career in the intersection of finance and social impact within the non-profit sector? 

CPAs are leaders, and we have an important responsibility to use our abilities and experiences to help make the world a better place. If you’re passionate about making a difference in the lives of others, follow your passion and it will lead you to a rewarding career. The non-profit sector will enhance a CPA’s skill set, while also providing personal growth and fulfillment. As a CPA, I also wouldn’t shy away from the fact that there are major factors beyond your control in the non-profit sector. Those changing government or economic conditions can affect for-profit businesses too, and the non-profit sector has proven itself to be resilient—particularly during the recent pandemic. The skills that we bring to the table as CPAs can only help in strengthening that resilience. 

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