How this CA(SA) became a CFO of a large NPO within 3 years of qualifying by making bold purpose driven decisions

  • Meet Kubendran Pillay, a dynamic and ambitious CA(SA) from South Africa whose journey has taken across the country from Durban to Cape Town.
  • His drive led him to become a CFO of a large non-profit organisation within only a few years of completing his articles at Deloitte. 
  • It wasn’t an easy decision but his desire!
  • Read on, to find out how he did it!

The start of the journey

I grew up in a household of three boys, as the middle child.

My parents felt strongly about education and made many sacrifices to ensure that we all received a good one. Even though receiving an education was the priority, they also encouraged us to develop other skills and explore activities such as sport, art and leadership.

My father was in the navy. This meant that we moved relatively often to the various posts that he was sent to.

Moving around made it difficult to ever feel settled but it definitely taught me to be adaptable and open-minded. Moreover, it developed my resilience.

Luckily, my family always approached the moves from a positive perspective, as a learning and growth opportunity. This has contributed significantly to who I am today.

When it was time to decide on a career path, I didn’t really know much about what CA(SA) was until my older cousin, Rosh, told me about the qualification.

She explained that CA(SA)’s are in high demand and the qualification is incredibly marketable and diverse. This inspired me to pursue the designation albeit with limited knowledge about what I was getting myself into.

Navigating articles and almost quitting CA

During the final year of my undergraduate degree, Bachelor of Business Science, at the University of Cape Town, I applied for a bursary at Deloitte.

This enabled me to complete my Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting (better known locally as PGDA) the following year.

In 2009, I started my articles at Deloitte in Cape Town. As you all know, articles can be tough at times and it was the same for me!

I was working with a difficult new client and we did not receive very good guidance from a manager. The pressure was intense and every day felt like an enormous struggle to get up and go to work.

Part of the challenge are the two board exams that need to be written in order to qualify as a CA(SA) - The first board exam is written at the start of your articles and the second is written at the end of your second year of articles. This means that you need to study in between full days at work.

All of this led me to question whether this qualification was really worth it! 

I was about to quit when I decided to have a conversation with Lushane, Head of Recruitment Deloitte at the time (she originally recruited me to Deloitte whilst I was at university).

She encouraged me to persevere through the difficult periods by reminding me of the value of the qualification and the many opportunities it can lead to. More importantly, she told me that she saw potential in me.

Needless to say, I dug deep and pushed through...It all paid off when I officially qualified as a CA(SA) in 2012! (When I think of it now I am so glad I took the chance to speak to a mentor instead of just quitting CA!)

Also Read

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Desire to have a positive impact on society 

After qualifying as a CA(SA), I didn’t really have a clear direction of where I wanted to go.

Deloitte offered me a position as a manager in their Advisory division, which I welcomed as a fantastic opportunity.

In a few months, I realised that my motivation was dwindling and I was not as stimulated as I would have liked to be!

I have always wondered about the “world's problems” and was/am always looking for ways to improve how things work. I wanted to be contributing to impactful change.

I have to mention that I was exposed to public sector audits, more specifically, non-profit organisations funded by the United States Government. This gave me full exposure to how impactful non-profits are in pushing sustainable development. The experience also showed me how “corporate” non-profits can be.

As soon as I saw the scale and activities that non-profits engaged in South Africa, I knew that this is a sector that I would fit into very nicely!

So, I approached one of my previous clients, Kheth’Impilo (a South African Not for Profit Organisation), to express an interest in joining the industry and they took me on board, which I was so grateful for. This led to me leaving Deloitte and starting my career in the Non Profit sector!

Thriving in the non-profit sector

From day one at Kheth’Impilo, I thrived in the environment. 

When I started working at the company part of my job was to improve and implement strong internal controls over the finance operations. This was a perfect mesh of my qualifications, interest, and passion.

To add, my background in audit meant that I knew how important it is to instill confidence in the operations to secure funders. 

After some time at Kheth’Impilo, I was approached by one of the audit partners at Deloitte, who wanted to recommend me for a great opportunity at the National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW).

The NACCW was looking for a Financial Director to lead their new USAID award. This was an unbelievable opportunity, which led to me spending two years in a very strategic high-level role in a growing and changing organisation.

Needless to say, my learning curve was on an exponential upward trajectory, and I was loving it!

Also Read

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The big break – Becoming a CFO

As I developed traction in the non-profit sector, I ventured on my own and tried my hand at consulting with a focus on smaller non-profit organisations and small to medium-sized enterprises. 

I was also very interested in the incubation of small enterprises and wanted to get into capacity development for small and micro enterprises to encourage economic development.

Fast forward, a few months later, in 2015 I was made an exciting offer to be the CFO of TB HIV Care and I took it up! 

When I started at TB HIV Care, I worked very closely with the CEO in leading the organization.

My role was to establish and increase confidence in the management of the organisations finances, which I did successfully. This positioned us to increase the number of grant awards we applied for.

We went through an intensive grant submissions period, which I supported with the planning, budgeting, and submission.

We were fortunate to have been successful with a few large grants from international funders. This pushed us to expand exponentially and as a key driver in the support functions, I assisted in the organizational structure design to set us up for the management of the new grants.

Since starting at TB HIV Care, the organisation has grown from 900 to 3000 employees and the budget has increased from R150 million per annum to about R700 million per annum.

Facing challenges

Every path will have its challenges. The biggest challenge is how you respond to them.

Being part of an executive team and leading a large organisation teaches you to respond quickly, particularly in the non-profit space because things change so rapidly.

Funding grants range generally from 3 to 5 years, an incredibly short period to execute improved management practices and ensure that we deliver on what needs to be delivered.

The expectations of funders and stakeholders are incredibly high, I would even say higher than shareholders! So the pressure is on from day one and generally does not let up.

The pressure of meeting everyday expectations versus bringing medium and long term systemic change is something that is challenging. I have approached this by building capacity within my teams so that we can find this balance.

Wrapping Up…

It was a series of bold decisions that have resulted in me becoming a CFO within a few years of qualifying as a CA. I believe, both personally and professionally, by pushing the boundaries - this is where true progress happens.

I know that many people consider non-profits as ‘charities’ and don’t really give them much thought beyond that however I can rest assure you that NPO’s offer competitive market-related remuneration and an incredibly rewarding career!

During my career in NPO’s, I have been able to oversee finance, human resources, information technology systems, procurement, travel, compliance and communications. In my opinion, the learning opportunities at a non-profit are so much more than in a profit setting.

My closing advice to you is, push the boundaries and don’t be restricted by the role that you have. If you have an idea, run with it, develop it, propose it, and push it to implementation.

Be bold. Be brave. Be ambitious. Break down barriers and build capacity of those around you.

Now It's Your Turn...

Have you ever considered a career in the Non Profit sector? Comment below if you have questions.

(Article edited by Catherine Edmunds and image by Ankit Lodhi)

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