Read as Karla Lara-Otero talks about her career as Financial Operations Director of the Amazon Conservation Team. Find her at www.amazonteam.org and on the Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.
What do you do for a living?
I am the Director of Financial Operations for the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with indigenous people in Amazon, specifically in Colombia and Suriname.
How would you describe what you do?
My works entails, the oversight of the financial and fiscal aspects of the organization, providing leadership and coordination in accounting, human resources, administrative, business planning and budgeting processes, supervise and liaise with the finance departments of our country programs offices.
What does your work entail?
Participating in strategic and operational decision-making processes of the organization, evaluating the internal controls, constant monitoring of effectiveness and efficiency, and determining where improvements and streamlining in financial procedures can be implemented.
An important part of my job is to provide support to the President and the rest of the Executive team, because many decisions involving the organization are based on financial conditions. As the Director of Financial Operations you are expected to have an understanding of what is going on at all the levels of the organization.
What’s a typical work week like?
What I like about working for ACT is that I don’t have a typical work week. As a small nonprofit organization, we all have to wear many hats and there is always a lot going on, usually the work is very dynamic.
I normally get to the office at 9 am and leave around 6 pm, and depending on the deadlines or how the day developed, I will have to stay later.
During a regular week, I would say that 25% of my time is devoted to internal planning and follow-up meetings, 15% of the time working with our country program offices, 50% monitoring the finances and the other 10% is designated to administrative and human resources activities.
How did you get started?
My accounting career started in the audit division of Ernst & Young (EYI), one of the “big four” accounting firms in the world. I was still a senior in college when I began working with EYI. This was a very valuable experience because it gave me a real understanding of the accounting work and its meaning. Then after a few years in the consulting and auditing industry, I was hired by a nonprofit organization as an accounting assistant. Nonprofits are very unique for accounting professionals. Indeed despite my experience, I had to learn many of the activities and guidelines that regulate this type of organization. I gradually moved up until I became a Director of Finance.
What do you like about what you do?
I enjoy working with people and helping them achieve success. In small organizations such as mine, finance executives must take on broader roles. I lead the finance department in our headquarters, but I am also responsible for the finance operations in our two offices located in Colombia and Suriname. Learning from their culture and even their business rules is a challenge I take every day.
My nonprofit gives financial assistance and leadership support to indigenous communities in South America; watching these communities grow and succeed with our efforts and the programs we have in place is a priceless feeling.
What do you dislike?
Under some circumstances, this job sometimes could get very mentally stressful. I am not only responsible for having an organized accounting department. I have to make sure that our organization is financially healthy and that we keep a growing source of revenue (donors). And, when times are difficult like the past two years, I am responsible for making sure that our organization remains financially stable. Sometimes this means taking on tough decisions.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
My compensation comes from a set salary, which is established by the President of the organization and approved by the Board of Directors.
How much do people in your field/career make?
The salary for a Director of Finance will depend on the industry, the location and experience. In the nonprofit sector, the salaries are typically lower than in for profit companies. Depending on the size of the organization, some surveys suggest anywhere from $70K to $140K for the DC Metro area.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
When I started working in the United Stated as an accounting assistant back in 2003, I was probably making less than $45K. However, this figure should be higher now.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
A degree in finance or accounting would be ideal. I have a bachelor’s degree in accounting and I am a CPA candidate.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Having to manage a multicultural team is very challenging, especially when you are working with people that are geographically dispersed in 3 countries with different languages, multi-currency and different local regulations.
On the other hand, since we depend on the generosity of our donors, most of the nonprofit organizations have suffered enormously with the weak economy. This means that our future always remains unpredictable. More than ever, having to manage the resources with extreme efficiency is a challenge.
Finally, making sure that we keep a low overhead to ensure that the majority of the resources we received are invested in the communities we serve is the biggest challenge of all.
What is most rewarding?
For me being part of a team of people that cares about the mission of the organization and the indigenous communities in the Amazon is very rewarding.
However, what I love the most about my current job is the diversity of the people and the fact that one day I can be in a meeting with the President of the organization or the Board of Directors, and next day just sitting down and talking to the most interesting indigenous women of the Colombian Amazon learning about their culture and needs. Having the opportunity to be exposed to all these experiences is incredibly fulfilling for me.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
The finance field offers lots of possibilities and opportunities, but you will also need to be prepared to work under pressure and strict deadlines. At the beginning of your career, you will have to be very flexible with your time and expect to work long hours. In addition, I personally believe that a good strength for people seeking to work in this career is to be detail oriented.
How much time off do you get/take?
I get 4 weeks of vacation per year; if you have been at the organization for less than two years then you are eligible for only 3 weeks per year. And I also get two personal days per year.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
People think that if you are in the finance field you will always have to work endless hours every day including weekends. Certainly, this job demands a lot of time especially at the beginning of your career, but as you move up, if you are organized in managing your tasks and maintaining a balanced workload throughout the week/month/year, you will get the weekends off.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
My short/medium term goal is to help this organization to keep growing and making sure it is positioned to work in the always “challenging” times, especially for the nonprofit sector. In addition, that ACT remains strong and prepared for those times when things are not as prosperous as we would like. Finally, everyday I try to work really hard and prepare myself to keep advancing up in my career.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
In general, I think that Finance is an excellent profession to be in. I feel very fortunate to be doing what I absolutely love, especially having a career in the nonprofit sector. Although, the compensation is definitely less, to me the satisfaction of contributing to a cause that I believe in is the most important and rewarding aspect of my job.