Over the last two decades, I have pioneered a virtual practice that puts social responsibility at the forefront and my team and I have been able to truly set our firm apart. The firm has been completely virtual for 18 years. We currently have team members who live in five states, plus two in Canada. About seven years ago, I sold all but the not-for-profit part of my practice. Due to the constantly changing and complex economic environment, there is so much for CPAs to know and learn. I concluded it would be best to take a niche that I’m passionate about and get really good at it, while referring other clients to firms that were good at what they needed. That has enabled me to put together many specialists in particular areas of the Non-Profit Organization (NPO) universe.
We are a team of 22 - all independent contractors, each with an individual practice that I’m happy to help develop. Luckily, we don’t have to look for staff; they find us based on articles they read about the firm or speeches that I give. If someone is entrepreneurial and strong on compliance, we engage them for a single project to assess their communication skills, punctuality and creativity. If they have the skillset we need, we send them more work and quickly determine their bandwidth. Many have worked for me for as long as 10 years. We use a project management system that we can all update and use to view where engagements stand, which is critical in a virtual organization.
This specialization has caused our practice to almost double in the last year and a half, going from about 200 clients to around 425. One possible reason for the expansion of the practice may be that the Internal Revenue Service, in 2011, released reinstatement guidance for organizations that lost their non-exempt status due to failure to file required annual informational returns. This caused businesses to look for a CPA to help with reinstatement, and they probably turned to us because we have built a brand associated with NPOs through various speaking and writing engagements. While serving our own clients, we also do “private label” work for local CPA firms and attorneys, in which we help their clients apply for NPO status. In addition, I sit on many boards and on the leadership committees of non-profit associations and we provide many sponsorships for NPOs. We also complete about $60,000 in pro bono work for NPOs each year.
Being the Best
Earlier this year, my firm was named one of the world’s best social entrepreneurs. We earned that designation because we were among the top-rated certified B Corps. Nineteen states have legislation recognizing B Corps, or benefit corporations. (B Corps certification is available to companies nationwide and is different from a state’s recognition of a B Corps.) B Corps are organizations that, as a recently passed Delaware law describes, are for-profits that are intended to produce a public benefit and operate responsibly and in a sustainable manner. We received B Corp certification from an organization called B Lab because we scored very highly in their certification process for a number of reasons, including the fact that being virtual helped us to be more environmentally responsible and enabled our team members to better integrate their personal and work lives. We also use solar power, buy locally and we deliver our returns on an electric bike, along with fruits and vegetables from our garden. The list of best social entrepreneurs is provided in publications such as Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fast Company, complete with links to all the organizations on the list.
Setting Yourself Apart
We have succeeded by taking steps that set us apart, including our virtual office. For practitioners who would like to have a successful virtual office, I would advise beginning with a good strategic plan. Good communication skills are also critical, because you must be able to understand the nuances in various kinds of dialogue, most of it not in person. You also have to be ready to give up timesheets and simply set deadlines for when the work is needed.
I originally became a CPA because I was working for a national health care not-for-profit and I felt their accounting needs were not being well addressed. By owning my own business, I’ve been able to apply my skills to do good in the world. My firm has always considered the community to be one of our shareholders. We want to make sure that our NPO clients are in compliance with laws and regulations, so they will continue to exist and allow their services to be available to our families and our communities.
Carolyn Sechler, CPA, is the owner of Sechler CPA PC, a solo practice in Phoenix, Arizona.