Adventures in Skateistan
For six years Kiwi Claire Dugan CA has been deputy executive director of a skateboarding NGO that helps impoverished children gain safe access to education.
- Claire Dugan CA joined Skateistan in 2012. It was initially set up in Kabul by Australian Oliver Percovich and now operates in 15 locations around the world.
- Skateistan combines skateboarding with creative, arts-based education to give marginalised children greater opportunities to learn and thrive.
- Claire Dugan CA credits her CA training for a diverse range of skills useful for work in the not-for-profit sector.
Claire Dugan CA arrived in Berlin in early 2012, just a few weeks after quitting her first accounting job at Crowe Horwath (now Findex) in Auckland. She’d scoured the internet for jobs and come across one that seemed too good to be true.
Berlin-based not-for-profit Skateistan, a company that used skateboarding to empower and educate children in Afghanistan, was looking for an English-speaking chartered accountant with basic German language skills to work as its finance director.
"This is literally me," Dugan thought, reading the job description once again.
Dugan had been to Berlin twice as a child – her father, a law academic, would frequently take sabbaticals to Germany – and she’d been learning German at the University of Otago as part of an Arts Commerce degree.
She’d completed her CA Program in 2008 and says “within a few years, I started to understand the CA qualification was seen as quite valuable, but also really practical and versatile. I got the feeling you can do a lot of things with it beyond the typical accounting role.”
Now was her chance to do those things. She applied, got the job, and joined Skateistan, a company that over the next decade led Dugan to truly value purpose over profit.
Build it and they will skate
Skateistan was founded by Australian Oliver Percovich, who had moved to Kabul in 2007 when his then girlfriend got a research job there. The NGO combines skateboarding with creative, arts-based education to give children, and girls in particular, greater opportunities to learn and thrive.
When Dugan joined, the company was operating only in Kabul, but is now set up in 15 locations around the world, including cities in South Africa and Cambodia, where it reaches up to 3300 youngsters a week.
“Typically, the programs will include an hour of skateboarding and an hour in the classroom,” says Dugan. “Skateboarding is really the hook; it's kind of what draws them in. It's a street sport, it's not competitive, and it's not easy. You fall down on the concrete and so children really build resilience. They have to get up and go again and again and again to learn a trick.
“Have you ever stood on the top of a skate ramp with one foot on a skateboard? It's really scary,” she adds.
“When you're a child that might come from a background where there are a lot of kids at home – maybe you're not getting much one-on-one parental time, maybe you don't have a lot of support – having that confidence building inside you can be really empowering.”
The education component is tailored to what youth in a particular country need. In Afghanistan, where a lot of children aren't in school, Skateistan operates an accelerated learning program called “Back To School” where kids can learn the grades they need to be reentered into the public school system. In South Africa, students receive help with homework, exam preparation and career planning so they can apply to university.
In April 2013, a year after starting with Skateistan, Dugan visited Kabul for the first time. Skateistan was setting up a second indoor skate park and education centre in Mazar-i-Sharif, funded by the German government.
The trip was “a game-changer” she says. “Seeing the programs in person, driving the streets of Kabul where you see so few women actually out and about, a lot of them wearing the burqa. And then coming into Skateistan on a girls’ day, because we would have girls’ days and boys’ days, and seeing these little Afghan girls just flying down these huge skate ramps.
“I think until then I thought, ‘Oh, this is kind of a cool job.’ And then at that point I really thought I want to keep contributing to this, because I really saw the impact it was having.”
Pictured: Dugan says skateboarding is not easy but helps children build resilience. “They have to get up and go again and again and again to learn a trick,” she says.
How finance skills boost non-profits
Six years ago, Dugan was promoted to deputy executive director at Skateistan. She oversees global operations and works closely with donors to help them understand what Skateistan is doing, how it’s structured, and work out ways to work together.
“I love being part of operations,” she says. “What’s happening more and more is that CFOs and financial professionals are becoming an important part of the business strategy, playing that business partner role.”
Percovich says Dugan was important in the organisation’s global growth. “She built up the capacity of the finance function and was an integral part of the leadership team for our expansion into Cambodia and South Africa,” he says.
“Donors and partners trust Skateistan and Claire is a major reason for that trust in us. She has always been able to instantly answer quantitative questions. Having data at your fingertips helps drive great decision-making. If you need a number, Claire has it.”
Dugan acknowledges she’s good with numbers, but believes her particular strength is interacting with people. “I realise I'm able to speak about financial things with people that don't have a financial background, and it's something I can do quite effectively,” she says.
“The non-profit sector is just in such need of highly skilled people,” she adds. “If CAs choose to work in the social impact sector you can really make a huge difference, because they really need people with this knowledge.”
Pictured: Claire Dugan CA arrived in Berlin in late 2011, just a few months after quitting her first accounting job at Crowe Horwath (now Findex) in Auckland.
“If CAs choose to work in the social impact sector you can really make a huge difference.”
Skateistan and the Taliban
When the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan in 2021, Skateisatan, like many other organisations, was caught off guard.
“The change of government happened much faster than we thought it would – than many people thought it would,” says Dugan.
“The change of government happened much faster than we thought it would – than many people thought it would.”
“We had to pause our program for the first time since we had started. We supported our staff in their plans, whether that was to leave the country or stay. It is a challenge navigating the new government and right now we're just trying to respond to the needs of our community, so that has meant somewhat different programming.”
With 95% of Afghanistan facing food insecurity, Skateistan delivered food parcels to the families of 1000 students.
“We're doing education classes with younger children, boys and girls, but right now we're not doing things with older girls. And we're not doing any sport activity with boys or girls,” she says.
“We're taking it slowly. But there is a huge need there, because a lot of organisations have stopped programming. So if we can do something, it's still making a big impact.”
Pursuing a new path
In April this year, Dugan graduated from an Executive MBA with The European School of Management and Technology in Berlin. And after 10 years at Skatestan, she has decided to take a sabbatical. She will continue in a governance role. “I do feel very passionate about it and I love the organisation, but I plan to take a couple of months off and think about what I want to do next,” she says.
“I'm really passionate about sustainable business models, and I think I've learned a huge amount about social impact over my past 10 years in the non-profit sector. But I have this unique combination of financial know-how, as well as social impact, and I feel pretty strongly about putting those two things together.
“I think businesses have a huge role to play in reaching sustainable development goals, and so that's sort of where I'm setting my sights.”
Dugan says in her very early years as an accountant, she didn't realise how important a strong purpose was going to become for her.
“There's more and more purpose-driven organisations out there, whether that's in the for-profit sector or the non-profit sector, because people are wanting that. People are looking for purpose in their work, and I think younger people in particular are making really conscious decisions about that, at the moment.
“Whatever I do next, I think it has to be something where I feel like I'm having a positive social impact,” she says.
“But the other part that I've just loved about my job is that it's been so fun. Everyone at Skateistan loves the work, and we're all so inspired when we go to the skate schools, or when we see pictures of our students. I've not once had a day where I've thought, ‘I don't want to go to work today’."
Pictured: Claire Dugan CA (far left) joined Skateistan in 2012. It was initially set up in Kabul by Australian Oliver Percovich and now operates in 15 locations around the world.
“I've not once had a day where I've thought, ‘I don't want to go to work today’."
Tips for CAs in the NFP sector
Claire Dugan CA credits her CA training for a diverse range of skills useful for work in the not-for-profit sector.
Financial management and tech knowledge. “These were really instrumental in helping me professionalise and grow Skateistan,” says Dugan. “In the first few years, I did a lot around setting up better systems and processes. I put the entire organisation onto Xero, which has been great, because we've been able to scale that so easily across all the countries we now work in. Having good systems to produce high-quality financial information meant that we could actually access larger grants and grow the organisation.”
Experience working with clients. “Listening to clients, and listening to what they need – that's really helped me in terms of interactions with donors,” she says. “Because all donors have their own needs, they havet their own goals that they're trying to achieve by working with you. It’s like a client relationship in a way, and being able to have those conversations around finances with people that don't have a financial background was extremely valuable.”
Knowledge of tax systems. Despite the steep learning curve setting up a legal entity in another country and navigating German tax law, Dugan says her prior knowledge of how the New Zealand tax system works was instrumental. “I’m engaging CAs to help me do that here, now I'm in house, and we have a tax adviser here. But definitely understanding just how most tax systems work – even having that knowledge of how the New Zealand tax system works – it gives you a basis on which you can build into other countries, because a lot of the principles are the same.”
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