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Poverty Studies and Business: A Seamless Integration

By Kate Donnelly

Ms. Donnelly works for Raffa, P.C., a public accounting firm specializing in nonprofits.  She is a 2011 graduate of Washington and Lee University, where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Accounting with a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies.  After graduation, Kate attended the University of Virginia to receive her Masters in Accounting. She spent three years working in the assurance practice at Ernst & Young, before joining Raffa, P.C.. The Poverty Program inspired Kate’s mission to seek “win-win situations” where public service and profit meet for a common goal.

Kate Donnelly (W&L 2012) works for Raffa, P.C., a public accounting firm specializing in nonprofits. She interned at Cooper's Ferry in Camden.

Kate Donnelly (W&L 2011) works for Raffa, P.C., a public accounting firm specializing in nonprofits. She interned at Cooper’s Ferry in Camden.

While I was a business and accounting major at Washington and Lee, my four years in college were more defined by my minor in poverty studies. When walking into Poverty 101 my first semester, I had no clue how much that one class would impact my future. I knew going into W&L that I would want to participate in the Shepherd Program on some level, but I was hooked after the first day. The class covered real issues relatable to all majors.

Since my youth, I have had a passion for giving back and making the world a “better place”, but at the same time, I have always loved the business side of “getting things done”. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I was given the opportunity to intern for Cooper’s Ferry Development Association in Camden, NJ through the Shepherd Poverty Internship Program. Cooper’s Ferry is a private, non-profit corporation dedicated to replenishing Camden’s depleted tax base and creating more jobs in the city through urban redevelopment. As an intern, I helped apply for state and federal grants, developed neighborhood improvement proposals, and assisted in the direction of a forgivable loan home improvement program. Working along side the people of Camden was inspiring. Witnessing the sheer dedication of Camden residents fighting for a better Camden through community meetings, park clean-ups, and other gatherings amazed me. While this internship allowed me to apply my desire to improve our local community using my business background, it also brought to light how important a strong foundation of local businesses can be for the success of a community.

After my internship experience, I catered my course schedule to include a multitude of business and accounting courses balanced with Poverty Studies classes each term. I shifted my focus to integrating the two fields of study. My education culminated in my Poverty capstone project. I partnered with a fellow classmate to perform an assessment of the personal finance environment in Rockbridge County, Virginia. We spent 12 weeks interviewing local residents and community leaders throughout the county and meeting with local banks, police forces, and predator lenders to assess the personal finance environment in Rockbridge County. At the end of the 12 months, we developed a report analyzing our results and suggesting ways in which our university community could assist. Our capstone project lead to the creation of Community Financial Freedom, a student-led group committed to personal finance education and direct lending.

After graduating, I took a job with Ernst & Young in their Assurance practice. Though I knew long-term that I wanted to do something more community-based, I was attracted by the people-focused environment of EY and knew the firm would provide meaningful experiences for professional growth. During my 3 years at EY, I developed my business and communication skills, becoming a professional with a strong knowledge of accounting and business soft skills. Because of my Shepherd background, I still felt a strong desire to give back. I quickly volunteered at EY in its corporate social responsibility group and acted as the Community Engagement Leader for the Greater Washington office. My involvement in EY Community Engagement gave me a view of the many ways in which a large company like EY can give back to its community. The experiences and education I encountered through the Shepherd Program provided a different perspective than most of my EY colleagues, which enhanced my work in all aspects.

Ms. Donnelly organized a "WINNERS Lacrosse" team, while working with Ernst & Young. She plans to continue volunteering with this organization.

Ms. Donnelly organized a “WINNERS Lacrosse” team, while working with Ernst & Young. She plans to continue volunteering with this organization.

While I was continually learning the business as well as developing great relationships at EY, in 2015 I decided to shift gears, as I wanted to see my efforts more directly impact our community. After some research and discussions with many mentors and Shepherd alumni, I came across the public accounting firm, Raffa, P.C. Raffa specializes in non-profit accounting, with clients ranging from large national nonprofits, to small local nonprofits. Working for Raffa would integrate my business and accounting background and my passion for improving our community – exactly what I strived for throughout college. Raffa was the perfect fit. I started with Raffa in the summer of 2015 and have had the opportunity to assist many local and national nonprofits with their finances. Raffa is also a B-Corp, which promotes a socially responsible outlook on business. My experiences from the Shepherd Program led me to where I am today. The Shepherd Program not only taught me the importance of facing the social issues in our communities, but more importantly, the program taught me that it is the responsibility of our entire community to help. Profitable businesses and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive and can often intertwine to create win-win situations for both the bottom line and the community.


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