This paper presents a case study examining the evolution of a social accounting process in an Irish overseas aid agency, the Agency for Personal Service Overseas. Much of the corporate rhetoric surrounding social accounting processes simplifies their complex nature and tends to downplay many concerns as to how they can effect 'real' organisational change and empower stakeholders. The case exposes this complexity by illuminating the contradictions, tensions and obstacles that permeated one such process. The paper contributes to the recent increase in field work in the social accounting literature, called for by Gray [Account. Orga. Soc. 27 (2002) 687], which seeks a richer, more in-depth understanding of how and why social accounting evolves within organisations.