9 Months of CSR efforts

(first appeared on Medium on March 6th 2017)

I started consulting with EDIS Cares (CSR team) in July 2016. My job is to “strategize & productise” EDIS Cares programmes, and build up partnerships so that more vulnerable children can benefit. It’s almost 9 months now and we are beginning to see new partnerships sprouting. I thought to share some reflections and observations, from my “idealistic privileged mind”.

Singapore’s hidden poor

When I first started out, I was surprised at the number of low-income cases that our partners and potential partners — Family Service Centres, other charities and neighbourhood schools — are handling (families can only receive financial support via FSCs if they have less than $600 per capita income) Prior to this, I took for granted that there are very few “poor people” in Singapore — we don’t see many homeless sleeping in the open or people begging for a living. Then I came across this tongue-in-cheek term “HDB Ginis” (referring to families under the poverty line who are still able to have a roof over their head through HDB’s rental schemes, and Gini ~ Gini coefficient). I also heard stories of families living in tents along East Coast Park for extended periods because they could not afford even the subsidized rental.

My perception of poverty came from images we see from third world/developing countries- children with no shoes for school or families who cannot put food on the table. Well, these are the extremely poor, and they do unfortunately also exist on our little red dot, but they are somewhat hidden behind closed HDB doors. I have heard of moms feeding newborns with diluted condensed milk or even Teh-si (!!!! Diluted milk tea!!!) because they couldn’t afford milk formula and are not aware of the importance of good nutrition for their children’s development. I have also heard of school-going kids having ketchup spread on Gardenia bread for lunch or dinner.

Yes many of these are chronic poverty cases; but more really needs to be done so that children from poor families are not penalized for what they do not deserve. In the past months, what I have found hardest are the many instances when I could not figure out how to help or even what I should help with (well, I am an ENTJ with start-up blood — I instinctively HAVE to solve problems when I see them!). I felt really helpless when I heard about the different cases and yet was not able to do something about them. But I have come to a realization- through my years of focusing and niching my business, I know we can drive both impact and outcome with patience, focus and dedication. We just need to get started.

Many trying to do good in Singapore, and many willingly donate money. However, all the funds raised have to go to the beneficiaries…

So far I have had three personal experiences raising money for charitable causes. The most recent one — EDIS Cares had a fundraising event (via Mr Philip Yeo’s auto-biography) in Nov last year with a target $300K. We raised $600K by end February this year. Two previous fund-raisers were of a much smaller scale — my husband and I did two social-media based crowd-funding exercises to finance custom-made wheelchairs for kids <120cm in height and to fund material purchases for an ITE student initiative to repair homes of the aged. Amounts were $11k and $13k respectively. We managed to raise more than the amount needed and in less than 2 days for each campaign.

One interesting learning from these experiences is that people are more than willing to donate for good causes (especially when they trust the source or the “sponsor”) The catch: they want 100% of their donations to reach the beneficiaries. We used an online platform with an online payment gateway — so there was a 2% service charge. It was interesting to note the number of requests to send money direct to my personal account or by cash, so that the 2% fees could be “saved”. We opted for the online platform to have transparency and accountability, but it came with a cost that I realize many are unwilling to bear.

While I understand many of us are probably trying to maximise the benefits of our money for the beneficiaries/ intended cause, this reflects a very real problem. We want to help a cause but we are not willing to have our donation money spent on infrastructure or operations that’s necessary to support the cause. Take this a step further, this implies too that we are not willing to build up the social organizations and compensate the charity workers who support the cause /beneficiaries. We are indeed saying, “hey social organizations/charity worker, we expect you to do good but really I don’t care if you as an entity / individual live well or not; your welfare or your continuous existence is not something that concerns me.” So, in an expensive city state like Singapore, it’s no wonder many charity workers do not last long in their jobs, and our social organizations struggle to hire. Many of them face rising living costs like the rest of us do, and they do have aspirations in life as well.

We have had some negative examples of social organizations misspending their budgets / donations. But those are just a few black sheep. It’s really important that we as a society realize there are operational and developmental cost needs in social organizations and it’s not realistic to expect the government to be footing the bill for everything social.

In addition to recognizing the need for some of the donation to be channeled for operation needs (well I do not have good enough understanding of a good ratio yet), PMETs can volunteer their skills to help further the social organisations (and via that, reduce their overheads!)

More professional skills required to develop social organizations

Just last week I attended the workshop by Empact on Skill-based volunteering (SBV in short). Basically SBV refers to volunteering your professional skills to social organizations. It could be using your marketing skills to help a charity up its market presence or a corporate auditor working with the social organisation’s finance team to design and improve their risk management SOPs. A concrete example: our EDIS Cares Volunteer Recruitment system is built by Ta-Tong, an IT professional during his non-working time. Ta-Tong has done a really good job to give us an online system that allows us to track and process volunteer applications. This system would have cost us at least some $15–18K otherwise. But with his support, this amount money is diverted to fund milk powder & diapers for at least 15–18 babies for 4 months each.

I used to think of doing good as just making a donation or simply helping to do some “hard labour” like distributing food or cleaning homes. While all these do have concrete outcomes, perhaps PMETs could think about doing more SBV type of volunteering work to drive more impact. Downside of SBV work is that we probably won’t see the immediate returns. But the definite upside is we are developing the social organizations further, helping them to become more productive and efficient, and definitely lowering their operating costs. The very direct outcome is social organisations becoming more efficient, relevant and helping more beneficiaries.

And yes we are recruiting volunteers to work with our children. Please check out our ELP program and apply today!

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