Opinion

Lessons From 4A’s Partnership of the Year: “Love Has No Labels”

Several weeks ago, 4As, a leading trade association representing the advertising agency business unveiled the winners of its second annual 4A’s Partner Awards which recognizes the creative excellence that can only be achieved through meaningful collaboration. The Be An Idea team reviewed the winning entry to look for useful lessons for those embarking on the collaboration journey.

Tis better to give and engage

It’s not just about the money. Social engagement counts too.

Although corporate donations are widespread in Singapore, the private sector’s lack of community participation is disappointing, concluded a recent study by researchers from the National Technological University and Singapore Management University.

Titled “Corporate Giving Research”, the study involved interviews with 60 senior executives of Singaporean and international corporations operating here.

“The private sector must begin to look beyond the creation of shareholder value and become more socially engaged,” said lecturer Ferdinand de Bakker, who headed the report and has been researching on corporate philanthropy for more than 30 years. Doing so, experts believe, will result in positive impacts on the business itself.

As global changes affect us through pressing issues such as fiscal deficits and aging populations, the world will be looking towards the private sector to find the scale, expertise and financial strength to help address issues in a meaningful way, said the report.

But for the private sector to benefit from this trend, it must address the disconnect between its take on corporate responsibility and its current paradigm of corporate social involvement.

de Bakker explained: “A company’s future is determined by the way people view it. If a company is viewed in a favourable way, stock prices increase. If not, consumers no longer buy its products.”

Further more, continued de Bakker, if a company is seen as interacting with society in a meaningful way, it’s also seen as a more attractive option among job applicants. “This is something we have seen in Singapore,” he added. “Human resource directors indicated that it was easier to find the right people if the company practised corporate social involvement.”

He suggests that companies should ramp up efforts to conduct a “social engagement audit” to determine how a business’ values are linked to social issues. “This should translate into strategies and resources to engage with the social sector and weaved into business plans,” according to the report.

“Corporate giving projects the image of how generous a company is,” agreed Ivan Chin, founder of Positive Intentions, a social enterprise that specialises in people development. “I’m a big advocate of not just corporate giving, but corporate doing. And where possible, local companies should be doing as much as multinationals.”

MAKING GOOD OUT OF DOLLARS

HSBC Singapore, which was recently named the 2012 Corporate Category Winner at the inaugural President’s Award for Volunteerism, launched its Volunteers@HSBC staff programme in 1997. Through the programme, the bank provides the funding and support for employees to organise and participate in volunteer services for the community.

At its annual Corporate Responsibility night, staff volunteers also help to select the charities which will receive funding from the bank as its way of empowering them and giving them greater ownership of the bank's corporate responsibility mandate.

“Success in business is inextricably linked to the strength and well-being of the wider community in which we serve,” said Goh Kong Aik, head of group communications and corporate sustainability. “With success comes a responsibility to give something back to the larger community and our defining consideration is that we want to make a difference in society.”

For utilities giant Sembcorp Industries, volunteer activities are planned around environmental and community causes like the Garden City Fund and charities serving the disadvantaged elderly.

“Contributing towards our communities helps us play a part in building a more caring and compassionate community,” said Gwendolyn Loh, manager of group corporate relations. “The communities’ acceptance of us grants us the license to operate, which is an important yet intangible asset for companies and businesses.”

There are also others like Lorna Whiston Schools, a provider of English language programmes, which has been practicing corporate social responsibility way before CSR even became a popular buzzword here.

Since its first school was established 33 years ago, Lorna Whiston has had their fair share of food, book and toy drives. But they took their commitment a step further five years ago, partnering with Life Community Services Society (LCSS), an organisation that works with lower income group families and children with incarcerated parents by empowering them through care and mentoring.

That spirit of giving isn’t just prevalent amongst the staff of Lorna Whiston as parents and students have also been enthusiastic about supporting the school’s charity outreach, said Shanna Mae Therese, a principal at Lorna Whiston’s pre-school Raintree Cove, recalling a recent Christmas gift drive for LCSS.

A WAY TO GO

Aside from the corporate benefits of giving and social involvement, many volunteers are supportive of their companies because they want to play a part in shaping a better world. At the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), more than 200 staff members recently put together a Christmas album for sale in support of the Tan Tock Seng Community Charity fund, which was set up in 1995 to help needy patients.

“Through this collective vocal effort, we hope to connect with the public while spreading joy and cheer throughout the community,” explained corporate communications executives Chong Pei Wen. “It was a tribute to our patients to brighten their day.”

Her colleague Angie Teoh added that for TTSH, corporate giving and CSR are not done with any financial incentives in mind— but because it’s simply the right thing to do. “It’s more of a philosophy,” she added.

“I’m just happy to be able to use my experiences and networks to support children in a country that has suffered,” said Alan Addison, a teacher at Lorna Whiston who has led a fundraising campaign to build a new dormitory for a children’s home in Cambodia and was also involved in setting up the school’s English language programme.

For Valerie Lee, a senior trader at Sembcorp who actively takes part in company-driven CSR initiatives, volunteering is a good way to add a fun and meaningful aspect to work life. It helps too, that the avenues to participate are easily accessible and convenient.

“I find it one of the best ways to get know my colleagues better and spend my time out of the office in a meaningful way,” she said. “Of course it helps to see the reward of your effort impacting someone in a positive way.”

“It’s addictive.”

HOW TO GET INVOLVED

  1. Check out the full findings of the Corporate Giving Research report.
  2. Inform yourself on your company's community activities. Is there leave assigned for volunteer hours? Do they have a matching donation program?
  3. Talk to your company about getting more involved with your own initiatives. While they may need to seek alignment with their business goals, the chances are they will enthusiastic.
  4. Share how you started something at your company - we love to hear from you.

The Celebrity Effect

Celebrities and charities go together like bread and butter. When the likes of international superstars like U2’s Bono and Justin Bieber make a donation appeal for a cause they’re championing, you can only imagine how quickly their fans would rally and lend their support. And it goes without saying what a celebrity’s alignment with a social cause can do for their reputation. Just think of Angelina Jolie who transformed from wild child to poster child for humanitarianism.

But when the reputation of the celebrity advocate takes a nosedive, it can mean serious backlash for the charity involved — or worse still, turn people off donating altogether for fear their money will never go where it was intended.

Take the recent Jimmy Savile sexual abuse allegations, which became widely publicised a year after the late DJ and television presenter’s death. Two charity trusts, which are named after him and oversee funds totaling £5.4 million (S$10.6 million) have been shut down, said a BBC report.

Following Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, the disgraced cyclist has quit as chairman of the charity foundation he began 15 years ago to “spare the organisation any negative effects as a result of controversy surrounding his cycling career,” according to Bloomberg. The charity, which has raised some US$500 million (S$610 million) to support cancer survivors, also formally dropped his name from its title and is now known as the Livestrong Foundation.

Alleged misuse of funds has also cast a shadow on other celebrity-driven movements. In June this year, Lady Gaga was sued US$5 million (S$6.1 million) for allegedly scamming a Japan relief charity and profiting from the sale of “We Pray for Japan” wristbands meant to raise funds for relief efforts. Hip-Hop artist Wyclef Jean was also accused of pulling a fast one on donors through his non-profit organisation, Yele Haiti, with reports of how only US$5 million of the US$16 million (S$19.4 million) collected after the Haiti earthquake went to relief efforts.

WITH GREAT PUBLICITY COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY

With the media more inclined to cover a charitable cause if there is celebrity involvement, how far should charities work their way into the realm of entertainment?

“Celebrities are helpful when it comes to raising awareness and that should continue as they do come with a certain clout and PR arsenal,” said Stephanie Yip, a public relations director. “The celebrity needs to be authentic in selecting a cause that truly speaks to his or her heart and behave responsibly when endorsing it.”

Marcia Tan, who manages Singaporean musical groups like Electrico and Budak Pantai, said: “There will always be people who question the credibility of a celeb-endorsed charity and the celebrity’s motive, but when executed properly, celebrities can really help to drive donations when they lead a campaign.”

Publicist Yvonne See, who has worked on charity projects with Mandopop singers JJ Lin and Ado, agrees the charity’s mission should be in tandem with the celebrity’s image in order to portray a convincing message to the public.

See also believes that involving artistes with more than one particular charity helps to widen their outreach and experience. “It helps artistes grow when they get a chance to interact with the less fortunate and to see who they are helping” she said. “At the end of the day, both parties have to be responsible about the cause they advocate.”

SPOTLIGHT ON THE CAUSE

But great publicity — whether done with sophistication or not — does put charities in the forefront for intense scrutiny.

Take the National Kidney Foundation Singapore (NKFS) and Ren Ci Hospital for example. Both charities, which used televised live shows where celebrities would perform daredevil stunts to garner donations, were plagued by scandals regarding corruption and financial irregularities a few years ago.

After former Ren Ci Hospital founder-chief and monk Venerable Shi Ming Yi — who had made a name for himself through his performances in these shows — was found guilty of misusing funds, it was reported that the hospital had chalked up a deficit after a plunge in donations. It subsequently ended its active fundraising and charity show.

“The availability of resources is always a challenge,” said Lincoln Sim, corporate communications manager of Ren Ci Hospital. “Inevitably, fundraising efforts and public donations are important but we also tap on various resources to meet our operating needs." The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) have been very supportive of the local charity healthcare sector and provide various forms of funding schemes, he added.

“We have always been committed to take good care of the needy sick and frail elderly within our community,” said Sim. “Our key focus right now is on what we can contribute to society, rather than how much we can receive from the public. With the fast ageing population, we know we have an integral role to play to help meet healthcare and social needs.”

The NKFS did not wish to comment on this issue.

While it is easy to use such high profile cases as an excuse not to offer donations, there are still avid donors who actively contribute financially to causes. One such donor, Charmaine Ho, a magazine journalist, believes that we can be optimistic despite the negativity. “I donate with the belief that I’m doing good and the view that if only $0.10 of my dollar has gone to help the needy, then at least some help has been offered,” said Ho. “Of course, that’s not to say that I’ll continue donating to a scandalous charity. I’ll just channel my money somewhere else.” Ho is a regular donor to the Home Nursing Foundation, and in addition supports a different cause each year.

“I tend to look out for charities that don’t have celebrity endorsements. This is because I figure the charity with the celebrity has all the help it needs so I’ll donate to another charity that doesn’t have that sort of publicity,” said Ho. Another avid donor, Colin Anthony, a banker, feels the same way. “The most important part is the beneficiaries of the charity — it needs to be aligned to what I view as a worthy cause.”

But can we ever really be sure of where our money is going?

“With tighter government regulations and regular audits of the industry, I think that one can donate with a peace of mind,” said Anthony.

“You can do as much research but you can never know for sure,” said Ho. “Besides, for me, donating with the concern that your money may be misappropriated goes against the whole spirit of charity in the first place.”

BE AN INFORMED DONOR

1. Do Your Research: It’s easy to get caught up with salacious headlines in the news. But make the effort to do some online research about an organisation to find out about their services and which areas are especially in need of financing.

2. Ask Questions: Check in with the Charity Council to learn more about the various charities and how to go about donating in a secure manner. For more insider information, speak to existing volunteers about the organisation and their practices.

3. Get Involved: There’s no better way to discover the inner workings of an organisation than to be a volunteer and spend time with both the beneficiaries as well as the staff.

Plant-based pads to tackle period woes

In the second of a four-part feature on winners of the Young Social Entrepreneur (YSE) 2012 Programme, Be an Idea speaks to a young woman who is developing a biodegradable sanitary pad for underprivileged women in India. YSE is an initiative by the Singapore International Foundation to help young people embark on social enterprises and nurture a network of entrepreneurs to create businesses that benefit communities.

For Ho Yen Yee, a final-year linguistics student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the year has been a filled with numerous peaks of learning. At 22, she is one of the driving forces behind I.M.Pad (Innovative and Manageable Sanitary Pad), a social entrepreneurship project that addresses issues related to women’s health and personal dignity in the developing world.

“In many rural communities, women don’t have access to basic items of sanitation such as sanitary pads,” explained Ho, who felt disturbed after reading about women who turned to alternatives like ashes and dried leaves and were often made to feel ashamed about menstruation. “This can pose serious health risks and I wanted to see how I could help.”

While volunteering with NTU’s Welfare Services Club, Ho met Andrew Yin, her partner who shared the same passion as her about helping the less fortunate

They decided to focus the project on India, which has the lowest level of sanitary pad adoption in the world. An ACNielson survey conducted in 2010 showed that as many as 88 per cent of menstruating women in the country did not use proper hygienic sanitary products during their periods.

Their guiding principles? It had to be effective, eco-friendly and low-cost. “Besides access, affordability is one of the key reasons for the lack of use of sanitary pads in many rural areas,” said Ho. “So we began by exploring low-cost alternatives.”

One intriguing possibility was the use of water hyacinths as a source material. Besides being indigenous to many rural areas in India, water hyacinths also have highly absorbent pulp fibres.

Utilising the plant also helps to alleviate an environmental problem as they can choke irrigation canals and contribute to the spread of waterborne diseases.

“As a woman, this issue is especially close to my heart because I know how uncomfortable and dreadful it can get during menstruation,” she said. “It is actually something that can be managed effectively with a simple sanitary pad and should not be allowed to disrupt a woman’s life and become an impediment to education.

Especially meaningful was a study trip under the YSE banner in June 2012 to Mumbai. Over nine days, the team got to learn more about operational conditions and speak to women there.

With $10,000 seed funding from the YSE, Ho and Yin are now immersed in the research and industrial design stage of their project. Next up? Producing a prototype by mid-2013 followed by a another trip to India to meet with NGO representatives and local self-help groups.

“Inclusive innovation is important especially in the access to basic necessities because all human beings should be allowed the opportunity to live with dignity,” Ho said.

“I really hope to help these women lead normal and healthy lives during their periods, just like everyone else in the developed world.”

Vulnerability affects everyone

The government and citizens need to rethink how we address societal needs, says Braema Mathi, co-author of the year-old report on unmet social needs in Singapore.

As part of the on-going 'national conversation' on how to improve Singapore, no stones will be left unturned, although some will be put back where they were if they work, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently.

But one stone that the leader of human rights group MARUAH Braema Mathi says cannot be returned is social development in Singapore.

"To use the Prime Minister's words, we need to take that stone out, look at it and we cannot put it back into the same spot. This is one of the areas that needs a lot of attention, scrutiny and new settings," she says.

The co-author of "Unmet Social Needs in Singapore", a research report on Singapore's social policies and vulnerable groups, says since it was published a year ago by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, some of the issues raised in the report have begun to be addressed, but more needs to be done.

The 74-page report examined the shortcomings of three important pillars of Singapore's social safety net: the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the home ownership scheme and the "many helping hands" approach to assisting those in need. It also looked at the lives of six vulnerable communities in Singapore including the disabled, the mentally ill, low-income workers, singles such as divorced mothers, foreign workers and new immigrants.

MORE TALK, MORE ACTION

Over the year, since the General Elections, Mathi notes that there has been more intense discussions about these issues. When equestrian rider Laurentia Tan won a bronze and a silver at the Paralympics 2012 but received lesser prize money than able-bodied Olympic medalists, Singaporeans very quickly questioned such discrimination against the disabled. Recently, the media has also held discussions about the unsustainable wages of low-income workers such as security guards and cleaners.

Such discussions would not have been so rigorous before. I think these are good things and the government has to respond," she says.

One shortcoming highlighted in the report that has seen some change is the state's housing policy. The announcement by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan that "tens of thousands" more rental flats will be built in the coming years is significant because not everyone today can afford to buy a flat with their CPF money and wages.

However, what seems set to stay is the government's "many helping hands" approach to helping the needy. In her report, Mathi pointed out that this has led to duplication of services and those who help and need help are often lost at where to go. More importantly, much of the assistance currently does not eliminate the unmet social need, nor empower individuals to get back on track to relying on themselves.

Citing the International Labour Organization's latest call for countries to build a "social protection floor", she says Singapore's current social protection net is not enough, as people will fall through. She asks, "How are we picking them up and putting down a solid concrete floor that they can step on to move to the next level? Whatever we put at the bottom has to be effective, and it may mean more resources as this kind of intervention takes time."

Mathi is hopeful that the upcoming restructuring of Singapore's main social development government agency, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, will help move things along. With its new focus as the Ministry of Social and Family Development, she believes there can be more focus on rethinking current social development policies.

PLAY YOUR PART, SHAPE YOUR HOME

Citizens and the community-at-large have part of the equation too. While more are stepping forth to help, Mathi says it is important that people realise financial assistance alone is not sustainable. "The community needs to know it's not all about money. We have to give our volunteer time too."

"People should step forward to help, and listen to experts on the ground so that their contributions can be best used to address what vulnerable communities need most,"  she adds.

It is important to tackle unmet social needs in Singapore now before an underbelly grows in this society, says Mathi. Most importantly, people need to realise that regardless of social status today, they could very well end up being part of the vulnerable community in Singapore one day as vulnerability is not a condition reserved for the less fortunate.

She uses the example of the taxi driver who was recently killed in an accident involving a Ferrari. "I am sure he was stable and earning well for his family, he has bought a flat, and everything. But once he is taken out of the equation, through an unfortunate and untimely accident, there are problems. And how do we sustain that family to ensure that transformation for them when the father is no longer around?" she asks.

"We can no longer think in this paradigm of it as the down and out. Vulnerability needs to be recognised as a life-course. It can affect everybody and anybody, depending on the situation at that time.

Get involved and be the change:

  • Get your finances in order and plan for your loved ones.
  • Make an effort to find out about local initiatives.
  • Volunteer for a cause you believe in.