With the decline in global charitable behaviours such as donating and volunteering (according to the 2017 World Giving Index, published by the Charities Aid Foundation) and the decline in tax-deductible donations in Singapore (according to the Commissioner of Charities), the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) is right to argue that Singapore’s ecosystem of volunteerism and philanthropy needs to improve. In fact even beyond these recent statistics, many organisations in the social service sector – in the face of expanding social needs, facilitated by a greater awareness of issues and those in-need and other community groups which offer overlapping programmes and services – have already acknowledged their desire for change.
Yet what is sustainably needed to “elevate the practice of doing good” (ST, Oct. 19) is not just short-term fixes currently mooted by the NVPC – skills-based volunteerism, micro-volunteering activities, or the cognisance that more Singaporean donors are doing their research before donating (or volunteering) – but long-term investments within the non-profit organisations.
The three aforementioned fixes were based on three trends which are changing the way donors and volunteers give their money and time. The first is technological change, with more Singaporeans giving through the Internet. While it is true that resource-strapped non-profits would struggle, skills-based volunteerism – “to apply private sector expertise and professional skills” in these organisations – is hardly the most effective solution. I volunteer with charities in Singapore to do data analysis and to work on research or evaluation projects, yet I will never have the same level of expertise with the beneficiaries as the social workers. Neither do I have the day-to-day commitment to or understanding of the organisation. In this vein, the answer to being resource-strapped should therefore lie in the availability and the accessibility of non-profit manpower and resources.
In other words, can bodies of influence such as the NVPC convince funders to go beyond the conventional predilection to only directly fund programmes and services, and to channel some of these funds to organisational capacity-building too? This is also related to the second trend, on the “gig-ification of giving”. In theory, “micro-volunteerism” appears useful for busy volunteers, yet that presupposes the ability of non-profit organisations to create these micro-volunteering activities, and for the benefits of these activities to justify the manpower or cost involved. As it stands, how many non-profits have full-time volunteer managers; that is, they are not tasked with other responsibilities? And how many organisations possess the technology to not only communicate with multiple volunteers spontaneously, but also – in the first place – to manage volunteers?
The final trend identified by the NVPC is that of the more informed and involved donor, who “research, compare, and educate themselves” before making a donation. Notwithstanding the potential for further improvements, most charities to some extent engage in some form of performance measurement and management, and if they are to be held to even higher standards (as they should be), intermediaries such as the NVPC should help funders and donors make better decisions. Phrased differently: Can NVPC help a funder or donor ascertain whether a charity is effective? If so, how, and based on what metrics? If not, how does it plan to – perhaps most productively through research and knowledge-sharing – facilitate these processes for the future?
That is not to say, that short-term fixes have no place in a non-profit, or that the NVPC is necessarily misguided in its approach. Rather, the argument is that – especially from the perspective of the organisation – unless the longer-term, structural issues are addressed, then the social service sector will struggle to improve volunteerism and philanthropy in Singapore.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.