Singaporean demand for the programmes and services of charities – especially with an ageing population, changing social and family dynamics, and cognisance of a persistent class divide – is set to increase, yet the discourse on improvements to the charity sector has not kept pace. Member of Parliament (MP) and Mayor of Central Singapore Denise Phua, in a parliamentary speech on amendments to the Charities Bill last week, called for a better landscape study and to develop an industry transformation map “to keep up with the times”. “There ought to be published mini-blueprints of the state of the union in each sector’s landscape, strengths, concerns, areas of needs and strategies to plug any gaps that Government has not or will not step in”, she added, so that “[potential] charities can then be advised or even incentivised by the COC [Commissioner of Charity] and its partners to direct and deploy resources to where the needs might be”.
In this vision of a transformed and transformative charity sector in Singapore, and with the beneficiaries at the centre, three core changes are welcomed: More baselining, more need-based and forward-looking collaborations, and more effective intermediaries.
Social service problems for charities, first and foremost, can only be solved if they are understood. And if we are more precise about defining beneficiaries and understanding the extent of the need: An official central registry for persons with disabilities does not yet exist, the pilot Youth-At-Risk Engagement framework for at-risk youths was instituted a year-and-a-half ago, and the prevalence of seniors living alone has not been accurately ascertained. Baselining – or quantifying the extent of a problem within a target population, against which future progress can be measured – is oft-overlooked, probably because charities have already defined for themselves the (pre-existing) beneficiaries to serve. Yet from a much broader perspective, and across the charity sector, this lacuna in baselining should be plugged through research endeavours and furthermore through the evaluation of their programmes and services.
The second proposed change, for more need-based and forward-looking collaborations, is the result of increasingly complex social needs which not only cut across government ministries and agencies, but also changing quickly. A senior, for example, should have both physical and psycho-social needs, and at the moment these needs are addressed respectively by the health and the social and family development ministries. Charities are however in a unique position, because their work can span across different ministries and agencies, and they likely to have more direct and consistent interactions with the beneficiaries too. Collaborations in this vein mean charities thinking beyond their own programmes and services to focus on collective, co-ownership projects. For organisations to coordinate and to lead other organisations, “rotational leadership or partnerships could further enrich the flow of ideas”.
And collaborations should not be engineered by charities per se. The third missing element from Singapore’s social service landscape is effective intermediaries or convenors who bring organisations together. Through roundtables, seminars, and conferences, these intermediaries – each focusing for instance, as indicated earlier, on persons with disabilities, at-risk youths, and seniors living alone – need not take direction from the government, and should instead, through a ground-up approach, aggregate and communicate the needs of both beneficiaries and the charities serving them, as well as to foster collaboration. An intermediary focused on at-risk youths would, as a start, establish the baseline – that is, how they are defined, the number of youths in Singapore, and the existing interventions offered by the charities – before identifying gaps and areas for improvement. In the long-term, moreover, the intermediary would foster the sharing of best programme or organisational practices, as well as to facilitate aforementioned collaborations.
As MP Phua alluded to in her speech, the COC and its partners aspire to be a “proactive charity advisory”. If that is so, and if there are additional aspirations for “the next review of the Charities Act [to] be more transformational, visionary and reflective of the vibrancy and high potential charities can value-add to society”, then core changes to baselining, collaborations, and intermediaries must be considered.