Empact is a social enterprise whose goal is to build the capacity of non-profits and other social enterprises in two areas: the development of organisations and the development of their leaders.
Peter Yang is its founder and CEO.
Firstly, Singapore is a small country population-wise: there are 5 million people, and we have about 2,000 registered charities (NGOs and social enterprises). So, the market is small: the number of NGOs and social enterprises which we are able to work with is limited. However, this country has a highly skilled workforce, because Singapore is the regional headquarter for many MNCs (Multinational Companies), which means there are many highly-skilled employees whom we can potentially target as future volunteers.
Secondly, I think volunteerism is quite well-accepted in Singapore and there is a lot of corporate volunteering ongoing at the moment: people are pretty well too, so the willingness to contribute back to the society is very high. The volunteerism rate is very high: one out of three people in Singapore volunteers, and with the Covid-19, the rate has increased even further. Plus, there is a very efficient ecosystem in Singapore to know the options and opportunities to volunteer. So, that is what makes us unique.
Another thing is that, unlike many other countries, our charities are well-funded by the government: most receive government support, and the government pays firms for consultancy work for NGOs, which essentially reduces the need for Pro Bono activities.
We started this skills-based volunteering movement in 2013-2014, and before that, very few people had heard of skill-based volunteering or Pro Bono activities. We did a lot to raise the awareness about skills-based volunteering, and I think that globally, a lot of Multinational Companies are interested in this, so there probably has been a lot of progress in the last six years in this aspect, but I would still say that the number of people who do it structurally and well is low.
With the Covid-19, and even before, even though our market is small, thanks to digital means, we are actively going out of Singapore and supporting NGOs in the Asian region: in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.
Legislatively, I am not sure, but just recognising the work intermediaries are doing. I think one proposition is that the government can pay intermediaries as service provider directly for consulting.
If they pay us, they would actually be paying a much lesser amount as we are able to mobilise an equal amount of volunteers to do this consultancy work.
We have three different approaches to capacity-building. We are very different from other Pro Bono intermediaries around the network: skills-based volunteering is just part of what we do, because we recognise that a lot of the work can't be done by skills-based volunteers: skills-wise, marketing and IT are very transferable, but volunteers are not suitable for tasks such as finance, volunteer-management, social management so Empact offers such services through our in-house team. So, part of the staff does consultancy directly.
Recently, we started equipping other social organisations with the tools that we have developed. For example, we are an outsourcing provider for finance work. We do online training to train the non-profit and the volunteers on how to build a financial model for the social sector, how to do cash flow planning for NGOs, etc.
I think our programmes are pretty similar: we run a hackathon model, we run a team of volunteers for a few months. I always share that we are building a Pro Bono School which the goal to become a university of thoughts for NGOs to learn from different subject experts, which are delivered by corporate volunteers. And secondly, we have a one-on-one eight-months mentoring programme. We do a lot of need assessments, which I don't see many intermediaries doing. These are very unique programmes which we have developed ourselves. It's not just engagement as a tool, we are not just running programmes for corporate partners, but we are also training both corporate partners and other intermediaries in other countries to run these programmes.
I think our model is pretty innovative in terms of how we are providing direct support, we are providing leadership and the necessary tools for this particular sector. We inspire businesses to set up a subsidiary taking care of non-profits on IT, data security etc.
So, we are going beyond skills-volunteering because it is just a means to an end, we look for the end. We are creating technologies to help non-profits to become more productive.
Because of the Covid-19 situation, we are doing digital trainings, these are very quick two-hour sessions that social enterprises or non-profits need. These are short in terms of time and engagement but it is largely focusing on working with the key leaders in the sector, not only giving them solutions, but also providing them a space to talk through their concerns, give them validation. I think it is inspiring, because the situation businesses and NGOs face is very similar: corporate volunteers can resonate, and sometimes they don't have a solution for NGOs, but it's more about emotional support during this critical time, having somebody to think things through with you.
We are also doing a mentoring programme for youth social entrepreneurs, because many of them are confronted to a crisis for the first time, to support them over a six-month period, to help them with their business model and to teach them how to be a leader in this crisis.
We don't have strong links with them. At the moment, we are not a priority, and second, the risk is too high for them to engage us. Third, they don't understand the concept of paying somebody else to help them manage something. And lastly, they have a strong team managing volunteers within the government, so this makes things challenging.
We don't have a technology facilitating the match. We have tried some platforms but they have not worked for us because the NGOs are not ready, and the demand is not that high.
We don't go on this model, I do not consider us having a community of volunteers, because we don't look at volunteerism as the end. Skills-based volunteering is just part of what we do, it represents maybe one third of our entire activity. And our volunteers are mainly corporate volunteers, we don't have many individual volunteers. We have not invested time into this.
We have some volunteer leaders, but we don't have a model focusing on volunteers specifically and community development.
We have made all our volunteering programmes go digital. We had already started experimenting before the Covid-19 crisis because we needed to do skills-based volunteering cross border. We started doing more knowledge sharing: we started spending time sharing the assets and tools that we are creating, doing online trainings with NGOs. We have a lot of NGOs outside of Singapore joining us, from as far as Europe, USA and Africa. The feedback has been really positive, because most of the tools we create are very customised for the social sector, which means these contents are not readily available in most of the countries. We don’t charge charities to attend these sessions.
I think the demand has been affected, it has slowed down, because the companies themselves are not doing well, and everybody is adjusting. Hands-on volunteering can't be done anymore, so from the revenue perspective it has affected us. Then, for skills-based volunteering, it's harder to charge a very high price because the amount of volunteers mobilized is very low, and many people still see engagement as the end goal, and thus don't understand the value we charge. So, these are the main things that affect us from the volunteering perspective.
Of course, as an intermediary I would say that pro bono is very important. I feel pro bono has its own place, for us it's just one component of capacity building, it's not the end but a means to an end. In Singapore, paid consultancy, the pro bono model, the funding of charities by the government are all available and flourishing in their own ways.
For us, the goal is to prove the validity of the position that pro bono is the best mean to the end. We haven't gotten there yet, but in areas like IT, businesses are competing for that talent, it doesn't make sense for NGOs to compete for those talents. Hence, these are the areas where pro bono can play a much better role.
And, moving forward, pro bono volunteers and intermediaries have to do better in making things relevant for charities and not wasting time, because what the volunteers know may not be applicable to the non-profit.
Pro bono needs to be more solution-based, instead of focusing on skills-based volunteering as the end.
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