It takes a village not just to raise a child, but to change the world. Ben Cheong, founder of Magical Light Foundation, knows this all too well. Since 2013, the foundation has executed multiple projects around the region, including the building of 30 schools in Myanmar, setting up of libraries and computer rooms in village schools in Laos and Vietnam, and supporting educational programmes in migrant and refugee camps in Thailand.
Cheong readily acknowledges that the Magical Light Foundation could not have achieved this alone. It partners various local non-governmental organisations and initiatives in the respective countries, such as M Exchange in Bangladesh, which provides free medical care to villagers and children; India’s Children of Mother Earth, which provides homes for children in slums; and Smart Kids College in Mandalay, which runs educational programmes. Such on-the-ground partnerships allow the organisation to be better informed of the needs of the locals, so it can provide support that aligns with the community’s needs, explains Cheong.
Sometimes, even a small but well-placed contribution can make all the difference. “There was a famine in one locale of Bangladesh and we sent funds to help the school provide food for its students. This was not known internationally but our partners on the ground found out about it and alerted us, so we could help,” he says.
The foundation’s successful work is one example of how collaborations are changing the landscape of conventional philanthropy. As more individuals and organisations shift from passive chequebook philanthropy to one where the donor takes an active interest in the issue at hand and helps to provide networks and talent to the cause, more effective change can be seen, says Kwok Jia Chuan, chairman and co-founder of Conjunct Consulting, a social change consultancy.
He explains: “The philanthropist can play a catalytic role by linking organisations that need help with individuals who can provide time and tackle challenges. By doing so, the recipients get more than just money; they also get the help of other organisations and individuals who may not have been able to find such opportunities themselves. This may prove to be more valuable than money.”
Take art therapy humanitarian organisation The Red Pencil, which is based in Singapore and Geneva, Switzerland. It partners organisations such as Red Cross and Save the Children to send volunteer art therapists – drawn from organisations globally – to disaster and conflict zones around the world, including the Philippines, Nepal and Lebanon. It also partners Lasalle College of the Arts to offer scholarships to budding art therapists from Singapore and overseas. In turn, these art therapy students are required to go on humanitarian missions and volunteer with local programmes, which benefit the student’s professional development and increase the pool of therapists whom the charity can work with.
Drawing on one another’s strengths and areas of expertise becomes more essential when tackling critical global and regional issues, such as climate change or the refugee crisis. Professor Audrey Chia, associate professor at NUS Business School and joint associate professor of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, says: “To solve the world’s biggest problems that are deep-rooted and systemic, we need interdisciplinary approaches and inter-sector collaboration, with each partner bringing different expertise, social capital and resources. The aggregated value of what we give can have a greater impact.”
Citing the example of malnutrition, Prof Chia, who is also the director of the NIHA Healthcare Leadership Program for Asia, says besides alleviating poverty and providing access to nutritious food, there are other wide-ranging issues that should be addressed. “Climate change and environmental degradation disrupt the timing and quantity of harvests. There can be education and awareness programmes to teach people to maximise the nutritional value of available food. We also need to be aware of cultural practices that influence preference for certain foods or certain ways of preparing food.”
Despite the obvious benefits, such partnerships are still uncommon in Singapore, and are often spearheaded by large organisations such as Tsao Foundation, which develops eldercare collaborations; DBS Foundation, which connects social enterprises to mentors and funders; and Temasek Foundation International, which bridges social movements across Asia.
“Our current giving landscape tends towards fragmentation with sporadic and inconsistent efforts, and givers operating in silos. These make it difficult to assess and address the real needs within our community. It also fosters wastage and gaps in coverage,” says Melissa Kwee, CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre.
Breaking down barriers and bringing about more transparency to the philanthropic process can be the biggest challenge in itself, says Kwok. “If each party cannot arrive at a common understanding and mode of operation, the collaboration is likely to be fractious and frustrating.” A higher level of involvement will also mean more commitment and engagement on the part of the philanthropist, he adds.
Risk-averse societies, such as Singapore, have to learn to be more receptive to failure. Kwok says: “Just as in business, collaborations may fail; it is important for all parties to recognise the failure, and correct issues before starting on the next venture.”
“Sustained collective impact, fuelled by thought leadership, is vital to grow the giving ecosystem in Singapore. Brought together, compassionate and impact-oriented individuals or corporates, when armed with knowledge and strong partnerships, can move mountains, or change a nation.”
– Melissa Kwee, CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre
There is also a need to match individuals, organisations and other groups to specifi c causes and recipients, without overlapping or duplicating the work of another organisation. Prof Chia suggests checking out networks, such as Dasra or Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, which connect givers to one another, or givers to recipients. They also conduct research to suggest themes for giving, and identify areas that need to be addressed or given priority by philanthropists.
Kwee, who gave a TedxSingapore talk challenging the notion that philanthropy is only for the rich, is optimistic that a collective effort can bring about long-term change. “For the road ahead, we cannot build a giving nation alone. Our success depends on how well we can open ourselves to partnering the non-profit sector, learning with and from them and private citizens, institutions and corporations.”
We honoured 10 leaders in philanthropy and social enterprise for our recent Power List. Find out who they are by scrolling through the gallery below.