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Kevin Tan: Paying it forward with skill-based giving

The CEO and founder of Tri-Sector Associates shares how philanthropy can be more impactful in his guest column for The Peak.

The Peak’s Next Gen personalities take over to share personal stories close to their hearts – get to know all nine of them here.

 

Volunteerism used to be just about contributing time. Many of us have a memory from school of cleaning beaches or planting trees. In recent years, there has been a growing realisation that time can be even more impactful if we also contributed skills. In Singapore, there are now skills-based volunteer organisations that enable consultants, accountants, engineers and data scientists to contribute their professional talents to good causes.

What about our giving? Well, around the world, a growing number of philanthropists are infusing giving with their investment skills. It enables them to give more meaningfully, which keeps them engaged and increases their impact. This trend could play a critical role in helping us find new ways of solving problems fit for our country’s next 50 years.

Traditional giving focuses on providing grant funding for a specific program, and usually on a one- to three-year basis. In effect, traditional givers are “buying” social services for beneficiaries who cannot pay for such services themselves. We need buyers. But we also need builders, who are focused on bettering the capability of the social agencies themselves.

In the for-profit world, different types of hands-on investors play this “builder” role at various stages in order to take a company from idea to scale. Skills-based givers, many with investment backgrounds themselves, are adapting lessons from investing to play a “builder” role in their giving.

They contribute to starting up. The US-based Greenlight Fund, for instance, convenes local leaders to identify the root causes of social problems, then scouts nationally to replicate the best available solutions, conducting due diligence on hundreds of organisations in the process.

They help to accelerate growth. New Profit, a US-based pioneering “venture philanthropy” fund, provides large long-term grants specifically for organisational costs, and then helps investees build capacity by sitting on their boards and giving them access to a wide network of in-kind resources.

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Finally, they help organisations achieve sustainability. As an exit strategy is key to any investment, skills-based givers help organisations develop an intentional strategy to grow their own sources of repeatable “income” in a variety of ways: from traditional giving by hiring fundraising staff, from the market by becoming a social enterprise, or from governments by negotiating outcomes-based contracts.

We are already starting to see signs of skills-based giving in Singapore. The modalities vary. The largest skills-based giving conference in Asia is held here every year. Collective philanthropy circles have been set up to make giving more efficient. Each week, I interact with family offices that have set up impact investing arms. There is S$2.4 trillion of wealth in Singapore that’s being managed at any one point in time. Imagine if a fraction of the expertise spent managing that could be used to solve our social problems.

We are evolving as a country, and skills-based giving can play an important part. It ensures a more cohesive society in a way that complements traditional giving. Skills-based volunteering has not led to the downfall of traditional volunteering. Instead, it has raised the profile of volunteering as a whole, drawing in new sources of giving, getting more out of current giving, and making giving more widespread.

It also generates better solutions by allowing members of society to work as true partners with the government. Recognising that as problems become ever more complex, they become difficult for any government – no matter how competent – to solve alone, our new generation of leaders has started initiatives such as the Singapore Together movement. In some cases, this will mean the government has the solution and simply needs to draw on traditional givers and volunteers. In many others, it may be that the government needs a partner to come to the best solution. Or it could be that there is no government solution at all. Skills-based giving builds the capacity that society needs to be more active partners with the government, to the betterment of Singapore and Singaporeans.

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