The unmet needs today require a new social contract with bigger role for philanthropy
By Laurence Lien, Published The Straits Times, 22 Sep 2012
PHILANTHROPY is my business. Four years ago, I moved from the practice of philanthropy as a hobby to the promotion of philanthropy as a vocation. People often ask whether Singaporeans are generous and whether it is easy getting them to give.
My answer would go something like this: Most Singaporeans want to be generous, but many do not know how.
Giving appears to be on a vigorous rise. Singaporeans' donations to Institutions of a Public Character (IPCs) - charities that can provide tax deductions for donations - rose 9 per cent each year from 2001 to last year. However, when compared with the growth of nominal GDP, which in the decade was about 10 per cent a year, donations to IPCs as a percentage of our national income has in fact gone down slightly.
Lest we conclude that all of Singapore has tightened its purse, the silver lining is that giving by individuals to IPCs, as opposed to giving by corporations, grew at 14 per cent a year in the same period. This is reinforced by the findings of the biennial Individual Giving Survey of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). It showed that individual giving to all charities, including religious institutions, rose 16 per cent a year from 2004 to 2010. Unfortunately, the same surveys also show that those who earn more tend to donate proportionately less of their income.
With clear and present unmet needs, I believe Singaporeans have the capacity to give more. Indeed, a key test of a mature society is how you treat the less fortunate. It does not matter whether you are religious or not, a happy society is one where people share and give.
Many happiness studies show that money is a hygiene factor, that is, when the money people have crosses a certain threshold, which is not very high, more money produces virtually no increase in life satisfaction.
And studies have shown that money can buy happiness - if you give it to help someone else. Being able to play a role in changing the life of someone in need, even in some small way, can be a powerful inspiration.
Beyond personal fulfilment, philanthropy plays a critical role in the development of Singapore as a nation in a few ways. We need to build a new social contract among the public, private and people sectors, where the Government, non-profit organisations, philanthropists and citizens are committed to one another, co-creating social change.
Does philanthropy playing a bigger role in creating social change mean letting the Government off the hook? The Government still needs to provide public goods and regulation to allow an environment where private enterprises and non-profit initiatives flourish. Philanthropy can help this by incubating innovation, and maintaining on-the-ground agility to meet new needs. It can also advocate for policy change and keep looking for answers in a rapidly evolving society.
It is easy to think that philanthropy means the rich using their funding to serve special interests or their own concept of the common good. Sometimes, the language used in philanthropy, with its emphasis on the objective of social cohesion, may lead one to think that it is about placating the discontent among the disadvantaged and poor in our midst.
The 1950 Soviet Concise Dictionary Of Foreign Words defined "philanthropy" as "a means the bourgeoisie uses to deceive workers and disguise the parasitism and its exploiter's face by rendering hypocritical aid to the poor in order to distract the latter from class struggle".
Though outdated and clearly biased, this antiquated definition highlights some noteworthy concerns. Philanthropy should level the relationship between the giver and the recipient, and not accentuate the differences.
Philanthropy is a reciprocal, social relationship. It is about building community, using the assets and resources within it. It must give everyone in the relationship a sense of agency, that is, the sense that they matter, and that they are part of creating the change, and not just the recipient of it. In this relationship, grantors and grantees both give and get.
Since philanthropy is important to both personal and societal development, how then do we improve philanthropy in Singapore? Let me give some insights from the recently concluded inaugural Philanthropy in Asia Summit 2012, which the NVPC and Community Foundation of Singapore (CFS) organised. This summit saw the coming together of 190 philanthropists, grantmakers and experts to discuss how to mobilise philanthropic community to achieve greater impact.
* First, we must start young and engage the next generation of givers. Just like mandatory community service in schools has sparked a surge in youth volunteerism rates over the last decade, we need to do the same for philanthropy. In fact, today, the giving of time, treasure and talent are converging.
The young are moving away from traditional philanthropy to become changemakers in the social space. They are not just giving, but also doing. We need more platforms to empower youth and children to prototype solutions in addressing social problems.
* Second, we need to connect Singaporeans who have done well in their careers and business to the causes and work on the ground. These talented Singaporeans also need to rid themselves of their entitlement mentality - that is, the sense that they are fully entitled to their own success and owe no obligation to the society which has given them all the opportunities to succeed.
Too many well-to-do Singaporeans are disconnected to the social needs and issues on the ground. This is where intermediaries, like the CFS, can play a role through their site visits, community knowledge, and networks and sharing platforms.
As Professor Peter Frumkin outlines in his book, Strategic Giving, strategic philanthropic value is maximised when both public value and private value come together in mutually strengthening both donor satisfaction and the ability to solve real-world problems at the same time. This meeting point is where we find "shared value", where doing good also sparks a passion that resonates within us.
* Third, we need to build the wider philanthropic ecosystem to enable givers to do good well. This is a broad area - from having standardised and available data to ensure transparency and informed giving, to building capacity through field visits and workshops, and building community through collaborative projects and networks. NVPC is committed to maturing the ecosystem within Singapore.
But as many summit delegates remarked, there is also a great opportunity for Singapore, with its neutrality and international outlook, to become the launch pad for giving well in the region. The key obstacle to this is the restrictions placed on fund raising from Singapore for the region. I believe if the regulations are loosened, giving to Singapore causes will concomitantly increase. Giving is never zero-sum.
But ultimately, most people do not follow models, ideas or tax benefits. People follow people. And we need people who are willing to step up to be philanthropy champions. These role models do not just come from among the rich givers. Giving and creating change should not need to wait for wealth to be accumulated. There is no small change, only small hearts. Making giving a way of life means everyone starting to give now, whether it be time, talent or treasure. Everyone can make a difference.
The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament who is the chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. He is also acting CEO of the Community Foundation of Singapore and chairman of the Lien Foundation.