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Why Singapore charities should collaborate and not compete for beneficiaries

Many non-profit organisations and charities like to think that their beneficiaries are their customers. So they inadvertently compete for beneficiaries, the same way businesses compete for customers to gain market share.

Why Singapore charities should collaborate and not compete for beneficiaries

Collaboration is more important now because resources are finite and the needs of the vulnerable segment expanding, says the author.

My nephew is a dual degree business-economics scholar who entered the workforce about two years ago. Upon graduation, he joined McKinsey as a business consultant.

It was the lowest-paid job offer, amongst a few, that he had received. Curious, I asked him why he opted for McKinsey.

His rationale was simple: The value of the McKinsey brand.

I cite this example because most non-profit organisations (NPOs) and charities lack the financial resources to draw talent with high salaries.

So organisational culture and mission become a crucial differentiator for NPOs and charities in recruitment.

Yet many of those running NPOs and charities like to think that their beneficiaries are their customers. So they inadvertently compete for beneficiaries, the same way businesses compete for customers to gain market share.

The uneven distribution of food to isolated seniors is a case in point. One beneficiary may get a daily lunch from two or more NPOs while others receive ad hoc assistance or no food support at all.

This problem persists despite the scores of food assistance groups in Singapore.

It does not help that many NPOs receive funding or get donations based on the number of beneficiaries they serve.

So they try to outdo each other in their programmes and service delivery to increase the number of beneficiaries that will merit the funding for their operations.

In Singapore, competing for beneficiaries is a zero-sum game.

The average household size is steadily shrinking. According to data from the Singapore Department of Statistics, the average household size among local residents was 3.19 in 2019 compared to 4.87 in 1980.

Instead of competing for beneficiaries, one social service organisation in the central region formed a collaboration platform for different non-profits that operate in that area.

Through regular meetings and communication, these organisations learn of each other’s programmes and services and how they can complement one another.

Given their limited resources, they intuitively reorganise and coordinate among themselves to minimise duplication and to better address the community needs in areas such as providing food assistance.

For another perspective, Singapore has an estimated 600,000 seniors aged 65 and above in 2019. Japan is another fast ageing society.

But in 2019, the population of seniors aged 65 and above in Japan was 60 times the number in Singapore.

There are limits to tying an NPO’s growth in Singapore to the size of its beneficiaries. For one thing, Singapore’s population size is not big nor expected to grow significantly.

Competing the way commercial organisations compete for customers and market share would be counterproductive.

Instead, NPOs should recognise and cultivate their core capabilities and identify complementary organisations to collaborate and bring about positive social change. 

Collaboration is more important now because resources are finite and the needs of the vulnerable segment expanding.

Covid-19 has impacted our economy and consequently donations to non-profit causes have declined. Many charities are forced to scale back their programmes and services to ensure financial sustainability.

Individuals who lose their jobs in this economic climate will have immediate needs for food support and financial assistance.

However, one charity organisation alone is unlikely to sufficiently address their needs holistically, as these may cover different areas such as mental health and job search.

A network of organisations working in collaboration can address the holistic needs of the vulnerable better.

The social change that most non-profits aim to bring about is complex.

Some label them “wicked problems” because they are hard or almost impossible to solve because of ambiguity, the involvement of too many stakeholders and numerous inter-dependencies. 

This makes it all the more crucial for charities and NPOs to avoid a silo mentality and look to be part of an ecosystem involving multiple key actors.

Collaboration will require different organisations to jointly establish a shared vision and develop solutions where each can contribute its core capabilities and competencies. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Let me cite an example.

The Yellow Ribbon Project launched in 2004 by the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises, now rebranded as Yellow Ribbon Singapore, is the world’s first campaign towards a more inclusive society by giving ex-offenders a second chance.

This requires the collaboration of multiple organisations, from agencies involved in crime prevention and policy-making, to service providers that train incarcerated individuals for gainful employment on release to employers as well as family and friends who offer care and support to the ex-offenders.

Today, Singapore society is a lot more accepting of ex-offenders and this is due to the continued efforts of different stakeholders working together to address this complex issue and not one NPO or charity chasing numbers of beneficiaries.

In conclusion, I want to share a point about lily pads.

It takes one lily pad to double itself every day in the pond. By the 30th day, the entire pond is covered by lily pads. On which day, would half the pond be covered?  

This is a mathematical problem in exponential growth theory.

In the initial period, nothing seems to be happening. But the magnitude of change increases with time.

It will take 29 days for the lily pads to cover half of the pond. And in a day, each one of the lily pad will double and the whole pond will be covered. 

Driving organisational transformation and social change is akin to the lily pad problem. You are driving change in a complex system.

You will need like-minded people to join you on the journey even if they are far and few. All you will need is for each one to double the circle of influence.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Caroline Lim is head of Singapore University of Social Sciences's organisation and leadership for non-profits programme. 

Related topics

Charity non-profit organisations Covid-19 coronavirus

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