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The Big Read: As crowdfunding sites rake in the donations, questions are raised over accountability

SINGAPORE — Using compelling pictures or videos depicting the plight of the needy, some fundraisers have been tugging the heartstrings of the public on social media and crowdfunding platforms to great effect.

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SINGAPORE — Using compelling pictures or videos depicting the plight of the needy, some fundraisers have been tugging the heartstrings of the public on social media and crowdfunding platforms to great effect.

The readiness at which Singaporeans are willing to donate to crowdfunding campaigns has seen non-profit groups and individuals raise up to five-figure sums in a matter of weeks.

Happy People Helping People (HPHP) Foundation, for example, has amassed about S$272,400 since it started putting up campaigns on crowdfunding site GIVE.asia in 2016. Its latest project to fund meals for needy elderly raised S$43,109, more than double its target of S$17,000.

In fact, its fundraising efforts have mostly exceeded its targets — a far cry from the days when the group was struggling to raise funds through flea markets, said Mr Mohammad Nafiz Kamarudin, 36, one of three co-founders of HPHP Foundation. He recalled that, after the flea markets failed to raise enough money to help the elderly, people offered to donate to the group via bank transfers, but it quickly became a tedious process of providing the group’s bank account number, checking the account to see if the money has been received and taking screenshots of the transactions.

In contrast, using a crowdfunding platform not only provides convenience but also transparency. “People get to know how much we raised for that month. And to back that up, we actually post every receipt of the payment that we made, whether it’s to pay for their makan (food) or to pay for their outings,” he said.

Mr Nafiz, a first-aid instructor, said he was not surprised by the overwhelming response from donors, given the recent media coverage of the group’s work. The funds raised mostly go into paying for at least one meal a day for disadvantaged elderly, most of whom are cardboard collectors in their 70s and older. The beneficiaries will be able to take their meal cards to selected economy rice stalls near where they stay to claim their meals. Each month, the group provides close to 3,000 meals for about 130 beneficiaries.

Another group, Ray of Hope, has been using the portal Simply Giving since June 2013. Three in four of its campaigns launched on the site managed to hit their target amounts.

It received close to S$75,000 from the site alone in the last financial year. And within the first half of this year, the group has already raised more than S$60,000 on the portal alone. “Donors know how much the target for a specific beneficiary is, and there is real-time information on how much has already been raised,” said the organisation’s spokesperson. The money is then used to pay for beneficiaries’ electricity bill, housing, school fees or groceries.

While not all groups are as successful as HPHP Foundation or Ray of Hope in their fundraising efforts, many of them are able to receive a steady stream of donations from crowdfunding sites.

But as more groups and individuals turn to these sites to solicit donations, questions are being raised over how the funds are being spent, with some calling for greater accountability and regulatory oversight.

Mr Nizar Shariff, 47, founder of registered charity Free Food for All, for one, wondered whether the crowdfunded donations are put to good use, such as sourcing for the cheapest deal when buying items for beneficiaries. “Who decides which supplier gets the (payment)? ... How do they account for the fact that the supplier had gone through the due processes so that they will be able to get the best deal?” he asked.

As these groups and individuals need not adhere to charity regulations, they may also run into problems should they receive larger sums of donations, he noted. “Everyone starts off with good intent. You may say, let’s raise S$500 to help 50 families. But sooner or later that S$500 will become S$5,000 and (more),” he added. When extra funds are raised for beneficiaries, for instance, groups without proper accounting standards may unknowingly misuse the funds when they think that the balance amount can be redirected to fund their own operations, he pointed out.

COC PLEDGES ACTION AGAINST ERRANT GROUPS AND INDIVIDUALS

Unlike registered charities and Institutions of a Public Character (IPCs), non-profit groups and individuals do not have to abide by the legislations under the Charities Act. This includes the duty to keep accounting records, and to conduct annual audit of their expenses, among other requirements.

But all fund-raising appeals, including those conducted online, for charitable, benevolent or philanthropic causes, are regulated under the Charities Regulations 2012, if the fund-raising appeals target the community in Singapore, said Commissioner of Charities (COC) Ang Hak Seng in response to TODAY’s queries. They would have to provide accurate information to donors or the public, keep proper records of donations received and disbursed records, among other things.

“In the case of online crowdfunding platforms, more information should be disclosed to the public about the proportion of donations which will be given to intended beneficiaries, its status as a commercial entity, as well as how its remuneration is computed such as details of transaction charges, if any,” he said. He added: “The principles of transparency and accountability are paramount.”

Anyone who flouts these regulations can be fined up to S$5,000, or jailed up to 12 months, or both.

Dr Ang stressed that his office “takes a serious view of violations of the regulatory requirements” under the Charities Act, and it will look into cases where improper fund-raising activities are suspected and reported.

Without providing details, Dr Ang said the COC is investigating several feedback involving fund-raising concerns. He added that his office could take action to “restrict or prohibit the conduct of any fund-raising appeal if there is reason to believe that the appeal has been improperly administered”.

Charity sector veteran Gerard Ee, who chairs the Charity Council, said that, while all fundraisers on crowdfunding sites come under government regulations, it is not easy to uncover unregistered groups or individuals who misuse donations. “We don’t have a process … to see who is on social media (or crowdfunding sites) trying to raise money for the public,” he said. At the same time, he also acknowledged the “practical difficulties” of going through every possible post online to suss out suspicious campaigns.

Lawyer Ronald JJ Wong from Covenant Chambers, whose areas of practice include charity governance, noted that non-registered groups and individuals could be held to different standards from registered charities and IPCs, or may “unduly exclude legitimate causes”. While they may hold themselves to certain standards since they are receiving other people’s money out of goodwill, these groups and individuals may not have the resources, systems or infrastructure to operate at higher compliance standards, he added.

Even so, the younger generation seems to prefer informal networks and groups when it comes to pursuing social interests and causes. Hence, rules on donations must be conducive for strong civic society and citizen participation to grow by, for example, ensuring public confidence in how recipients of donations handle money, he said.

WHAT SOME GROUPS DO TO PROVIDE ACCOUNTABILITY

At HPHP Foundation, for example, Mr Nafiz said the amount of money it raised is stated on the GIVE.asia page. Whenever the group buys meals at the different coffeeshops in Bedok, Whampoa, Geylang, Toa Payoh and Bishan, it will take pictures of the receipts and post them on its Facebook page. Potential donors can also join them on their Sunday outings with the elderly to find out more about the group’s work before they donate any money, said Mr Nafiz.

The extra money raised will be channelled to other uses to help the elderly, including for monthly outings, NTUC FairPrice vouchers and red packets for the beneficiaries. Pictures of these initiatives will also be taken and put up on Facebook, said Mr Nafiz. “It does not have to be complicated — getting an accountant and all that, these are very ‘Singaporean-ish’ kind of thinking, everything has to be by the book,” he said. “Just make it simple, keep the receipts and then store it … (If) somebody asks, you have all this proof to show them.”

Mr Nafiz noted that a registered charity may be able to get larger donations from corporations, but he reiterated that raising money is not the sole aim of HPHP Foundation. “The more funds we have, the more responsibility we have, but what we want is to create awareness so that our followers learn to be more proactive and reach out in their own ways, rather than to give money to us,” he added.

No matter whether a group is a registered charity or not, there could be some doubt lingering in a donor’s mind when it comes to donating money. “NKF is registered, but you see what happened,” said Mr Nafiz, referring to the National Kidney Foundation scandal in 2005, which saw its former chief executive officer T T Durai jailed for corruption.

Ray of Hope’s spokesperson said the organisation takes donor accountability “very seriously”, including getting annual audits and having its case managers conduct house visits to verify information before disbursing funds. Its donors are also kept updated on how the beneficiaries are doing.

“We recognise that not everyone has the time to look into where their donation goes, but we believe that donors should donate to cases where disbursements are made responsibly and due diligence is carried out,” said the spokesperson.

When funds are responsibly disbursed, she said the giving experience will also be enhanced and more Singaporeans will be encouraged to help each other, building “a culture of trust and informed giving”.

If it raises excess money, the amount goes to other beneficiaries. This is made clear to both their beneficiaries and online donors, the spokesperson added.

RESPONSIBILITY FALLS ON CROWDFUNDING SITES: CHARITY VETERAN

With the growing appeal of donating online, some charity experts and fundraising consultants have also suggested that the online donation portals or crowdfunding sites themselves take on more responsibility to ensure fundraisers are credible.

Several sites such as GIVE.asia, Giving.sg, Simply Giving, Generosity and GoGetFunding have been hosting campaigns from Singapore charities, non-profit groups and individuals. Each site also has its own terms and conditions, such as additional charges for bank transfers, among other things.

Mr Ee said these sites should consider developing a “complete system” to verify fundraisers and follow through to ensure the money is properly accounted for. “The public is vulnerable because no one out there is assuming that responsibility,” he said.

Noting how social-media platforms such as Facebook face increasing pressure today to remove offensive content from their sites, he added: “There is a certain responsibility that goes hand in hand with people who are operating these platforms. You cannot just develop a platform and … allow undesirable people to use it.”

The level of oversight on fundraisers varies across the different platforms.

GIVE.asia, which has seen a doubling of donations raised through its site every year since 2013, said it has “technology safeguards” to detect potential fraud activity and personnel who keep a lookout for “questionable” campaigns and activities. Its co-founder Aseem K Thakur said they have started visiting beneficiaries, and put in place a process to ensure the donations are channelled directly to the beneficiaries’ bank accounts.

Similarly, Generosity also taps automated systems as well as staff members to ensure fundraisers adhere to its terms and conditions.

An Indiegogo spokesperson said the funds raised on Generosity will be disbursed every three weeks to the campaigns. If an ongoing campaign faces issues, funding will be cancelled and the money will be returned to donors.

In cases where fundraisers do not use the money according to the stated purpose, Indiegogo could take steps to recover the funds, including roping in third-party collection agencies.

In comparison, a GoGetFunding spokesperson said it has a different policy: “Donations are considered no-strings attached gifts — the donor cannot impose how the funds must be spent, unless this is offered by the campaign owner.”

The spokesperson explained that many fundraising campaigns can “change direction” as needs change, such as how money for medical equipment may be used to offset funeral costs when the condition of a beneficiary takes a turn for the worse. She added that the company has to strike a fine balance between providing an open platform for fundraisers, so that anyone can use its service, and providing a trusted platform for donors.

“This continuity of trust is often what can make or break a campaign and is a fantastic self-management tool for the actual campaign,” the spokesperson said, adding that greater regulation could pass on compliance costs to fundraisers.

Meanwhile, Giving.sg hosts only approved non-profit organisations that are registered with the COC to ensure proper governance and accountability of all funds raised through the platform, said a spokesperson from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. All campaigns on the site are reviewed and verified by these registered charities before they are open for public donations. There is also a governance evaluation checklist to help charities and IPCs to check how far they have complied with the guidelines in the Code of Governance. Last year, a total of 330 fundraisers hosted 535 campaigns on Giving.sg.

‘DONOR BEWARE’

Not all experts were in favour of greater regulation. Mr Ralph Leonard, director of Hong Kong Foundation for Charities who has advised Singapore organisations on fundraising, argued that it would not be in the best interests of crowdfunding sites to host fundraisers with fraudulent intentions. He described crowdfunding as simply a form of public fundraising that uses online platforms and social media to reach a wider audience.

“If somebody is going to use crowdfunding to commit fraud, they would have done it anyhow and they would be sitting outside the MRT station with a tin and asking for donations … it would be the same thing,” he said.

Calling for self-regulation, Ms Samantha Lee, president of Conjunct Consulting, said that, when sites offer a verification process for fundraisers, donors will eventually realise certain sites are more credible and gravitate towards these sites. Ms Lee, whose company provides consultancy services for non-profit organisations, added that, while some people may be more comfortable with making donations via registered organisations, crowdfunding allows them to directly help beneficiaries. This comes with risks for donors and it is a conscious decision that they have to make, she noted.

Several successful campaigns have also been initiated on crowdfunding sites by individuals raising money for themselves or their loved ones. Some experts have raised concerns about what happens to the money after it has been successfully raised by the individuals — for instance, who would handle the money on behalf of a young beneficiary if his or her adult caregiver is no longer around.

Noting that some of these individuals could have been receiving financial assistance from the government’s Community Care Endowment Fund, Ms Usha Menon, executive chairman of Usha Menon Management Consultancy (Asia), asked: “Are they financially savvy to handle thousands out of the blue?”

Rather than regulating fundraisers, she suggested monitoring and educating the beneficiaries on how to manage the donations, especially in cases where the money raised exceeds the target.

Ultimately, it is up to donors to find out more information about the campaigns and decide if they want to donate, said Mr Leonard. They also ought to determine the standards of accountability they would like to see from their fundraisers, he added.

As to whether unregistered groups raising money on crowdfunding sites should be audited, Mr Leonard said it would depend on the amount they were raising. “If you are only raising a few hundred dollars … then an audit wouldn’t be necessary ... you’ll (use) up all the money raised just for the audit,” he noted.

Ms Lee noted that, even though donors might not be convinced of the credibility of the groups or individuals seeking donations, most of them would not mind bearing the risk of losing small sums of money, if there is a chance that it could help someone in need. But when it involves larger sums, such as in the thousands, donors would want to make sure the money is going to be used properly, she said.

Programme executive Nurul Nadiah Hashim, 30, is one of those who regularly donates to campaigns on crowdfunding sites.

She checks GoFundMe every few days for needy individuals or volunteer groups that she can donate to. She donates between S$150 and S$500 each time. She acknowledged the risk of people taking advantage of undiscerning donors, and noted that it is not always possible to verify the information given by the fundraisers. She goes with her “gut feeling” when deciding which campaigns to donate to, she said. “Usually my contributions will go to the needy. If I feel that this particular person or group, from what they describe, is a legit (cause), I will just go ahead and do my part to contribute,” she said.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of the story stated that crowdfunding platform Generosity charges a platform fee of 5 per cent of the funds raised. The site has clarified that it does not charge such a fee.  

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