Inequality and Social Mobility
Investing in bold experiments to tackle social challenges

Innovation can help voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and social enterprises address perennial social problems. I witnessed this firsthand as co-leader of a team of volunteers at South Central Community Family Service Centre (FSC). The FSC used to be a place of need where beneficiaries collected cash hand-outs, often with a sense of shame. A series of innovative problems transformed it into a place of empowerment, where beneficiaries realised the value they have to offer to the community, and the support they could receive.

To give more organisations the space and freedom to experiment and innovate, people and corporations with resources should consider giving generously to support more social experiments.

The Success of Social Innovation

The transformation of the South Central Community FSC in the last two years has been amazing. Realising that current methods failed to address the problems of inter-generational poverty and social mobility, the FSC partnered with two social enterprises: The Thought Collective and Zeroth Lab, to experiment with new and sustainable solutions.

FSCs usually focus on service provision rather than research. However, the FSC team invested heavily in research, as they believed in understanding the problems faced from the perspectives of the beneficiaries.

Having gained deep insights on the complexity of problems faced, the FSC team discovered that solutions could only be sustainable if they came from the community. They envisioned gotong royong (community spirit) where everyone supported one another, and each received assistance with gratitude. Gratitude impels people to pay back and pay forward the help received, creating a ripple effect of giving that can sustain itself.

To build such a community, the team experimented with different ways of connecting beneficiaries with the residents of the area through the FSC. For example, it experimented with having social workers and volunteers go door-to-door to know the residents of the area, and to discover the “community butterflies” who were well-acquainted with and could bring in many other residents.

It also experimented with creating a register of skills and items that could be matched to lists of requests for these, so that the FSC could be of relevance to the larger community, the beneficiaries could offer their skills, and also benefit from the community’s wealth of resources.

Another area of experimentation was with the centre’s architecture. The opaque glass windows of counselling rooms were replaced with transparent glass. This removed the perception that there was shame in seeking help and that the identities of beneficiaries had to be hidden from the public.

The FSC further experimented with a different model of volunteer training that was non-obligatory and focused on honing emotional awareness. Not requiring trainees to volunteer meant that their numbers were depleted by the end of training. But those who remained formed a core of personally committed, emotionally-equipped volunteers who earned the beneficiaries’ trust.

Today, the South Central Community FSC is bustling with healthy and supportive interactions between beneficiaries and volunteers who live in the neighbourhood. There is a “Homework Café” that students can come to after school. There the older children have gained the confidence to guide the younger ones, and lead group activities. Senior residents and beneficiaries voluntarily come to the “Community Kitchen” to cook up meals for the children; and a group of beneficiaries and residents passionately look after the community garden, where herbs are grown. While family and financial problems have not disappeared overnight, beneficiaries now tap a deeper and sustainable pool of help and goodwill right at their doorstep.

How Private Giving Can Help

The process of experimentation is more likely in VWOs and social enterprises operating without the constraints that government agencies face. Since VWOs are non-profit in nature, and social enterprises pursue profits not as an ultimate goal but as part of a self-sustainable model, they require funding support to start new programmes.

Yet grants provided by the government are tied to conditions and codes of practices that are always necessary for public accountability but sometimes a constraint on risk-taking and experimentation.

This is where private giving can be an important corollary to social innovation. The FSC had a benefactor — an individual who had long involvement in the community; had grown to care for it deeply and who decided to invest generously. This gave the FSC the space it needed to explore, experiment and innovate, and discover the solutions that it has today.

Like the FSC, the best breed of civil society organisations are also moving away from service provision as their operating model, experimenting instead with a model of empowerment where people are taught to help themselves and each other. AWARE’s “We Can! Campaign” helps people to recognise and call out domestic violence. Lien Foundation’s StartWell initiative uses a crafts project to empower disadvantaged children under the “Superhero Me” banner. Former convict Benny Se Teo created the social enterprise chain “Eighteen Chefs” that offers employment to ex-convicts with the support of investors who believed in its cause.

Calling for more investment in social innovation

We need more individuals and corporations to invest generously in social innovation in these organisations. To make these investments happen, I have three recommendations to make to the social innovators, the potential ‘investors,’ and those who are familiar with both of these groups.

First, voluntary welfare organisations and social enterprises should use mainstream and social media to raise awareness of their successes of social innovation. Singaporeans are practical people; it is unlikely we would risk committing funds to a cause unless prior successes convince us of the worth of trying.

Second, individuals and corporations looking to invest in social innovation should focus on meeting a multitude of needs. Often social “investors” get caught up with how much the impact of social initiatives can be scalable. But I think that as long we can create a multitude of initiatives, each meeting the needs of different types of people at different times, we would have created the national impact we desire.

Third, those who are interested in social innovation can create “connector” organisations that bring social innovators and social investors together. Existing platforms do this job, such as the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network and raiSE Singapore, but there is scope to set up other platforms that allow Singaporeans of all financial backgrounds to contribute more easily to social innovation. As the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani said in a commentary in The Straits Times: “Many drops can create an ocean of giving.”

As a young Singaporean looking ahead to SG100, it is my wish that through these ways, the transformation I saw in the small family service centre will extend, in many myriad forms, to the rest of Singapore.

Lee Xian Min is a fourth-year student at the National University of Singapore and recently completed an internship at IPS.

Photo via Kampong Kapor FSC

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