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WE'VE all seen it before: the media spotlights a heartwrenching story, drawing attention to a worthy cause; a wave of support crests on stirred emotions . . . before fading away as interest dies down.
Corporates have the power to change this trend, says National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) CEO Melissa Kwee. After all, even though this sort of ad-hoc or reactive giving may help in the short run, it certainly isn't ideal.
"We read a sensational story once in a while, and people get emotional and react. But we don't actually put our heads together and think about what's the systemic solution that can actually be created. That's what we hope corporates can come to participate in - by bringing that rigour and discipline and problem-solving mindset to solve these kinds of issues," says Ms Kwee.
NVPC will launch its Company of Good programme this week - an initiative to make goodness the business of every organisation. By providing training and capability-building resources to companies, the centre hopes to empower firms to not only give, but give better.
The programme is targeted at all companies, regardless of their corporate giving history. As a first step, firms will take a short online quiz to understand their current giving profile. This will establish how they fare across four Is: investment, integration, institutionalisation, and impact.
A giving profile will then be generated to help companies learn about their strengths and areas for improvement. Firms can also see how they measure up against other companies, via a customised benchmarking report.
"There's no judgment about where anybody starts . . . The whole point is that you start," says Ms Kwee, who hopes to reach 1,000 companies within the next year.
Following the quiz, companies will have access to various resources including case studies, training workshops, and networking events. These will support firms' efforts to give more effectively.
As for the prickly topic of whether companies should expect to benefit from their corporate giving, Ms Kwee takes a practical approach. She says: "It's not wrong - in fact, it's preferable - if your giving can also be integrated with your business strategy."
She notes that corporate giving is necessarily different from individual giving, simply because a company's money is not one's own money. While individuals are free to give in the classical sense - where the right hand knows not what the left hand is doing - companies must find an alignment between what benefits the company, and what benefits society as well. After all, firms must answer to and create value for shareholders and stakeholders.
Ms Kwee gives the example of Unilever's handwashing campaign, which helped to educate Indian communities on the importance of proper handwashing - while simultaneously promoting its Lifebuoy soap. While the campaign boosted brand recognition and possibly sales for Unilever, it was also lauded for saving lives. According to data from the World Health Organization, every year diarrhoea accounts for one in 10 child deaths - many of which could be prevented with adequate sanitation.
"So you're doing good for the community, but at the same time you're also helping to extend and develop your own business. It's about achieving a balance between the two. That requires knowing the ground, and it requires empathy. It's about thinking of the customer and community's needs first," Ms Kwee emphasises.
In addition, part of the journey towards more effective corporate giving is broadening the attention given to "not-so-sexy" causes.
Notes Ms Kwee: "Everyone wants to do children in need, or the elderly, or disadvantaged families - which we know from our corporate giving survey are the top areas of focus. But then you have more niche causes, like the suicide hotline. And no one really wants to fund that. Why? Because they say: 'Aiyah, choi! Why you want to do this kind of thing?!'
"But the job of an advertising company is to basically sell ice to eskimos. (It may be) something you don't really need, but they're going to find a way so that you want to buy that. So could that same kind of creativity and imagination and insight actually be applied to help market and raise the public acceptability of 'less popular' causes? It's the same kind of thing."
She says one of her dream projects is a hypothetical tie-up between Uber and Grab - where both ride-booking apps collaborate to provide transport for the elderly and the disabled.
"How could we create an alliance between Uber and Grab, to bring on maybe a thousand more volunteer drivers? Could retirees, freelancers, or those who have flexible schedules join the group to say: 'Hey, I'm available to take the young man who's a disabled sportsman to his training practice? Or the uncle who needs to get the polyclinic? Or the dialysis patient?'," asks Ms Kwee.
Although she acknowledges that non-profit services like these already exist on a smaller scale, her dream is to see corporates join in to multiply the effect.
To spur more companies towards more engaged and impactful corporate giving, NVPC is pouring a size- able amount - about a third of its programming costs - to the Company of Good initiative. But Ms Kwee is realistic about the challenges ahead.
She says: "I think we have to start off with the assumption that this is a journey. It's not going to change overnight - this is a cultural shift in some ways too. So it's not like tomorrow we will see a massive transformation and results.
"We have to work with the coalition of the willing - who's willing, who's able, who's ready - to be part of this patient process."
READ MORE: Series on corporate giving