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MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Closing the skills gap in social organisations

Social enterprise Empact links corporate volunteers with non-profits on a pro-bono or low-cost basis

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Empact founder Peter Yang says the skills shortages faced by social enterprises and non-profits prevent them from scaling up and serving more people.

Singapore

SOCIAL enterprise Empact was founded in 2011, with the aim of solving the skills and talent shortages in the business functions of non-profits and social enterprises.

Its founder and managing director Peter Yang identifies this as a key problem facing such organisations; it is what hamstrings them from scaling up and reaching out to serve more beneficiaries.

Social organisations face challenges on two fronts, he said: "Firstly, when donors give money to social organisations, they understandably request that their money goes directly to beneficiaries. They often do not like the idea of funding overheads.

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"But the problem is that it makes it difficult for charities to fulfil their corporate functions - whether in finance, human resources, or marketing - as they are unable to attract and retain talent.

"Social organisations therefore have an unmet demand for these critical services.

"Secondly, there are also professionals who do not know which organisations need help and how best to use their skill sets to help them ...

"If we could tap into just one per cent or five per cent of the talent in the commercial sector and apply it appropriately to social organisations, I think that they can really flourish."

This is where Empact comes in. It strives to match volunteers' skill sets to where they are needed most. It does this by curating partnerships with volunteers - both corporates and individuals - and gives them a channel to offer their skills and talents to non-profit organisations and social enterprises, on either a pro-bono or low-cost basis.

Empact also helps social organisations with the outsourcing of basic operations like human resources, payroll management, and accounting.

But the problem, said Mr Yang, is that these social organisations cannot afford to pay the market rate for these basic functions, which are critical for these charities' day-to-day activities.

To resolve this, Empact digs into its network of volunteers - both corporates and individuals - and matches them with social enterprises and non-profits which are lacking particular types of commercial services.

It is able to offer commercial services to non-profits and social enterprises at a cost lower than the market rate because it leverages the pro-bono efforts of these volunteers.

In its seven-year history, Empact says, it has supported 350 organisations and developed more than 4,000 volunteers, and generated cost savings surpassing S$5 million for the non-profit sector.

It operates on a team of 15 staff.

Empact's services fall into three areas:

  • Handling corporates' outsourcing of their volunteer operations to it;
  • Advising these corporates on how best they can apply their skills and expertise to volunteer with social organisations;
  • Linking its partner social organisations to corporate volunteers efficiently, based on the skills gaps have been identified.

Both corporates and social organisations pay a fee to Empact to leverage its network.

Mr Yang said: "In a sense, it is a win for everyone involved. The charities pay less than the market rate for the critical services they need; individuals and corporates who volunteer with us get the volunteering experience that fulfils their purpose; and we are able to financially sustain ourselves."

Empact developed a programme called Pro Bono School, which brings together corporates such as Procter & Gamble, Visa, and Credit Suisse to impart business skills like marketing and accounting, to social organisations over a series of training sessions. In other words, corporates use their in-house training programmes to train non-profits.

Alternatively, corporates might also volunteer small teams of professionals to tackle a specific problem or project requested by a non-profit firm.

Asked about the challenges he has faced, Mr Yang admitted that one lay in the initial resistence by some corporates to pay a fee to volunteer.

"Initially some firms asked: 'Why should I pay when it is I who is giving my time and effort volunteering?'

"But over time, when these firms saw the value proposition that Empact could bring to their corporate volunteering efforts, they became much more receptive to us."

On Empact's business position and long-term financial sustainability, he said that it does not rely on government grants or external funding to sustain most of its operations, and that more than 95 per cent of its business costs are covered by its current revenue stream.

Empact is looking into taking its work regional. It aims to serve 2,500 social organisations in the region by 2020, a 10-fold increase from its 250 organisations served as recently as 2016.

Mr Yang expressed hope that more corporates and social organisations will join the skills-based volunteering movement, and wants to take Empact to other markets like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

  • This article is part of a biweekly series highlighting Social Enterprises in Singapore.
  • Social enterprises provide business solutions to address unmet and emerging social needs and gaps. Visit www.raise.sg to learn more about these socially impactful companies.