Born to Protect: "Giving Back: Pro Bono Style"

By Debbie Reyes-Coloma

· Press,Conjunct
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Most young Singaporeans are preoccupied with finishing school, starting their careers and enjoying their social lives. Their minds are set on the means to enjoy a comfortable life. The idea of giving back to the community is farthest from their minds. But not for Jeremy Au and Kwok Jia Chuan.

Armed with high educational pedigrees and well-positioned to earn big bucks — Jia Chuan has a degree in Government & History from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Masters in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Jeremy earned simultaneous honours degrees in Economics and Business Administration from the University of California, Berkeley — they returned to Singapore, and discovered a relatively young but vibrant and growing social enterprise sector.

“When we came back, what we wanted was to use [the] skills we have learned to give something back to society,” says Jia Chuan. “As we went around we found that there was no organisation which fits this model [of] skills-based volunteerism, so we said… why not we set this up.”

Both at age 24, they co-founded Conjunct Consulting, Southeast Asia’s first non-profit that provides strategic guidance to Singapore’s non-profit organisations and social enterprises. What they charge: pro bono. That means no payment for professional services.

“We knew that there were challenges in Singapore,” chimes in Jeremy. “There’ll always be gaps in services, there will always be more that can be done.

“We also knew that a lot of the heroes now are actually the non-profits and social enterprises directly out there… fighting for these people day in and day out.”

The problems of the social sector are not easy to solve. Social enterprises are putting themselves at a very critical niche tackling the hard problems in society. Good intentions are just the start — what does it take to make these efforts sustainable and garner the support of the community and their stakeholders?

“What we do is we assist them and other partners in three things: expertise, perspective and capacity,” says Jeremy.

Conjunct makes it possible for the social sector to maximize its impact and achieve its intended mission, providing resources and knowledge that may be inaccessible to ordinary organisations.

Jeremy continues: “We are able to benchmark international organisations and enterprises as well as a system comparing themselves and bringing in perspectives from local experts and other social enterprises.”

Since its establishment in 2011, Conjunct has rendered pro bono work for 62 projects, and an estimated 35-40 more projects this year. A typical project takes about 600-700 man-hours to complete.

Each semester-long (about 10-12 weeks) pro bono consulting project is valued at around S$25,000. In 2014 alone, Conjunct created over S$1 million in pro bono value, reporting a 96% partner satisfaction rating.

Haven for abused teenagers

One of Conjuct’s success stories is DaySpring Residential Treatment Centre and Transition Home (DaySpring RTC), a safe haven for abused teenage girls, ages 12-16.

Resembling a residential abode with a homey ambience, DaySpring RTC provides a caring and structured environment to help bring hope and healing to adolescent girls who are victims of physical, sexual, physical neglect and/or emotional abuse.

Established in 2006 to help battered women, founder Alice Heng believed that an empowered woman would empower others. She wanted to provide an accessible place where they could take refuge and start healing from their traumatic experiences. DaySpring RTC has since evolved into what it is today, focusing on troubled teenage girls.

When DaySpring RTC started a counselling centre in 2007, it was working mainly with ex-offenders and women in prison.

“As we counselled women in prison we realised that they were abused when they were much younger,” says Adelene Wee, Director of Partnerships at DaySpring. “So we thought if we had early intervention we will, hopefully, be able to stop the cycle of women being in prison.”

The first social service of its kind in Singapore dedicated to battered adolescent girls, DaySpring RTC started to take in a maximum of 12 girls in 2011. At present, they are currently supporting 22 girls.

The girls are engaged in a treatment programme for 12-18 months. A six-month after-care transition programme follows.

The main purpose of the residential programme is to provide clinical assistance to help the girls to manage, if not recover from, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and issues.

The transition programme then prepares residents to be equipped when they reunite with their families and/or adjust to independent living. The centre provides this transition to a maximum of six graduates.

“As the years went by we increasingly saw that we had more girls but it was harder to get funding,” says Adelene, adding that DaySpring needs S$1 million a year to operate. It costs on average S$4,000 a month to cover the cost of one girl’s stay which includes providing free shelter, food, schooling and continual clinical counselling and therapies.

With the increasing number of teen residents, DaySpring needed a long-term plan to sustain the good work it does.

DaySpring approached Conjunct in late 2013. Prior to Conjunct coming on board, DaySpring didn’t have a pool of corporate supporters. Their funding primarily came from private donors, foundations or government or trust grants, which was sufficient.

In a span of only three months, Conjunct got to learn about the DaySpring organisation and its sector, identified potential corporations that they could link up with, and developed both short-term and long-term strategic plans to help steer DaySpring toward financial sustainability.

“We implemented the plan in April 2014, and in the first two to five months we [had] three corporations on board, from zero,” beams Adelene. “It was very thorough. Conjunct gave me everything – lock, stock and barrel – I could take home.”

In 2013, DaySpring raised about S$500,000, mostly from private individuals. After implementing Conjunct’s strategic plan and working on other partnerships, they raised close to S$1 million to meet the needs of 2014.

“It is pro bono work,” says a visibly appreciative Adelene. “Every area was covered… we were really satisfied. It was something that we could take. It was tangible. It was something that we could see fruit and deliver.”

Call to action

The Singapore National Stroke Association (SNSA) was formed by the very people it serves: Stroke survivors and caregivers. They provide help, support and information to stroke survivors and caregivers, with guidance from doctors and other healthcare professionals.

SNSA depends fully on the generosity of individual and corporate donors for financial support. The organisation also works to raise awareness and education on strokes, as well as forging alignments with both relevant government agencies and the private sector.

“There was a call from NCSS (National Council of Social Service) regarding Conjunct’s offer for help. We responded and had some initial discussion,” says Dr Deidre Anne De Silva, president of SNSA, who was aware of Conjunct’s past successes, skills and enthusiasm.

The call came in late April 2014. SNSA needed to find a way to increase the effectiveness of its befriending program, which was SNSA’s support system for stroke patients.

Conjunct did the homework: they gathered information from extensively talking to SNSA’s executive committee members, volunteers, beneficiaries and other agencies with similar programmes, as well as closely observing sessions and researching on the matter.

“Conjunct was very consultative,” says Dr De Silva. “They listened to our feedback throughout and adapted accordingly so the final suggestions were very much in line with SNSA and the project objectives.

“In fact, some of their suggestions were so good that we adopted them very quickly. For example, they suggested t-shirts to build camaraderie and a co-creation workshop to achieve alignment. We held a co-creation workshop within a month and gave out t-shirts at the session!” she adds.

Though Dr De Silva knows it’s “probably a little premature to have data to support impact” at this time, SNSA looks forward to working with Conjunct on future initiatives. “The subjective feedback to the tools and strategies from Conjunct has been very good.”

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Charting out the future


Three years after it was founded, Conjunct received a Commendation award in the Youth category of the 2013 President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award. Today, they have 200 active volunteers, comprising 50% working professionals and 50% university students.


Leveraging on the talent and skills of these two groups, it is able to tailor strategic plans that are not only dynamic and creative, but also integrate all-inclusive business disciplines.


“The key challenge is really about charting out the future for the best way to maximise both social impact and financial sustainability,” says Jia Chuan.


“Without fail a lot of the social enterprises have been very focused on social impact and financial sustainability and what we do is basically to make that clearer and help chart out that path.”

Charting out the future

Three years after it was founded, Conjunct received a Commendation award in the Youth category of the 2013 President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Award. Today, they have 200 active volunteers, comprising 50% working professionals and 50% university students.

Leveraging on the talent and skills of these two groups, it is able to tailor strategic plans that are not only dynamic and creative, but also integrate all-inclusive business disciplines.

This article originally appeared on Born to Protect: Ideas in Action.