Business Times: "Corporate Social Responsibility Breaks Out Of Its Straitjacket"

By Audrey Tan

· Press,Conjunct
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[SINGAPORE] Young businesses are looking to give back to society, and they are exploring new ways to do so as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR).

A spokesman from the National Volunteer and Philanthrophy Centre (NVPC) said that CSR efforts are gaining momentum here, with a "six-fold increase" in the number of companies approaching the for help in structuring volunteering opportunities since April last year.

However, while many businesses support the elderly or children's charities, CSR efforts that help animals or other voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) are seldom heard of.

Speaking at a U@live conference at the National University of Singapore, executive director of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) Louis Ng said that most companies may opt to do so to please shareholders, who may be less supportive of animal welfare compared to human beneficiaries.

However, there are still some who choose to deviate from this norm.

According to Associate Professor of Sociology Tan Ern Ser, this can be attributed to "the more highly educated population", which could lead to "broader definitions of social inclusion to incorporate larger categories of those without power or voice".

Jason Ong, 42-year-old owner of Torte on Waterloo Street, is an entrepreneur who helps animals as part of the cafe's CSR efforts.

Since its opening in May last year, Torte is a social enterprise that supports battered women and ex-convicts. It later included animal welfare to its list in October.

Mr Ong and his partner Kevin Neo, 36, started organising adoption drives at least once every two months for stray dogs. Successful adopters receive dinner vouchers of about $30 from the cafe.

"I have loved animals all my life, and it's sad to see so many strays here. Singapore should employ the trap-neuter-release scheme to reduce the stray population," said Mr Ong, who has three dogs, all rescues.

These adoption drives usually see between one and seven dogs finding homes, out of 15.

Tortewould also be sponsoring finger food for an animal welfare symposium organised by NUS Peace, an animal welfare organisation in the university in August. 

At Yoga Movement, owner Alicia Pan is doing her part for the animals too. Since opening her studio in May, the 27-year-old yoga enthusiast is donating part of the earnings from her weekend "Monster Hot" classes to Acres. 

Ms Pan declined to reveal the actual percentage donated, but said she would "definitely donate more once business picks up". Recently, Yoga Movement also offered up a yoga class coupon to Acres for auction at their gala dinner, which fetched a bid of $500. 

"Animal charities could definitely use the attention, especially since other charities are being sponsored by many other firms," Ms Pan said. 

So what can emerging sectors do to attract new volunteers and donors?

Laurence Lien, CEO of NVPC, said: "Large charities have more resources to market themselves and still have an edge over smaller, lesser known charities in reaching out to donors."

"The challenge then is for lesser known charities to market their causes and market themselves to gain more volunteer and donor support."

Another form of CSR gaining momentum here are firms that help other VWOs instead of the beneficiaries directly.

Start Now, an online volunteerism advocacy and Conjunct Consulting, a pro-bono consultancy firm, are two such examples.

Start Now is a social enterprise that matches volunteers to VWOs on their online platform, which is free for individuals and VWOs. Since its launch in February, the site has 120 listed VWOs, and about 5,600 active members. Founders Keith Tan and Ivan Chang, both 23, hope to raise volunteerism levels in Singapore from the current 11 per cent of the population to 40 per cent, although they admitted that this is a challenging task. As a winner of the Social Enterprise category at the 13th Start-Up@Singapore competition for emerging entrepreneurs Start Now is hoping to launch its second phase of operations by July this year that would reach out to school and firms.

For a monthly fee from $99, Start Now would help companies and schools consolidate a database of Community Involvement Programme (CIP) or CSR hours done by their staff or students. The social enterprise also hopes to make the volunteering experience more meaningful for matching the individual to VWOs of his or her interest. 

"Instead of 40 people going on a flag day, they are now each able to choose a volunteering experience they can identify with, and hopefully continue volunteering in their own time," explained Mr Tan.

Conjunct Consulting is a non-profit organisation that gives pro-bono consulting services to VWOs and social enterprises. It was founded in August last year by Kwok Jia Chuan and Jeremy Au, both 25. 

Comprising a team of over 100 tertiary students and 40 professionals with backgrounds in finance and consulting, Conjunct Consulting has helped about four charities from the social services sector by providing strategic guidance. 

Professionals and students that volunteer with Conjunct Consulting are matched to a VWO depending on the skill set required for a particular project.

"If a social enterprise approaches, we would send a team with business or finance background," Mr Kwok explained.

So why help VWOs instad of the beneficiaries directly?

Mr Kwok said: "By applying the skill sets of the professionals we have on board to the social sector, we're able to ensure that we are giving maximum social impact."

Mr Tan agreed.

"In Singapore, we see many VWOs serving the same sector. Instead of duplicating their work by setting up another VWO, we decided to help raise volunteerism levels instead," he said.

"For example, a CEO might help more by volunteering his expertise to a VWO instead of helping to clean an area."

But no matter the beneficiary - human or animal - the rise of new platforms that give back to society is heartening.

Said Mr Lien: "The key issue is that there are many needs in Singapore, and if everyone can contribute toward their community, many more can be helped.'

This article originally appeared in Business Times.