Straits Times: "Putting Heart And Mind Into Advising Charities"

By Priscilla Goy

· Conjunct
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He wanted to be a vaccine researcher, while his then girlfriend hoped to be a doctor. Both liked healthcare and wanted to give back to society.

But after barely half a year of dating in junior college, in 2004, the health of Mr Jeremy Au's girlfriend suddenly took a turn for the worse and she died. The cause is still unknown.

Devastated, Mr Au skipped school and his grades suffered. For his A levels, the former Raffles Junior College student gots Bs and Cs, except for an A in economics. But having friends who helped him cope with the grief and getting counselling allowed him to better appreciate the work of the social service sector.

That played a part in Mr Au's decision to co-found a consultancy service for charities in 2011 - a first in South-east Asia - when he was just 24.

Conjunct Consulting offers strategies "with a heart" to charities, or advice in areas such as operations management and financial sustainability, free.It has over 200 volunteers - half of them are undergraduates, while the rest are professionals. It has since completed 84 consulting projects, valued at over $2.1 million, for more than 60 charities and social enterprises.

Its sources of funding include donations, a $100,000 grant from the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, and membership and training fees. It has 3 paid full-time staff, including Mr Au.

"People have 'given back to me' and I wanted to give back too," Mr Au, now 27 told The Straits Times last month. "I also wanted to contribute significantly. And I decided that in order to do that, I had to study."

At the University of California, Berkeley, the economics and business administration student joined The Berkeley Group, a student group which offered consulting services to non-profit groups in the United States.

Mr Au returned to Singapore during a summer break for an internship, and hoped to find an outfit like The Berkeley Group. "There wasn't a similar organisation here for people like Jia Chuan and I, who wanted to give back our skill sets," he said, referring to his army buddy Kwok Jia Chuan. "So we thought, 'Why not set it up on our own?"

He and Mr Kwok co-founded Conjunct, which was officially launched in August 2011, months before Mr Au graduated. This meant Mr Au initially trained volunteers via Skype, despite a time difference of 15 hours. The older of 2 children had the support of his father, an executive in the hospitality industry and his mother, a housewife, for his charity venture.

But others were sceptical. "Some said 'It is not going to work. Singaporeans don't care. Don't you know about this scandal at Charity X?' But we should not let one section spoil every for everyone else, right?"

He tried to find people who believed in the same cause to work on improving the charities' performance and managed to persuade those initially reluctant to join.

In just four years, Conjunct has grown and carved out a good track record. From 19 projects in the 2013 financial year, it now has 36 projects in the financial year ending 2015. Almost all the help groups were satisfied with the consulting work from Conjunct, and all said they would recommend it to others, going by feedback surveys. Some have decided to engage it again for more projects.

One example of a successful consulting project is that for DaySpring Residential Treatment Center, which helps abused teenage girls. When DaySpring approached Conjunct in 2013, it needed more funds as it was admitting more girls, but had no corporate donors.

Within half a year of implementing Conjunct's financial sustainability plan, it had three corporate supporters. Last year, it also raised more funds: almost $1 million, which was twice the amount collected in 2013.

While Mr Au's "office" was in a Starbucks cafe and then a company's pantry area in the early days, it is now run out of The Hub Singapore in Somerset.

Mr Au also used to juggle Conjunct with a full-time job as an associate consultant as consulting firm Bain & Company, before he quit in 2013 to focus on Conjunct. He was not paid at Conjunct at first, but now draws a salary.

On Saturday, he will step down as Conjunct's president to pursue a Master of Business Administration course at Harvard Business School, but will still serve on the board of directors. He will hand over Conjunct, which was registered as a charity last year, to Ms Samantha Lee, a former assistant director at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Mr Kwok, 27, who chairs the board of directors, said of Mr Au: "He also built a strong culture of teamwork and development to ensure that each individual has a positive experience through volunteering."

Ms Adelene Wee, director of partnerships at DaySpring, said Mr Au is "unassuming and modest about the good he has done." She added: "Others who have his youth, talents and gifts would have thought twice about starting a group like Conjunct. His heart, passion and purpose to see welfare groups be more professional are indeed noble."

Mr Au, who is glad to have helped non-profit partners as well as volunteers, said of Conjunct's growth. "It is beyond my wildest dreams, my wildest forecasts."