Today Singapore: " 'Growing wave of empathy' for the larger community"

By Emily Liu

· Press,Conjunct
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Conjunct Consulting connects people, companies and social organisations using volunteers, the Internet and kaya toast.

SINGAPORE — There is a recurring theme behind the success of Conjunct Consulting, the first pro-bono consulting firm in Asia for non-profit organisations and social enterprises: Kaya toast and coffee.

Its co-founders, Mr Kwok Jia Chuan and Mr Jeremy Au, who are both 25, are kaya toast aficionados who would have opened coffee shops together as an alternative business.

Conjunct was set up over countless meetings between the pair over kaya toast and coffee. And to welcome volunteers, they serve (what else) kaya toast and coffee made by the company’s executive committee members themselves.

However, it was because of poetry — their interest as teenagers — that their paths crossed about a decade ago. They met at a creative arts camp in secondary school and have kept in touch since. “We were teenagers, and we wrote poetry,” Mr Au recalls. The pair also found that they were bunkmates during Basic Military Training.

Looking back, they say it was their shared sense of community and the belief in “being real” that formed the basis of their friendship and, later, business partnership.

“From day one, we were concerned about what people are going through, about being real with each other, being real about the community,” says Mr Au, who is with an international consultancy firm.

The inspiration for Conjunct can be traced back to his undergraduate days at the University of California, Berkeley. Then, he led The Berkeley Group, a student organisation providing pro-bono consulting services for non-profit organisations in the United States.

In 2011, the pair mulled over finding a suitable avenue to apply their skills and passion in serving the community. They met several times over kaya toast and coffee to talk about this.

“When we couldn’t find the volunteering opportunity that we wanted, we decided to make one,” says Mr Kwok, who is also a civil servant.

This month marks the second anniversary of their social enterprise. The report card looks impressive: Conjunct has successfully worked on 23 projects with a variety of 19 non-profit organisations — from a three-man start-up to a 200-strong group — in various sectors.

Social media and the Internet have been instrumental to Conjunct’s operations. Without a brick-and-mortar office and by using technology, it is able to operate at much lower costs compared to similar outfits in other countries, Mr Au said.

Volunteers and partners also spread the word about the firm via social media and word of mouth. After all, they call themselves “connectors” — bringing individuals, corporate and social organisations together to share ideas and collaborate — and what better way to do so than through social media.

Conjunct pools together teams of volunteers — including university students and working professionals — and matches them to non-profit organisations based on their skills and interests. An integral part of its mission is volunteer training. “We must be the only place that trains people before selecting them,” Mr Au says.

Volunteer satisfaction scores are treated as seriously as client satisfaction and the “social impact” of its work (which is tracked through statistics for two years after the completion of each project cycle).

Currently, Conjunct has a total of 200 volunteers. Its executive committee comprises 16 members who are doing it pro bono. The only paid employee works part-time on technical support. Mr Kwok is the Chairman of a six-member board which oversees the executive committee headed by Mr Au as its President.

Conjunct was awarded the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre’s New Initiative Grant last year. It covers the overheads via the money from the grant, donations and participant training fees. As the firm grows, it hopes to forge corporate partnerships.

For a social enterprise that preaches sustainability, the co-founders are confident about Conjunct’s long-term viability. The key, they say, lies in ensuring “quality” — delivering quality service to its partners and giving volunteers a quality experience.

They concede that potential partners and volunteers were initially skeptical about the company’s work, especially since its consultants are all student volunteers.

“We told them: The proof is in the pudding, let us show you what we can do, because we are confident that our volunteers don’t just have the heart, but also the skills to deliver results,” Mr Kwok says.

Mr Au and Mr Kwok believe Singapore’s social sector is experiencing a “new phase of growth”.

“There is a growing wave of empathy for the community, a growing sense that all of us have the ability to act and the capability to make a difference,” says Mr Au, who attributes the phenomenon partly to the digital revolution which has allowed problems faced by some in Singapore to surface quickly.

Singaporeans have many great ideas and lots of “pent-up energy” that need a constructive avenue, the co-founders say.

Even so, they stress that blindly pouring more resources into the social service sector is not the best solution.

With many non-profit organisations adopting a case management approach — where assistance is customised to the individual — a problem “becomes exponentially more difficult as the solution has to be effective on multiple aspects of the beneficiary’s life”, Mr Au says.

Three things they hope to change in Singapore:

  1. More chances for passionate Singaporeans to volunteer
  2. Greater collaboration between individuals, organisations and across sectors
  3. Stronger focus on social impact for social enterprise

This article originally appeared on Today Singapore.