The Business Times - Covid-19 - lessons for the social services sector

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 Business Times - COMMENTARY May 14 2020

Covid-19 - lessons for the social services sector

Paul Heng

EVERY one is facing the current pandemic challenges for the first time in their lives. There is no template to follow, no prior experience to draw upon on how non-profit organisations (NPOs) should, and can, respond.

It's heartening to note that some S$350 million has been set aside in Budget 2020 to support the social services sector in building up their capabilities and capacities. But, as a volunteer with the Alzheimer's Disease Association (ADA), I often think about other scenarios that may arise. What if the government is unable to continue funding NPOs at the level that they would like to? What if some of our long standing sponsors have to pull back their support as their own businesses are adversely impacted? Or, if they decide to shift their focus to other sectors of need? If we cease operations, who will our beneficiaries - people with dementia - turn to?

These thoughts can't be very different from those of leaders in the more than 480 NPOs in Singapore. It can be quite worrying, and can easily put the leadership teams managing NPOs under duress and panic.

In the case of ADA, more than half of our annual operating budget of S$10 million is funded by state-related agencies, such as the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC). This is no paltry sum. ADA will also benefit from other Budget 2020 measures such as the Jobs Support Scheme and property tax rebate, which has to be passed on to tenants.

Zero income

However, the credit column on ADA's accounting sheets has taken a hit. We have zero income as our centre services had to be closed. Although it is not a huge sum of money as many of our clients' fees are subsidised due to their family income levels, it is still income.

Some of ADA's long-time supporters, such as the Lien Foundation has proactively reached out to us with generous financial support to help us tide over the challenging times. There is always the temptation to ask for more - but we need to ask ourselves if we ought to be helping ourselves first?

A recent episode comes to mind. When ADA had to close all our centres due to circuit breaker measures, my colleagues put on their thinking caps and decided to take the support for dementia patients and their caregivers to their homes. Activities that were hitherto done at the centres were packaged and delivered to the homes of our clients. These could be colouring assignments, handicraft projects or games. They created videos of exercises which could be watched from home, accompanied by songs that the clients could easily identify with.

Our fund raising team also got together quickly and began raising money to buy NTUC and transport vouchers for our clients and their families who were financially affected. We received quite a few praises from caregivers representing the family members they support.

I'm sure many NPOs have also done things differently in these unprecedented times. It would be good if we can have a platform to exchange notes, share experiences and come up with some best practices that the entire sector can learn from. Many times, we are so used to focusing internally (not entirely wrong), that we forgot that we exist for the same objective - making a difference to others in our community.

The world has already started to look different since the early months of 2020. Not unlike businesses, NPOs will have to re-examine their operating model. Government organisations, too, may want to examine how they can support the social services sector - besides writing us a cheque. It will be a long and interesting journey ahead for us.

·        Paul Heng is a volunteer board member of ADA ( He is an executive coach by profession.

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