Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the Singapore Volunteer Management Conference on 11 April 2023.
Speaker Tan Chuan-Jin and Parliamentary Colleagues,
President, and CEO of the National Council of Social Service, Ms Anita Fam and Ms Tan Li San,
Chairman & President of SUSS Mrs Mildred Tan, Prof Tan Tai Yong
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to join all of you today at this inaugural Singapore Volunteer Management Conference. And it is of course, very good to see so many representatives from our non-profit organisations, community groups, and corporate partners, all gathered here to discuss this very important topic of volunteerism.
All of us have seen and experienced volunteerism in action over the last 3 years as we tackled the COVID-19 pandemic together. We saw a tremendous outpouring of support from Singaporeans from all walks of life. Many stepped up to distribute masks and other essentials; to operate our crisis helplines; to engage and look after our vulnerable seniors amongst other things. Many community groups and organisations, all of you here, helped to organise the volunteers, ensuring that key social services could continue without interruption. Companies leaned forward too, and volunteered your resources and expertise to help those in need. So I want to start this morning by thanking all of you – our non-profit organisations, community and corporate partners, and your volunteers – for your contributions, your hard work that has enabled us to find our way through this pandemic. Thank you very much.
Importance of Volunteerism
COVID has shown us that we are stronger when we stand together. And that is why as a society, we want to be a Singapore where people feel a deep sense of responsibility for one another, and we actively volunteer our time to support one another. We want to be a nation of volunteers.
Volunteering has a profound effect on our lives. When we volunteer and serve, we meet people in circumstances that are different from our own; we develop greater empathy and we learn what it means to walk in the shoes of others. In the process, we develop a stronger sense of duty and responsibility for our fellow citizens. And this binds us. This makes us a community.
Volunteering is good for us in other ways too. It gives us a greater sense of purpose and meaning, expands our social networks and helps to build a wider network of connections and friendships. And that is why around the world, people who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives, and they generally report better mental health and overall well-being. Essentially, people who volunteer are also people who are happier. So I dare say if we were to do a poll in this room, a poll of all of you volunteers and people who are passionate about the cause of volunteering, the happiness index in this room ought to be quite high. Certainly, it ought to be higher than the national average.
We have been working hard over the years to promote volunteerism in Singapore. We’ve been through some ups and downs in this journey. 20 years ago, less than 10% of Singaporeans – according to the surveys – volunteered. Less than 10%, 20 years ago. And then over the years, volunteerism rates went up; it reached a high of 35% in 2016. Unfortunately it has since come down to 22% – we think it’s partly due to the pandemic, because many schools and organisations had to hold back their activities due to COVID restrictions, so we hope this decline is temporary.
But notwithstanding the recent decline, if we look at it from the broader perspective on the whole, we are not doing too badly – our volunteerism rate today at 22% is still more than double the rate 20 years ago, and it is broadly comparable to the average rate amongst OECD countries. That gives us some comfort but clearly there is scope for us to do better.
In fact, in our surveys, more than half of Singaporeans said they want to volunteer to help their fellow citizens. So the desire to volunteer is there, but when we asked if you want to volunteer then why haven’t you stepped forward, people will give a range of reasons. Some say they have yet to find the right organisations and volunteer opportunities which appeal to them. Many say they do not have enough time. Time is often cited, and it is understandable; they worry about how they can juggle volunteer commitments together with their family and work obligations. And then a few do say, when they volunteer, they find that the experience falls short of their expectations. They may feel ill-prepared or they find it difficult to see how their volunteering work helps to make a difference. So they end up feeling discouraged, and they give up.
These are all missed opportunities. All of these, whatever the reasons, are missed opportunities.
After all, if everyone in the survey who says they are prepared to volunteer actually does so, then our volunteerism rate really should be around 50% rather than the current 20%. Imagine what that means – we will double the number of volunteers serving and contributing to causes that they care about, and we will all be able to reach out to many more beneficiaries all over Singapore.
Growing and Sustaining Volunteerism in Singapore
So today’s conference really is an opportunity for us to reflect on these findings, on the current state of volunteerism in Singapore, and to ask ourselves, all of us: how can we grow and sustain volunteerism in Singapore. Recognising its importance, how can we grow and sustain volunteerism in Singapore together. Let me suggest some ideas this morning to kick-start our deliberations.
First, the Government will continue to do our part to encourage and galvanise Singaporeans to volunteer, by motivating them to step forward and matching them to the relevant organisations and community groups. We have already initiated several efforts in recent years. For example we have the SG Cares App – you can download on your phone, check out the app. It allows you to easily find organisations and causes that are aligned to your interests and you can express an interest to volunteer, we will match you to the relevant organisation. We also established SG Cares Volunteer Centres in every town, to help mobilise and train volunteers to meet the local needs within their own community.
And we will continue to do more to grow the supply of volunteers across all ages. We are actively doing this in schools to instil a culture of giving in our students. We have the Youth Corps now, for our youths to undertake projects locally and abroad, and have the opportunities to develop and grow as youth leaders. And we are trying to draw in more working adults as well as volunteers. Those in their 20s and 30s are typically a more challenging demographic, because these are people who are at an important life stage with many preoccupations – they are establishing their careers, they are starting families. But many of them would have experience volunteering in schools, and we want them to continue when they start work.
So from the Government’s part, we will go all out to activate and bring in more volunteers among Singaporeans. But we have found that these efforts alone are not enough.
And that brings me to my second point: which is that to grow and sustain volunteerism, we must also improve how we engage and retain our volunteers. In short, we need to strengthen volunteer management.
What does this mean in practice? It means that our community organisations, our non-profit organisations which are receptacles for many volunteers – all of us – need to engage our volunteers regularly, so that they feel appreciated and recognised. It sounds like a very straightforward matter. All of us say we will do this; who does not want to do volunteer management? But it really takes effort and commitment, especially on the part of the leadership of the organisation. Because you have to invest in the development and growth of your volunteers. You have to help them discern how their contributions are part of a larger purpose. At a practical level, you have to carefully identify and design meaningful volunteer roles for them, and provide volunteers with support and training so that they are equipped to serve. Because at the end of the day, if volunteers feel like they are being used just to fill up empty slots or to plug certain organisational needs, they will not be motivated, they will not be inspired and they are less likely to continue serving.
But if done properly, good volunteer management practices can have an outsized impact on the effectiveness and scale of our social and community efforts. In fact, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) has found that social service agencies which focus on strengthening their volunteer practices, for example, by hiring a full-time volunteer manager or putting in place a volunteer management system, will see a significant increase in regular volunteers. These agencies, in turn, are able to scale up and serve many more beneficiaries.
These benefits apply whether you are a large non-profit, or a small outfit. It does not matter. Take for example, Catholic Welfare Services, which runs many services from nursing homes to training centres for the intellectually-challenged. They were able to more than double their pool of regular volunteers after they invested in a centralised volunteer management system to better engage their volunteers. Or another example KampungKakis, which is a ground-up initiative which matches volunteers with isolated and frail seniors, they employed one full-time staff to manage 1,000 active volunteers, and they are able to do so not just with one staff, but because they are also tapping on their volunteers to take on leadership roles.
So this investment in volunteer management may seem like a cost to many non-profits and you are already struggling with a lot of overheads and costs, you say “maybe this is something I can save”. But in fact, it is an investment that will benefit the organisation in the longer term. And volunteer management is something not just for non-profits or community groups, it applies to companies too, as part of their overall staff engagements and investments in their people. And that is why we are very happy to have many corporate partners taking part in today’s conference. You saw representatives from Keppel, SingTel, Standard Chartered and Citi Singapore. Citi for example, has been encouraging its staff to volunteer with YMCA and the Halogen Foundation over the years. And to do this effectively, the company tracks and proactively shares with its staff the impact of their contributions, so that the staff feel meaningfully engaged in these activities.
In other words, all organisations can adopt good volunteer management practices. And the Government will do more to support you in this. Through its Volunteer Resource Hub, NCSS will provide toolkits to help you identify your strengths and gaps in volunteer management, and recommendations for your organisation to level up. The SG Cares Volunteer Centres in partnership with NCSS will also provide you with training on how to recruit, engage, and retain volunteers more effectively, and link you up with other partners that can enhance your capabilities.
Finally, we will also create more platforms for organisations and groups to share your experiences and best practices in this area, so that we can all learn from each other.
Because no single organisation or agency will have all the answers, or a monopoly of wisdom. Sometimes you may have a good solution and it works very well. On other occasions you may try something new, and you find that it does not work. So no one gets it right all the time. But the key is for us to learn – both from the success stories and the failures – so that we can shorten the learning curve, and keep on doing better. All of us. And that is why we have platforms like the SG Cares Community Networks and the NCSS’ Volunteer Management Network — networks to build communities of sharing. We have also set up a core group of Volunteer Management Champions. These are experienced practitioners in their respective organisations and they will help to share their experiences with others. And of course through events like this inaugural conference, we will continue to bring together all partners and stakeholders to collaborate and learn from one another.
Volunteerism and our Social Compact
These are just some of the ways the Government can and will work with the people and private sectors to grow volunteerism in Singapore.
We are fully committed to this work, because volunteerism is a crucial aspect of nation building. Volunteerism is not just something we do as individuals when we have spare time. It is fundamentally a reflection of who we are as a people, who we want to be; and the kind of society we want to have in Singapore.
We are now in the midst of the Forward Singapore exercise – some of you may have heard of this – it is a review, an exercise to refresh our social compact for Singapore’s next bound of development. And to me, this refreshed compact is not just about the Government updating its policies and doing more to strengthen social support. We will do that. But it is also, importantly, about our responsibilities and obligations as citizens – to look out for one another, to serve a larger purpose beyond ourselves; and to get involved in building a better society.
Singapore is by no means perfect and there are flaws. But it is up to us to fix the flaws and make it better. Who else will do it if it is not us? If we do not bother to fix the flaws, or if we all take the attitude that someone else will do it, who is that someone else, pray tell? If we take that attitude then nothing will change, and things will not get better. And so in the end, it is this spirit of contribution and giving that is so crucial in taking our nation forward. We may be a small island, but we cannot be small-minded. We must be big-hearted and generous in spirit. And that is why volunteerism must be strengthened as an integral part of our refreshed social compact.
So I appeal to all of you, let’s continue to work together – Government, non-profits, corporates, community groups – to engage the many Singaporeans who want to give back to society, and help them take that crucial first step to becoming a volunteer. Our first task, for those who are part of the 50-plus percent of Singaporeans who said that they want to volunteer, but who have not volunteered yet, well they really should take that first step. And then we can strive to create a virtuous cycle – so that as people volunteer, they will feel more engaged, and they will, in turn, encourage and inspire others to step forward. So let us all join our hands and hearts in this collective endeavour to build a better Singapore together.
Thank you very much and please enjoy the rest of the conference.
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