What does 2017's global volatility mean for giving?

Trump. Terrorism. Technological disruption. Geopolitical shock waves may have sent volunteerism and philanthropy on a decline. But silver linings exist for non-profits willing to ride the waves of change.

Let's have the bad news first: It's a gloomy time for giving as we know it. Earlier last month, the World Giving Index 2017 reported a global decline in giving. Published by the Charities Aid Foundation, the index noted an overall decline in charitable behaviours like donating and volunteering.

Days later, Singapore's Office of the Commissioner of Charities revealed that tax-deductible donations slumped by 36 per cent last year, after the high of SG50. Economic uncertainties were pinpointed as a reason. These figures seem to confirm a popular belief that global generosity takes a hit during periods of instability in the world. This year has been no exception, with turbulence growing increasingly routine. New forms of superpower war games. Terrorist activities. The dislocating effects of technological change.

Closer to home, Singapore's retrenchment figures remain high - after hitting 19,170 last year - with PMETs feeling the burn of economic restructuring. Those in non-profits can be forgiven for being glum. When times are bad, there's an expectation of corporate grants shrinking and people hanging tight to their cash.

But now, the good news: We live in one of the most exciting times for giving - if we're willing to radically change our approach to it. Global volatility upends cherished models and assumptions. With change comes a chance to go back to the drawing board and redesign how we think about donating, volunteering and fund raising. Singapore's giving ecosystem is at a tipping point. How we react now will determine whether the business of good will rejuvenate itself and reach new heights.

The future of giving

Earlier this year, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) engaged more than 40 thought leaders in the social sector to explore and articulate the future of giving in Singapore. We wanted to answer questions such as: What might the giving landscape look like in 2025? What new threats and opportunities could emerge? We were conscious of an increasingly fluid and ambiguous world order, and the disruptive nature of technological change.

Amid this, we discovered exciting opportunities for the giving sector, three of which we've outlined here. Approached with the right spirit, these trends provide pathways for us to navigate change and elevate the practice of doing good.

SMART GIVING FOR A SMART NATION

The same technological revolution that has roiled economies has also fuelled the rise in informal and peer-to-peer giving. Enabled by digital platforms, donors are increasingly bypassing non-profits to give directly to beneficiaries or to initiate ground-up movements. Compared with a decade ago, givers now have multiple tools at their disposal: Social media, online donation portals like giving.sg, and a growing familiarity with platforms for crowdfunding.


We live in one of the most exciting times for giving – if we’re willing to radically change our approach to it, says the writer.  PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Mindset shifts have also played a part, with givers today more self-empowered to act. Faced with a social problem, there are more individuals willing to take matters into their own hands, self-organise, and reach out directly to beneficiaries. In fact, NVPC found that the proportion of donors who gave through informal means in Singapore increased threefold between 2014 and last year, in our latest Individual Giving Survey (IGS 2016). And more than a quarter of Singaporeans gave via online means (28 per cent) compared with 9 per cent in 2014.

It's a trend that shows no signs of stopping. If anything, tech-driven direct giving will be popularised by the rhetoric of a Smart Nation, and normalised by new-economy businesses like Uber and Airbnb. As Singaporeans grow used to on-demand taxis and two-hour grocery deliveries, they will insist on giving being equally easy and "on-demand". With smartphone-toting millennials forming the future donor base, charitable efforts are likely to be more mobile-driven.

This has implications on everything, from a charity's social media presence and how mobile-compatible outreach materials are, to how effectively the charity reports impact through facts and stories about where donations have helped. In short, gone are the days when non-profits could have a "build-and-let-them-come" mentality. They must now go to where their customers are, and redesign their customer touchpoints to be more relevant, intuitive and direct. Instead of just thinking about the donation process and "making the sale", non-profits must think about stewarding donor intent and interest. They must grow donors' loyalty and engagement by sharing the impact of their work, and by crafting better donor recognition and community-building programmes.

But non-profits should tread carefully. In the eagerness to reach the masses online, there is a danger of degrading activism to low-effort, low-commitment actions such as "liking" a campaign video - a phenomenon referred to as "clicktivism" or "slacktivism". But for all these pitfalls, there is still much to learn from "smart" business practices of today: The focus on user-centric design and data-driven decision-making, for instance. The key lies in how well non-profits size up and adapt the market's best practices, without sacrificing the soul and substance of their cause.

Of course, all this represents a considerable challenge for resource-strapped non-profits. However, we believe that skills-based volunteering has the potential to apply private sector expertise and professional skills to address these challenges. With more purpose-driven professionals seeking greater meaning and impact in their lives, we believe that intermediaries - like Empact, Conjunct Consulting, Talent Trust and the Centre for Non-profit Leadership - associated with NVPC will grow in utility and impact.

THE GIG-IFICATION OF GIVING

Who knew that one of the biggest revolutions of this decade would happen at the workplace? Automation and the sharing economy have displaced traditional jobs, while the gig economy has created a pool of freelancers who've swopped salary for flexibility: The "gig-er" may work from home in the morning, rest in the afternoon and drive a Grab car at night. Even for office workers, there is a growing acceptance of flexible working arrangements as technology relieves the need for face time.

This state of affairs could accelerate the radical redesign of volunteer programmes as "gigs". The National Council of Social Service has already started redesigning social work jobs into parts which can be done by professionals and other parts by volunteers. Beyond this, we anticipate a shift towards "micro-volunteerism" - volunteerism broken into discrete tasks with flexible commitments, allowing on-the-go workers to slot them into their schedules. Examples could include designing a website or driving a senior to the hospital. These micro-volunteering activities are typically driven by skill sets, social and peer groups, or location and other convenience-based decision factors.

SG Cares, a national volunteering movement, will be exploring how to synchronise such efforts on the ground and connect neighbours to opportunities nearby. Coupled with the adoption of smarter tech, might we soon see the full-scale "Uberisation" of volunteerism? Perhaps some day, it will be intuitive for a person to visit an online marketplace and get matched to live volunteer gigs.

Headed to Tampines? Why not deliver food packets to rental flat tenants along the way? These platforms would effortlessly sync gigs into people's mobile calendars and even help build customised volunteer timetables. In the background, artificial intelligence would learn the kinds of volunteer activities the individual prefers, and recommend relevant gigs in the future. The technology exists. We only lack the wherewithal.

THE NEW DONOR: INFORMED AND INVOLVED

In turbulent times, fewer people have cash to give. But those who do, seem to fork out more. Amid climbing retrenchment figures, the average donation amount in Singapore more than doubled from $379 in 2014 to $910 last year (IGS 2016). There does seem to be a resilient generosity among those who do give. Also, lean periods may make people think harder about where their dollars should go. This is not a bad thing. It dovetails with anecdotal observations that more donors in Singapore are resembling savvy shoppers: They research, compare and educate themselves before making a purchase.

It is no surprise that passive and reactive forms of giving are on a decline - think religious collections, or dropping spare change in a donation tin. Incidentally, there will be no "spare change" as we move into a cashless society. Donations will be a conscious choice based on affinity to, and support for particular causes. The notion of conscious choice gels with NVPC's Individual Giving Surveys, which show donors are getting proactive and deliberative, with a growing preference for direct involvement like approaching charitable organisations. The upshot: Savvy non-profits will no longer just appeal to the heart, but also the head by offering assurances of good governance, information on causes and visibility over how funds will be used. In return, we will open up our wallets. Our research shows that proactive donors are far more generous, giving an average of $1,308 in a year compared with $613 from passive donors.

Final thoughts

We live in an increasingly fluid world. In fact, to "VUCA" - trendy managerial speak for navigating a "volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous" world - is becoming a verb. Just as businesses have had to be agile in the face of sudden changes and demographic shifts, the social sector cannot stay still. Fortunately, the sector is also made up of individuals just like us; with talent, time and treasure to share with the causes and purposes that move us most. If the future is bright, it is because we have co-created it to be so.

The next decades will belong to those willing to step into the VUCA, disrupt old models of giving and embrace the discomfort that births innovation. After all, it's hardly business as usual these days.

• The writer is chief executive officer of the NVPC. This article was first published in THink: The Head Foundation Digest, October 2017 Issue, Challenges Of Our Time, and reproduced with permission.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'What does 2017's global volatility mean for giving?'. Print Edition | Subscribe