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Creative annual reports reflect 'radical philanthropy'

Creative directors of graphic design studio Couple Kelvin Lok (left) and Zann Wan (right) and Lien Foundation's CEO Lee Poh Wah (centre), with some of the quirky annual reports that the foundation has published over the years. Mr Lee is holding the 2
Creative directors of graphic design studio Couple Kelvin Lok (left) and Zann Wan (right) and Lien Foundation's CEO Lee Poh Wah (centre), with some of the quirky annual reports that the foundation has published over the years. Mr Lee is holding the 2011-2012 annual report, which came in the form of a gongfu manual inspired by famed martial artist Bruce Lee. ST PHOTOS: MARCUS TAN
Creative directors of graphic design studio Couple Kelvin Lok (left) and Zann Wan (right) and Lien Foundation's CEO Lee Poh Wah (centre), with some of the quirky annual reports that the foundation has published over the years. Mr Lee is holding the 2
A look inside the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 annual reports respectively.ST PHOTOS: MARCUS TAN
Creative directors of graphic design studio Couple Kelvin Lok (left) and Zann Wan (right) and Lien Foundation's CEO Lee Poh Wah (centre), with some of the quirky annual reports that the foundation has published over the years. Mr Lee is holding the 2
A look inside the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 annual reports respectively.ST PHOTOS: MARCUS TAN

Lien Foundation CEO gets graphic designers to help bring out charity's unique philosophy

Recipients of the Lien Foundation's latest annual report could be forgiven for wondering if they had received the wrong delivery.

Instead of having the financial year emblazoned on the cover and a chairman's message shortly after, its book cover is a Japanese flag and within it is a story about "George going to Japan" told in comic strip format. It comes neatly swathed in Japanese wrapping paper.

The local philanthrophic house is no stranger to producing creative and quirky annual reports. The one published the year before came in the form of a personal diary, shrink-wrapped to hold a bookmark, photos and stickers inside.

In 2012, its stakeholders received a gongfu manual of instructions of "How to fight like a legend" when it comes to radical philanthrophy. And in 2009, a sombre book shaped and textured like a tombstone made its rounds in offices and homes. Its opening message from the management read: We are going to die.

The man rallying against bland annual reports is Mr Lee Poh Wah, the foundation's chief executive.

"How often do people just flip through the annual reports and then they land in the dustbin?" he said. "It's a waste of money and precisely because few people read it, we decided to come up with an antidote to dull and boring reports."

For the last two years, he has commissioned graphic design studio Couple to produce the reports. Its creative directors have over 15 years of experience in publication work, including producing corporate annual reports.

Couple's co-founder Zann Wan is quick to point out that it is not just about fancy packaging when it comes to producing outstanding annual reports.

"It is not just about how it looks, whether there is fancy Japanese paper or nice fonts. What is precious about Lien's latest annual report is that its form complements its content in communicating the stories that Lien wants to tell," she said.

The comic strips outline George's journey from Singapore to Japan and back as he visits Japanese festivals, nursing homes and preschools. His experiences are based on actual trips to Japan made by Mr Lee and his staff.

Each strip ends with George leaving an idea, thought or opinion on topics that range from eldercare and early childhood education to technology.

George is the given name for the founder of Lien Foundation, Dr Lien Ying Chow. The musings of George bring out the foundation's approach to radical philantrophy that goes beyond simply doling out the cash to tackling the root of problems through innovative solutions.

For instance, George goes to a senior day care centre called Mizuumi Village in Japan. He observes how the centre's design and activities empower the elderly. It gives seniors the autonomy to plan their day by choosing from 18 activities and deciding when they want to do it.

The report then gives an account of Lien Foundation's Jade Circle project which aims to replace the current dormitory-style nursing homes and regimented routines with a cosy home-like environment.

"The annual report not only gives an account of our work in the past year, it lets readers learn new things and provokes them to think deeper about life," said Mr Lee.

He thinks there is also a space for social commentary and honest evaluation of the foundation's work.

"Most annual reports are sugar-coated and upbeat but I think there is scope for some evaluation and stakeholders will appreciate the candour," he said.

For example, having the 2013-2014 annual report in a diary format allowed George to comment on Lien Foundation's night respite service for the caregivers of dementia patients.

"The take-up of the service has been low because there wasn't enough outreach to potential clients via public hospitals and eldercare institutions," wrote George.

This approach is reflective of Mr Lee's personality as he steers the foundation to take on weighty issues such as getting all Singaporeans to start life with a quality pre-school education no matter what their means, and to enjoy a good death with nothing left unsaid.

His Life Before Death campaign aimed to get people to plan for their mortality early. It featured unconventional ideas like a coffin design competition, a "Last Outfit" photo project to get people to think about going in style and the making of "Emotional Wills" to close any unfinished matter. He also aggressively promoted palliative care to help people die less painfully.

No topic is out of bounds. Its latest report features a comic strip about a fertility festival in Japan where the phallus is worshipped and visitors playfully lick penis-shaped lollipops on festival grounds.

The point was to emphasise the need for open discussion on taboo subjects like sex, death and poverty.

"There is a close association between reinventing the annual report to how we practise philanthropy and how we live our lives," said Mr Lee. "Keep asking questions, entertain the inconceivable and have the courage to break the chains of conformity."

A week after Lien Foundation's annual report was released in print and online on April 19, its website garnered 12,000 new visitors.

Wrote Mr Kuan Yew Yong on Facebook: "It's a diorama, photo collage, manga piece, live action piece all at the same time. Central to its heart is a call to action to reflect and consider the children and elderly."

Within the playful and fantastical elements of the comics, there is a certain seriousness of heart towards the foundation's mission.

Aptly, the last whimsical comic strip in the book ends with a quote from a book by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami: "It's hard to tell the difference between sea and sky, between voyager and sea, between reality and the workings of the heart."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Creative annual reports reflect 'radical philanthropy''. Print Edition | Subscribe