Stop calling them VWOs. They are social service organisations

An age-old debate is cropping up again in the social service sector: whether voluntary welfare organisations, or VWOs, should have a new label that better reflects their work.

VWO is the commonly-used term for charities that provide social services. But many are no longer run by volunteers; and the scope of their work goes far beyond "welfare" to include, for example, advocacy and providing health and education services.

The issue cropped up again when a recent poll found that 84 per cent of the 342 people polled said "no", when asked if the "VWO term reflects what the sector can and should be".

The poll was organised by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) earlier this month.

Might alternative names better reflect what these organisations do? Options put up include: social service organisations, social purpose organisations and social purpose enterprises.

The term "social service organisations" garnered the most votes among those polled both at the Social Service Summit and the NCSS Annual General Meeting.

In fact, since last year, the NCSS has started to use the term social service organisation, instead of VWO, in its talks and marketing collaterals.

When asked about a possible name change, a Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) spokesman said the ministry is "open to the term social service organisation and giving it time to see if the majority of the sector will identify with it".

The spokesman added that the ministry hopes the term will not be confused with social service offices, which are staffed by ministry officers to provide ComCare and other forms of aid to the needy.


Mr Md Arif Mohd Hassan, 28, who has moderate intellectual disability, playing bocce at a park near the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore's (Minds) Clementi Training and Development Centre. Groups like Minds are labelled as voluntary welfare organisations, but the term is outdated and does not accurately reflect what they do, says the writer. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

In contrast, VWOs are non-governmental organisations.

I believe it's time to update the name and image of VWOs to that of social service organisations.

The VWO term itself is outdated.

One of its first appearances was in a 1947 report by the Social Welfare Department, the precursor of today's MSF.

It was apt then, when it was often people of means who came together to help the less fortunate.

Few of those do-gooders received professional training; many were unpaid volunteers.

But things have changed.

Today, social service organisations tend to be staffed by professionals who are trained in areas like social work and psychology.

Volunteers may be tapped for ad hoc or regular help, and sit on the boards of these organisations. But the bread-and-butter work is performed by full-time paid professional staff.

The VWO term itself is outdated. One of its first appearances was in a 1947 report by the Social Welfare Department, the precursor of today's MSF. It was apt then, when it was often people of means who came together to help the less fortunate. Few of those do-gooders received professional training; many were unpaid volunteers. But things have changed.

Today's social service professionals have measurable outcomes to meet. These can determine funding for the programmes they run, which might be to help delinquent children, people in troubled marriages or those dealing with crippling addictions.

Some of these VWOs have grown to the size of medium-sized firms in the corporate world, hiring hundreds of staff and managing an income - from government grants, donations, fees and other sources of revenue - of tens of millions of dollars.

For example, the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) received $55 million in income in its financial year that ended in March 2016. It runs special education schools and other services for the intellectually disabled and has about 600 staff.

Other large VWOs with annual incomes of over $10 million include the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Charities, AWWA, Autism Resource Centre, The Salvation Army and the Presbyterian Community Services, said an NCSS spokesman.

But many people still tend to regard VWOs with less esteem, viewing them as sleepy organisations run by a bunch of "bleeding heart" do-gooders, from which no ground-breaking work can be expected.

As a reporter who has worked with many, I beg to differ.

I can tell you about the critical and, at times, innovative, work that they do, but that is another story.

Renaming VWOs as social service organisations is a small but crucial step in changing how people perceive them.

Within the sector, however, there is some debate on what name would be most suitable.

Many other countries use terms such as social service organisations, charities, non-profit organisations and non-governmental organisations.

Some VWOs, which go beyond social services to provide health and education services, quibble that the proposed new term "social service organisation" won't adequately reflect those aspects of their work.

My response is that these organisations should just come up with their own descriptor if they wish, but not hold back the majority of VWOs that want to move on and be rid of the old label.

My point is: Names influence and affect the way we perceive something.

I try not to use the term VWOs in the news stories that I write.

It is too much of a mouthful and is a term that does not resonate with the general public.

Besides reflecting the organisations' work, the new name can also acts as a form of branding. In this social media age, how can these organisations attract staff, volunteers and donors to help those struggling with a diverse and complex range of problems?

The debate over changing the VWO terminology is an old one, with the issue discussed at past NCSS conferences, without any conclusive results.

It is time to bite the bullet and move on with a new name.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2017, with the headline 'Stop calling them VWOs. They are social service organisations'. Print Edition | Subscribe