The gift of small donors

Multimillion-dollar donations may grab headlines, but charities here rely on many humble givers

Ms K., 70, has been donating $100 a month to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) for the past dozen or so years.

Nothing remarkable - except that she used to earn only about $500 a month as a part-time cashier.

Ms K., who is single and cares for two mentally ill sisters, survives on her Central Provident Fund (CPF) and other savings. She also makes $220 a month cleaning a church once a week.

The donor, who declined to be named, said: "I have enough for myself. I cannot take my money with me after I die, so it's better to give it to those who need it more."

These acts of generosity by small-time donors like Ms K. would probably never make the headlines. Huge multimillion-dollar gifts are what will grab the public's attention.

Last week, it was reported that architect Albert Hong, 82, donated $30 million to the Singapore University of Technology and Design. The chairman of RSP Architects Planners and Engineers said that he decided to give away most of his wealth after a brush with death. He was hospitalised for pneumonia in 2013 and given a 20 per cent chance of survival.

As a journalist reporting on social issues for more than a decade, what I can tell you confidently is this: There is no shortage of anonymous donors and big-hearted souls, who are giving of themselves to help the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the addicts and those whose lives hardly show up on Facebook feeds. In this gloomy and uncertain age, there are truly angels in our midst. And we have to tell their stories.

While Dr Hong's philanthropy is very laudable - and hopefully will spur the very well-heeled to do more for the less fortunate - small gifts should be celebrated too.

After all, regular donors who give small sums each month are the lifeblood of many charities.

For example, the NKF now has about 150,000 donors on its Life Drops programme. They give a monthly average of $7.80 each.

In the organisation's last financial year, Life Drops donors contributed $13.8 million - or 63 per cent of all its donations.

Over at the Singapore Children's Society, regular donors include a middle-aged bus driver who faithfully visits its office to donate $100 every month. If his work schedule does not allow him to pop by, he shows up the next month and gives double the sum, to make up for the month he missed.

Regular donors like him gave 70 per cent of the $13.1 million the Children's Society received in donations last year.

And these small sums add up.

In 2015, individuals donated $450 million to Institutions of a Public Character (IPC), or charities like the NKF.

This is more than double the $184 million donated by individuals in 2006, going by the 2015 annual report of the Commissioner of Charities - the latest available.

Overall, IPCs received $1.4 billion in tax-deductible donations in 2015 - of which two-thirds were from the corporate sector.

But the close to half a billion dollars given by individuals is definitely not spare change.

So what does this say about the state of generosity here? Are there more people giving to charity? Are existing donors giving larger sums? Or are there more donors who are also giving more money?

I suspect it is the last factor.

And in this bleak economy, when companies are likely to cut back on giving to charity, these individual donors are even more precious to the more than 2,000 charities fighting for the donation dollar.

So charities have to continually find ways to engage their donors and celebrate the stories of remarkable givers like Ms K.

And the stories behind some of these gifts are really moving.

For example, two residents of the Awwa Senior Community Home willed their valuables to the home for the destitute elderly after their deaths. One of them, a woman who died in 2014 at the age of 84, left the home a few pieces of gold jewellery.

The other, a man who had no family, had been living in a tent pitched in a cemetery. Social workers referred him to the Awwa Home, where he stayed for six years, until his death.

When he died in 2015, at 81, he gave his CPF savings of less than $3,000 to the home.

The charity works with a law firm to draft wills for residents who wish to do so.

Its spokesman said: "We are not aware of the details of the wills our seniors made and we were touched to receive news of the bequests. We felt we have contributed to our seniors' well-being during their last years so much so that they considered us as family."

Giving is not just about donating money. It is also about giving time or volunteering, which is perhaps a lot harder to give, for the time-starved Singaporean.

But as a journalist reporting on social issues for more than a decade, what I can tell you confidently is this: There is no shortage of anonymous donors and big-hearted souls, who are giving of themselves to help the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the addicts and those whose lives hardly show up on Facebook feeds.

In this gloomy and uncertain age, there are truly angels in our midst.

And we have to tell their stories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'The gift of small donors'. Print Edition | Subscribe