Charities take a leaf from companies' books in reaching out to public

Shoppers browsing products featuring designs by Pathlight School students on sale in the school's flagship store, The Art Faculty, at Enabling Village. The tote bags are among the top-selling items.
Shoppers browsing products featuring designs by Pathlight School students on sale in the school's flagship store, The Art Faculty, at Enabling Village. The tote bags are among the top-selling items.PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Shoppers browsing products featuring designs by Pathlight School students on sale in the school's flagship store, The Art Faculty, at Enabling Village. The tote bags (above) are among the top-selling items.
Shoppers browsing products featuring designs by Pathlight School students on sale in the school's flagship store, The Art Faculty, at Enabling Village. The tote bags (above) are among the top-selling items.PHOTO: THE ART FACULTY

Many do market research to produce quality items that appeal to consumers

When hunting for Christmas gifts last year, Ms Sally Wuu visited a pop-up store at OCBC Centre near Boat Quay.

There, the part-time marketing manager spent about $300 on some 20 pouches and mugs emblazoned with lively drawings of animals, among them a flock of prancing flamingos and a herd of curious zebras sniffing at one another.

Said Ms Wuu, 40: "I was drawn by the appearance and quality, and the social cause too, but I wouldn't have bought the gifts if they didn't look good in the first place."

The Art Faculty pop-up store was set up by Pathlight School and the artists behind the products were its students, who have autism.

The Autism Resource Centre, which runs the school, is among charities that have become more business-savvy in reaching out to consumers with merchandise that appeal not just to their compassion but also their needs and aesthetic sense.

Like companies, the charities are conducting market research, opening pop-up and online stores, doing tie-ups and even giving out "performance bonuses" to staff.

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Correspondingly, sales have increased significantly, they report. Proceeds generally go towards covering beneficiaries' salaries and other administration costs.

Pathlight, for instance, has seen sales nearly triple since it opened a flagship store in Lengkok Bahru in November 2015, due to "greater awareness, publicity and support", said its principal, Ms Linda Kho. She declined to give sales figures.

To broaden its reach, it is collaborating with Thermos to produce a tumbler and food jar with artwork designed by Pathlight School's students, it announced in July.

Last year, Bizlink, which offers employment help for people with disabilities, set up a five-member "trends team" - comprising creative designers, product developers and sales and marketing staff - from among its employees.

The team helped it improve its products: after adding canvas to its range of batik products to make them more robust, sales increased by about 40 per cent, from $5,000 last year to $7,000 this year.

Bizlink manager Rachel Ong said: "Many gift vendors innovate and produce new and better products. The trends team was set up so we'd stay relevant and competitive."

The Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) has also moved from selling traditional art and craft items, to products that are more functional, after making "deliberate efforts to understand consumers' needs".

Its top-selling items are its cookies and wedding favours such as chocolates and honey. Pet shop owner Katrina Shamsudin, 40, bought 70 jars of cookies for customers and herself earlier this year, and will buy more for her wedding next month. "The quality is important, or I wouldn't buy them for others."

Minds' business did so well last year, that it is paying $1 million this year in performance bonus to over 1,000 beneficiaries who worked to produce the merchandise.

Ms Eileen Yap, founder of social enterprise Singapore Fashion Runway, said the disadvantaged have talents that can be nurtured. They "can be super models and designers, not people we pity but people who inspire".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2017, with the headline 'Charities take leaf from companies' books'. Print Edition | Subscribe