Going beyond giving pocket money

WE KILLED many trees this year to give The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund (SPMF) a new beginning. So many starts and stops. So many people involved. Setting up a charity - or in this case, converting a community project into a charity - is one hard slog.

So when, after a year of deliberations and debate, our editor decided to make a change to a document that had been amended for the umpteenth time, I could hardly hide my horror.

The day was Oct 20, when five people got together to sign a deed to convert the SPMF into a charity. Thankfully, our legal adviser was up to the task, making the change quickly (and killing more trees in the process), and five signatures were duly obtained on many, many copies of the same document (read: more trees killed).

If it hadn't been a working day, alcohol would have been passed around. Veteran charity champion Gerard Ee turned to me and reminded me how, one year ago, I had asked him to lunch to discuss how the SPMF could stand on its own feet instead of relying on the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) to administer the fund. He gave me an education on the forms which a charity can take: a society, a trust, a company limited by guarantee, a foundation...

Not that we wanted NCSS out. We would have preferred that the arrangement we had since 2000 had remained, with The Straits Times playing the public relations and publicity role, and the NCSS doing the administration, disbursement and back-end work of complying with regulations.

I mean, what would we journalists know about auditing and governance? About dealing with deeds of undertaking, financial statements, contracts, bank accounts and memorandums of under- standing/agreement, et cetera?

Hey, we only write about these things - we don't do them.

Plus, we hate legalese and bureaucratese, which I gather are necessary to nail down every single point - like whose signature should go on what - and close every loophole - like whose head will roll if things go wrong. One delightful bit of information: You can actually insure yourself against such things.

In any case, why fix things that ain't broke? The truth is, we had been collecting more money than what the beneficiaries would need every year. The money was sitting in a bank account earning a pittance.

We could, of course, increase the amount we give to beneficiaries, but the objective was not to be so generous as to make them dependent on the handouts. Nor could we change criteria like income levels to bring more beneficiaries into the fold, because they would not be considered needy then, would they?

We could, of course, put the money to other uses for the beneficiaries, but this was not what we had told donors we would do with their money. We stated that we give pocket money. Period.

So The Straits Times and its partner NCSS decided on a new start: forming a new relationship, informing future donors that we would do more - mainly on the education front - while keeping pocket money as the mainstay.

We had a bigger idea: Let us not just feed the children and get them to school, but also help them take home as good a report card as they can.

Initially, staff from the Editorial Projects Unit tried to do the paperwork, writing up policy papers on reserves and governance. NCSS held our hand all the way, and so did the Charities Unit of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports - but it was way too much for us.

After putting up a paper on board governance policy and reserves, we discovered we also needed to draw up papers on human resource management, financial policy, investment, conflict of interest disclosure, audit processes, and board self-evaluation.

To be truly independent, we had to set up an office, recruit new staff for the new SPMF entity, change letterheads, turn over copyright and trademark and, more importantly, transfer the SPMF donations under NCSS to the new entity.

We did the next best thing: We found someone who could do it for us.

Ms Martina Wong came on board, first as a consultant and then as general manager. It was with much embarrassment that I broached the subject of income. It would be just a fraction of what she used to earn in the financial industry. She didn't bat an eyelid. She said she understood what the charity sector pays people. (Well, if she did, I certainly don't!)

But what I have learnt from the year-long experience is that there are so many good people out there willing to do good, for very little or nothing at all. Lawyers from Allen & Gledhill volunteered their expertise and time, bankers and auditors were willing to charge 'charity rates', and staff from Singapore Press Holdings' different departments were more than willing to help with advice or manpower.

When Mr Ee's name was proposed as a trustee, the question was whether the busy man would have the time. After all, he had the very important matter of ministerial salaries to settle, besides his myriad charity portfolios.

He said yes immediately.

Another trustee, Mr Han Jok Kwang, had been in correspondence with The Straits Times about SPMF matters, asking very detailed and sometimes uncomfortable questions about donations and how they were handled. I figured that if he was so interested, he would be willing to sit on the board. He, too, said yes.

Mr Sia Cheong Yew, a former Straits Times senior editor who should be enjoying his retirement, also said yes.

As for myself, I always think back to that story in The Sunday Times more than 10 years ago, which was the inspiration for the SPMF. The Comeback Kids was about four children who passed (not aced) their Primary School Leaving Examination when they seemed destined to fail because of family circumstances.

I have never believed that it is always the case that those at the bottom will stay at the bottom. Certainly not if the better-off lend a hand with money, energy and expertise.

I hope everyone else agrees with me.