Helping hand for social enterprises sees the sector grow despite pandemic

AST's Telehope platform allows for video conferencing between therapists and clients worldwide. PHOTO: AMAZING SPEECH THERAPY

SINGAPORE - In January 2020, shortly before Covid-19 arrived with a vengeance, social enterprise Amazing Speech Therapy (AST) was dipping its toe into a new concept – an online platform where therapists could carry out some in-person sessions virtually so that they could reach a wider number of clients.

“The biggest struggle was that everyone was quite resistant to online therapy. We spent a lot of time suggesting to our clients to try it for free, because we really wanted to help them,” said Ms Beatrice Teo, founder of AST.

AST offers affordable speech and swallowing therapy services for a wide range of clients including children with autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome, and adults with stroke and dementia.

In her many conversations with Mr Alfie Othman, the chief executive of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE), Ms Teo gained encouragement from his suggestions and insights, and AST went ahead with its launch of Telehope, she said.

The platform also offers features such as games and interactive videos.

Ms Teo, 35, said that while most conventional speech therapy centres did not have online facilities, AST was treating 70 per cent of its clients through online therapy sessions during the pandemic.

“Many other private therapy companies were losing money, so they lowered their staff’s wages and forced their staff to go on no pay leave. Because of this, I managed to get a lot of therapists coming over to AST. I knew that this (the pandemic) was temporary, and we just had to ride it through,” said Ms Teo.

While AST had great timing, not all social enterprises, which are businesses that have social objectives as their primary purpose, were as lucky, and raiSE rallied to help its members.

It waived fees for 2020, enhanced its membership portal for more efficient collaborations between social enterprises and help networks, and developed self-help toolkits so that enterprises could sustain themselves.

Because of these efforts, the social enterprise sector continued to expand, growing from $179 million in 2020 to $210 million in 2021, said raiSE.

raiSE said it now has 365 members, of which 27 per cent joined in 2021 for the first time, seeking new opportunities for growth and funding. raiSE, a cross-sectoral collaboration set up in 2015, offers its members collaborations, masterclasses and mentoring sessions with other organisations and industry veterans.

As with other commercial businesses, the pandemic posed a survival challenge to social enterprises, which had to redouble their efforts to ensure the continuity of their social impacts, both during and after the pandemic, Mr Alfie told The Straits Times. He said raiSE’s efforts complemented the Government’s grants and supports as well.

Many innovated and transformed their products and services to better adapt to the challenges, from engaging their target beneficiaries online to digitalising their services.

Another social enterprise Tictag also decided to use the pandemic as an opportunity to further expand its reach and social impact.

The application Tictag enables anyone with a smartphone to participate in collecting and labelling complex and intricate datasets for Machine Learning and development of Artificial Intelligence models. PHOTO: TICTAG

Founded by Mr Kevin Quah, 33, and two friends, Tictag is an application that collects and labels data sets for machine learning and artificial intelligence models. It is designed to enable people from all walks of life – lower-income groups, seniors and people with disabilities – to participate in the data collection workforce. After they have submitted accurate data, Taggers, the users of the Tictag’s own mobile application, receive remuneration through vouchers or in monetary form.

Mr Quah said it was during the pandemic that Tictag really started to grow as it offered an alternative for people to earn income through tasks that could be done at home, such as labelling household items.

“What we wanted to do was to make sure that with whatever we did, we were contributing back to society and helping the more vulnerable parts of the population,” said Mr Quah.

raiSE helped Tictag connect with social service agencies to reach a wider group of people.

Training on how to use the app was held over zoom meetings, which Mr Quah said both children with autism and elderly people alike were able to master and pick up the necessary skills for data collection. He added that the training also aimed to provide recipients with more skills so they can potentially find work in data collection.

Tictag said it is committed to scaling up its social impact, in growing a pool of Taggers to meet the market’s ongoing demand for clean and accurate data. It is now planning to expand its operations in South Korea and Indonesia.

Post-pandemic, raiSE has launched several programmes focused on mentorship, growth and funding to ensure the sustainability of social enterprises across the island as they recover from Covid-19.

Mr Alfie said: “Social enterprises have also taken the opportunity to digitalise, pivot, and prepare for growth during the pandemic. They are now ready to continue growing both their business and impact post-pandemic.”

What is a social enterprise?

raiSE defines social enterprises as business entities that start up with clear social goals, management intent and resources allocated to provide business solutions to address unmet and emerging social needs and gaps.

To qualify as a raiSE social enterprise, a Singapore-registered company must:

  • Generate the majority of revenue by providing goods and services to demonstrate financial stability
  • Allocate at least 20 per cent of resources to fulfil social outcomes as measured by the raiSE Social Value Toolkit
  • Demonstrate a clear intention to make social goals the core objective. Social goals can vary and include providing employment opportunities, education and skill development, and meeting the basic living needs of people in need or at risk of economic, mental, social or physical deprivation. 

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