Time for change, says bone marrow charity chief who quit

Ms Jane Prior with a Bone Marrow Donor Programme volunteer wearing body paint to turn herself into a human statue during a campaign on World Marrow Donor Day in 2016. Ms Prior announced in a Facebook post on Jan 29 that she is stepping down as chief
Ms Jane Prior with a Bone Marrow Donor Programme volunteer wearing body paint to turn herself into a human statue during a campaign on World Marrow Donor Day in 2016. Ms Prior announced in a Facebook post on Jan 29 that she is stepping down as chief executive officer of the charity.PHOTO: JANE PRIOR

When Jane Prior was in charge, Singapore's only national bone marrow register grew rapidly. But on the then chief executive's watch, the Bone Marrow Donor Programme was also audited over concerns about governance and administrative lapses. The Sunday Timesreports.

Few doubt Ms Jane Prior's passion in growing the bone marrow donor programme.

In 1996, her eldest son, Daniel, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia - a strain of aggressive blood cancer that does not respond well to chemotherapy - and needed a bone marrow transplant.

Ms Prior, a British national and Singapore permanent resident, had been living in Singapore since 1981.

It took six months to find a donor - an Australian - through the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP).

Two years later, after her son recovered, she became an active volunteer with BMDP and then its president, before becoming its CEO in 2012. On Jan 29, she announced in a Facebook post that she was resigning.

Her departure came on the back of some controversies surrounding the charity, which has been in existence for 25 years.

In September 2016, an audit ordered by the Ministry of Health (MOH) flagged "critical and major" areas of concern after reviewing the charity's operations between 2013 and July 2016, when Ms Prior was CEO.

  • >80,000

    Number of donors in the Bone Marrow Programme; up from 55,000 donors in 2012.

  • $17m

    The charity's funds at the end of 2016; up from $1.6 million in 2012.

KPMG Services, which was appointed by MOH, raised several issues in a draft audit. Among them, "excessive" use of donations on marketing and entertainment, and an "unclear policy" regarding BMDP's reimbursement practice for entertainment purposes, as well as the overseas travel claims of a senior executive.

Ms Prior said the audit pointed out that the charity did not have a policy on where volunteer couriers - who collect blood stem cells from overseas donors - could stay. "We did have a staff handbook but didn't have all those things in place and that was something I had to learn," she said, adding that BMDP has since implemented such a policy.

The audit concluded in August last year with the MOH ordering BMDP to rectify the governance and administrative lapses uncovered, though it declined to say what the lapses were and the changes the charity had to make.

But MOH did also extendBMDP's Institutions of a Public Character status - which allows organisations to raise funds from donors who enjoy a tax deduction - till end-June.

"It was obviously really frustrating. There were so many queries about what we were doing and yet if we had the chance to sit down and explain it, it was all absolutely kosher," said Ms Prior.

"I think it is case of us growing and doing exciting things and we haven't necessarily written them all down on paper (in the form of company policies)."

But the bad press did not end there. There is an ongoing police investigation involving an allegation of falsified documents and salary increments linked to BMDP.

The developments have put Ms Prior, and BMDP, on the defensive.

She is no novice when it comes to running an organisation, having previously managed her own regional marketing and public relations consultancy firm, Priority Consultants. She had also been head of Asia-Pacific communications at American multinational technology company Yahoo.

 
 

Ms Prior said BMDP has more than 80,000 donors in Singapore, up from 55,000 in 2012.

In the past, 80 to 90 per cent of transplant matches were overseas donors but last year, about half were from local donors. Since 1996, the charity has facilitated some 500 bone marrow transplants.

The charity's funds have also grown - to $17 million at end-2016, up from $1.6 million in 2012.

News of the audit hit the organisation hard. Several companies which had allowed BMDP to canvas for funds and collect cheek swabs of their employees backed out.

But roadshows at the Home Team Academy and Civil Defence Academy continued, and kept new donor numbers up. Companies are also slowly regaining faith in BMDP.

Ms Prior said her departure has nothing to do with the audit. She just feels it is time for a change.

A spokesman for the BMDP board said it has started its search for a new chief and is in the process of interviewing a few candidates.

Ms Prior might move to Australia to join her three children who are working there.

"Change is really important because you get ideas when you are looking at the organisation instead of swimming within it. Sometimes people do things just because it is institutionalised," she said.

"I like building things but I felt it was time to let somebody else do this, to bring new vision to the team," she said.


IPC status extended till end-June

In a signal of a possible end to its troubles with the regulator, the Health Ministry has given the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) a further extension of six months of its Institutions of a Public Character (IPC) status.

An IPC status allows organisations to raise funds from donors who enjoy a tax deduction.

It is usually extended for two-year blocks but when an organisation is under some scrutiny, this is reduced to shorter blocks. BMDP had been under a five-month extension, and the second extension is valid until the end of June.

MOH said it gave BMDP the IPC status as it has taken steps to improve its administration and governance following the completion of an audit.

When asked if Ms Jane Prior's departure as chief executive officer was linked to its audit findings, an MOH spokesman said: "There is no condition for any board or staff member to resign. MOH has reminded BMDP to ensure continuity in its operations, so that beneficiaries are not affected."

The ministry commissioned the audit in 2016, following feedback it received on administrative and governance issues within the organisation.

Investigations were concluded last August, with MOH asking the charity to take concrete steps to improve its administration and governance while also closely monitoring its progress.

The BMDP board said it initiated a search for a new chief executive "some time ago".

"We are currently in the process of interviewing and have shortlisted a few candidates," its spokesman said.

She added that while the charity hopes to identify the right candidate soon, it was more important to find a good candidate who would be able to lead and support the reorganisation of the BMDP.

She added that governance and administrative controls at the organisation have been tightened.

"As a bone marrow donor registry and also as a charity, BMDP wants to ensure that we uphold the trust and confidence of our donors, our beneficiaries and the public. Thus the new CEO, beyond having passion, will need to have both the competencies and experience to bring BMDP forward," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Time for change, says bone marrow charity chief who quit'. Print Edition | Subscribe