How can we create a culture of philanthropy and volunteerism? That was the question posed to us, a group of 10, who participated in the pre-budget dialogue last week. Here is what our group came up with:


Budget 2019: A Bit of Background

While everyone is getting their Christmas shopping done, the Ministry of Finance has been busy preparing our nation’s budget. From now until 10 Jan, MOF is taking your views/feedback so that you can have a say in shaping our nation’s priorities.

Just like in previous years, the 2019 budget has several themes. They are:

  • Innovation
  • Partnerships and Business Grants
  • Education, Training and Lifelong Learning
  • Technology Adoption
  • Internationalisation and Scaling-Up
  • Tax-related
  • Security and External Relations
  • Ageing, Healthcare
  • Support for Families
  • Philanthropy and Volunteerism

In the pre-budget dialogue I attended, we were grouped according to these themes. I was placed into the last theme — Philanthropy and Volunteerism. Here’s a summary of what my group came up with.

Frugality involves considering the trade-offs that result from the utilisation of resources, with time and money being two of the most important resources. So, are philanthropy and volunteering considered frugal, taking into account the time / money commitment? (skip to the end to find out).

But, continue reading for a summary of what my group came up with to increase philanthropy and volunteerism on an individual level in Singapore.


How to Create a Culture of Philanthropy and Volunteerism

1. Make the Invisible Visible

If people don’t see the issues (or don’t want to see them), they can be easily ignored. While there are plenty of displays of wealth in Singapore, there’s also plenty of images of poverty and neediness. But you need to look, or know where to look.

Summary feedback: Our group thought that more publicity should be given to these issues.


2. Appeal to Emotions & Remind People of their Privilege

When asked, “Why do you volunteer?”, people usually answer with, “To give back.” But what is never asked is “Why (specifically) do you want to give back?” or “If you wish to give back, do you think you took too much to begin with?”

These are tough questions to address. While most people might state motivations based on positive emotions (passion, care, altruism, etc.), sometimes people volunteer because of negative emotions (primarily guilt). Guilt is a powerful motivator, and it drives us to do things that may not be in our best interest. Guilt is usually associated with bad things or bad outcomes. But does it have to be?

If I’m being honest with myself, I would say that I volunteer because I feel guilty. Extremely guilty. Volunteering with palliative care patients, in part, alleviates my guilt that I did not become one of them, even though my brain disease could have resulted in it.

I also am aware just how lucky and fortunate I am to have so much saved and my retirement fully funded at such a young age. And much of that was luck-based, not merit-based.

If we really examine our lives, most of us can safely say that had we been born to different parents or under different circumstances, the trajectory of our life would be drastically different. Even Warren Buffett admitted that “winning” the “ovarian lottery” was the primary contributor to his success. Not his skill, hard work, or intelligence.

Summary feedback: Remind people just how privileged they are. Appeal to their innate sense of guilt, duty, or compassion.


3. Lower the Barriers to Giving / Volunteering

There are many volunteering or philanthropic opportunities across various platforms (, SG Volunteer, and SG Cares). But these platforms do not cover the entire spectrum of what’s out there.

For many volunteer opportunities, you must contact the organisation directly. And each organisation will have its own application and induction process. Sometimes, you might email an organisation and not get a reply. Our group felt this was a high barrier for most people.

It would be nice to find a centralised platform in which someone can fill out a general and simple application form, and then get matched to opportunities based on their skills and passions.

Summary feedback: Create a centralised platform or app with one easy application form. Once people fill out that form, they are sent a list of matched organisations, with an auto-email feature that they can click on (sort of like how you can auto-email/SMS agents on Property Guru if you are interested in a listing).


4. Increase / Highlight the Incentives

Often, people will ask, “What’s in it for me?” We are naturally selfish, and therefore need “carrots” and “sticks” to get us to do things.

We all might be aware of the government’s 250% tax deductions for qualifying donations. But did you know some organisations, such as SportSG, provide free volunteer training opportunities such as WSQ certifications? These are underpublicised and underutilised “carrots”.

It would be nice if in a centralised platform (as mentioned above), these carrots can be listed.

My group also discussed the possibility of getting tax deductions for charitable hours (not just for dollar amounts donated). This could cover some travel or meal expenses.

There was also discussion on garnering more recognition and publicity for star individuals and companies that heavily participated in volunteering or philanthropy.

To get companies to encourage volunteerism, some group members suggested that companies be mandated to practice corporate social responsibility (CSR), which includes a fund or mission statement specifically address volunteering / philanthropy. They also suggested that companies give employees paid/protected time off to volunteer half a day per month.

Summary feedback: The main point is that you can’t always rely on goodwill or altruism to get people to take action. Sometimes, persuasion through heavily publicised incentives (or even a little coercion) goes a long way.


5. Start at Home & Set a Good Example

Minister of State, Mr Sam Tan, stopped by to visit my group. He told us a story about how he and his family for many, many years would volunteer together. It not only brought his family closer together, but it set a good example for the younger generation. It gave them the sense that volunteering was not just their duty, but the right thing to do and a “normal” part of their everyday lives.

I agree with Mr Tan that volunteering starts at home. For nearly a decade from when I was a teenager, I celebrated Christmas with the Rotary Club serving food to the homeless (in the States). So from age 13, Christmas became not about gifts but all about contributing and being aware of the less fortunate.

I know that just about all of the ministers and parliament members volunteer to some degree. Although it’s inspiring and heartwarming, it’s also kind of expected.

A few years back, I collected rubbish around the HDB estates together with a large group of people and Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Heng Chee How. But it would have been much more impressive if he was there with his family. As volunteers, leaders, and professionals, the ministers can be really positive role-models. But they can also be great role-models as parents, spouses, and sons / daughters.

Summary feedback: Encourage families to volunteer together. And let the members of parliament take the lead and set the example. 🙂


Why Philanthropy and Volunteering are Frugal

I’ve written before how most of us have already “won the lottery” because we were born / raised in a developed nation. Volunteering allows us to be a part of the lives of those who are less fortunate and sets the stage for us to reflect upon what we do have. This gratefulness helps to combat the incessant barrage of messages by social media and advertising / marketing that delude us into thinking that we are inadequate and compel us to consume and spend.

Philanthropy shifts your focus away from yourself and diverts money, that you might have spent staying the hedonic treadmill, to those in need. Of course, for high earners, the government’s 250% tax deduction helps to reduce your taxable income.

Finally, volunteering with family / friends creates an opportunity to bond with those close to you. In the case of families, it allows parents to show, through their actions, that there is more to life than spending and consuming; strong and lingering memories of such experiences can be life changing for adolescents. As it surely was for me.

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