Three Strategies to Make Your Capacity Building Efforts More Effective

5 min read

A case study on how Empact made a match between a corporate partner, Singapore Pools, and a non-profit partner, Parkinson’s Society Singapore, that not only solved the charity’s data security challenge, but also created an opportunity for closing the technology gap for the social sector.

With the shortage of skills and talents faced in the social sector, it is clear why social organisations are facing difficulties in sustaining and scaling their impact. While much has been done by funders and capacity builders to address this challenge, success at a large scale remains mostly elusive.

After supporting more than 1,000 social organisations in their capacity building journey and mobilising over 10,000 skilled volunteers, we have identified three strategies to make capacity building more effective: (1) Collaborate; (2) Focus on Needs; (3) Innovate.

Using the following case study on building the technological capacity of non-profits, we expound on the ways in which these three strategies make for more effective capacity building. The case started with us matching a corporate partner with technology expertise to solve our non-profit client’s information technology (IT) security challenge. Ultimately, this evolved into launching a new entity providing cloud-based solutions for the whole non-profit sector.

1. Collaborate: Partnering to Make Talents Accessible and Affordable

With limitations in manpower and core skills, the talent gap is far too huge for any one party to address it alone. But the good news is, there is an increasing trend of corporations and individuals wanting to volunteer their skills. When collaborations are properly curated, we can leverage an untapped supply of talents at a very nominal cost, if not pro bono.

Parkinson’s Society Singapore (PSS) is a charity founded in 1996 by a group of doctors and caregivers to help improve the lives of people living with Parkinson’s. In 2015, we learnt that PSS was concerned about data security as their beneficiaries and families were sharing the same office Wi-Fi. With a small team of five staff and limited budget, it was not feasible for PSS to hire an in-house IT professional or engage an external vendor to support them.

Concurrently, Singapore Pools, a state-owned lottery subsidiary company in Singapore, had also partnered with us to explore opportunities for their employees to start a skills-based volunteering initiative. We identified IT capability as their expertise given the crucial need for a betting company to have top-notch IT infrastructure in ensuring tight security for the confidential information they hold.

We brought both together and a match was made!

As this was the Singapore Pools team’s first step venturing into skills-based volunteering, Empact curated a Done-in-a-Day programme where the deliverables were clearly scoped out to be solved and completed by their volunteer team within a day. Led by the Head of IT, the Singapore Pools team not only reconfigured the Wi-Fi set up but also donated IT hardware and used their strong network with vendors to negotiate for a better Wi-Fi subscription package for PSS. As a result, beneficiaries are now able to use Wi-Fi at PSS freely with minimum security breach risk to the network.

2. Focus on Needs: Start with what is Needed, not what is Available

In our experience, the ability to scope out the real need of a social organisation is critical to the success of capacity building. More often than not, however, capacity builders either overlook or skim through this process, and are left disappointed or even puzzled by the low buy-in and lack of commitment from social organisations in receiving their help. We have observed many social programmes starting with what can be offered or what is available and expecting social organisations to benefit from them. Being needs driven (with investment of time and resources, of course, to uncover the needs) is what allows the programme to gain buy-in and scale in a quicker manner.

Back to our case study, with the success of Done-in-a-Day, Singapore Pools realised the massive potential in how they could make a difference by addressing the technology needs of the social sector with their expertise, especially in areas of IT security and productivity.

But some questions were still unanswered. Yes, PSS had a challenge with their IT security, but was this a unique case? Would other non-profits also benefit from technological advancements to their systems? What about organisation size? Would a technology solution be applicable to only small organisations, or would it be fit for non-profits of all sizes? Singapore Pools agreed to uncover the real needs of the sector first before designing the actual solution.

With funding support from Singapore Pools and outreach support from National Council of Social Services (a membership body for 450 social service agencies), Empact conducted a study on IT needs through interviews, focus groups and online survey. 134 non-profits of all sizes participated.

What we found? There was overwhelming demand for technology as adoption levels were very low.  There were also increasing concerns of IT security, change management required for technology adoption, high costs and a lack of technological expertise. Furthermore, with a diverse profile of non-profits and varying challenges, the solution provided had to also be customisable to specific needs.

Through the study, it became clear that Singapore Pools alone could not meet all the needs. We, therefore, brought together a group of technology companies (such as Cisco and Microsoft) and created a unique package of products fit for non-profit organisations. To address the concern of change management required, NCSS provided the Care and Share Grant to cover upfront costs and ensure success in implementation.

3. Innovate: Design a Unique Approach to Sustain and Scale Your Impact

Capacity building in the social sector is still in its nascent stage and requires new innovations. Such innovation does not necessarily mean ground-breaking and costly technology such as Artificial Intelligence. It could take place in new ways of partnerships, new business models to sustain the efforts or simply tweaking commercially available products to the sector.

In our case, to sustain efforts and ensure affordability to end users, the project team carefully studied the business model and financing arrangement. The consensus was a blended business model of non-profits paying for service fees, grants and in-kind support. Additionally, to avoid mission drift, Singapore Pools decided not to treat this just as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) project but to set up a dedicated entity solely focused on providing tech solutions to non-profits.

A new entity, iShine Cloud, was born. Unveiled on 21 May 2018, iShine Cloud is itself a non-profit entity aiming to provide charities with an affordable and integrated suite of sector-specific solutions via a secure cloud-based IT platform. Leveraging IT infrastructure and resources from Singapore Pools, iShine Cloud improves the productivity, governance and efficiency of operations so that social organisations can focus on their social mission. As of March 2019, 322 users have been benefiting from the neat suite of solutions.

Though it is too early to tell of the project’s success, the journey has been a testament of the needs driven approach that has enabled the success of skills-based volunteering and innovative philanthropy in enhancing tech infrastructure for non-profit organisations.

Want to find out how else Empact is bridging the capacity gap? Read more about their work at empact.sg


About Author
Peter Yang
Peter Yang Founder and CEO Empact Pte Ltd

Peter is the Founder and CEO of Empact, the social enterprise he founded in 2011. He has become a leader not just within Empact but also in the wider Singaporean social enterprise and charitable community with his innovative thinking and passion to positively impact social organisations.

Under Peter’s leadership, Empact has developed a unique value proposition of offering affordable services to social organisations utilising a unique combination of staff and skill-based volunteers in key areas of capacity gaps. Namely, finance, human resources, marketing, fundraising, volunteer management, information technology (IT) and leadership development.

To address these gaps, Peter and his team at Empact provide direct shared services (like payroll, accounting) to ensure social organisations are compliant with regulatory requirements. They also partner with corporates to channel much needed skilled volunteers to the sector, as well as with grant makers and government agencies to create innovative programmes and solutions that are customised for the sector.