In aid of silent sufferers
Mr Teng Ngiek Lian was featured in the Coutts Institute Million Dollar Donor Report in 2014. Below is the full case study and interview with the organisation.
Teng Ngiek Lian took inspiration from legendary investor Warren Buffett in launching his own venture, The Silent Foundation, three and a half years ago. To him philanthropy is about more than just giving money – “Taking photos with cheques doesn’t thrill me at all.” Teng is far more interested in helping other charitable organisations grow, and seeing the impact these donations can make to people’s lives.
Q. What inspired you to set up the Silent Foundation?
My inspiration came from Warren Buffett. As I am a value fund manager, he has clearly been an influence in my professional life. But as I observed so much of what he did, I was also influenced by his work in philanthropy. As a ‘value’ fund manager, we often find good value exists in ‘overlooked’ sectors. Stocks that have fallen or out of favour are often the best value buys. So when it comes to philanthropy, I naturally think of helping the overlooked sector, which I call the ‘Silent Sufferer’. That is why I called the foundation The Silent Foundation. The typical silent sufferers are those who are voiceless and in a minority. They don’t get attention from institutions, corporations and the public. Some good examples are mental health patients, distressed migrant workers, wildlife and the environment.
Q. What kind of causes do you support?We divide our funding between the protection of animals and the environment (50%) and human causes (50%). We like to support causes and charities that are being overlooked and/or budding. For example, we have been funding ACRES, a local animal rescue organisation, while also helping migrant workers through HOME and Healthserve.
Q. Has your work as a fund manager influenced your philanthropy in other ways?Definitely. As a fund manager when I make investments I have to think of value and return on equity. I try to follow the same concepts when it comes to my philanthropic work. Therefore when I disburse philanthropy, I think about its impact (which is the equivalent of return on equity). Someone once told me that ‘impact is more important than input’. I agree with this and we try to follow this principle with The Silent Foundation.
Q. How do you measure impact?Although we want to achieve maximum impact and assess its outcome, we also realise that you can’t measure everything in philanthropy. It is not a science. There must be feeling and emotion. There are some causes that you just feel compassionate about and want to help, regardless of the impact measurement.
Q. How do you make a decision about what projects to support?Do you identify a need and then approach the relevant partners to run the project, or do people approach you asking for support? It’s a bit of both, some people approach us and sometimes we actively seek out projects that meet our key objectives. I’m passionate about helping minority races so we have sought out projects in this area.
Q. Can you give us an example?We have spoken to Malay and Indian organisations and asked them what additional support they might need. Sometimes we come up with ideas, sometimes they tell us what their communities need. For example, we are now funding a programme to help Malay students who fail their GCE O’levels to re-sit the exam. This was our idea. As this is a key exam, it could have a significant impact on these youngsters’ lives. While most philanthropists provide scholarships to motivate top students to do even better, we feel helping those less capable to push through the basic barrier in life is even more important. We feel these less smart students are being overlooked.
Q. Do you collaborate with other organisations?We think collaboration is important. Often we will only be able to provide half or three-quarters of the funding a project needs. But it’s not just about the money, we want these organisations to be actively looking for other sources of funding. This enables more people to support these causes and enable these programmes to develop and grow.
Q. Do you work with lots of different organisations?Yes, and every organisation is different. The larger groups we work with tend to be very well organised: they can articulate their aims clearly and are very transparent. But some can be more bureaucratic and have larger overheads, which is of course less desirable. On some causes, like the environment, we have to work with larger organisations because they are in a better position to lobby government and bring about change. At the other end of the scale, smaller younger organisations can be very passionate and have a lot of energy, but then they are often not so well organised, especially when it comes to fundraising. We have partnered with Resource Alliance to provide training to these young organisations in fund raising, which will help them to sustain their charitable activities.
Q. How do you check on the progress of the projects you’ve funded?There’s two aspects to it. When we give grants the trustees of these projects agree to provide us with updates and reports. This is more statistical. But we also try to engage with the ultimate recipients. It’s not that we don’t trust these reports, but we want to look at it from the recipients’ point of view, understand what their needs are and how they’ve benefited. We always try to give feedback to our partners who are running these projects. We do a bit of our own legwork and due diligence. We try to make positive contributions to help them be more effective.
Q. Are your family or children involved in your charity work?I’d like my work to be continued. Although my son Matthew is one of the directors of the Foundation, this is not meant to be a family foundation to pass down from generation to generation. Doing philanthropic works is a noble cause, and it doesn’t really matter whether it is your family member or anybody else doing it. That is why the foundation does not carry our family name.
Q. What are the challenges for philanthropy in Singapore?Before talking about challenges, let me say that there are many advantages of setting up a philanthropic organisation in Singapore: the laws here are clear and friendly; the supporting infrastructure is very good; and the tax allowances for donations are very generous. I think the greatest challenge in Singapore is to find the right kind of people, particularly younger ones, to undertake charitable works. We live in a very pressured world. The young have so many things to cope with in a materialistic world. Also good ethics and life principles need to be inculcated when they are young. Our education system should strengthen these areas.
"This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Coutts Million Dollar Donors Report for Singapore in association with The National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. Copyright © Coutts & Co, Indiana University and The National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre 2014. The full report, which tracks the scale and nature of major philanthropy in seven regions and features interviews with donors and recipients, can be found here: http://www.coutts.com/donorsreport."
Our Foundation was featured on 13 March 2012 in SALT, an online magazine dedicated to fostering change in the non-profit community. It was written by Mr Andrew Phua.
Click on the link here for the source article.
Foundations are an often overlooked, yet they play an integral part in the non-profit sector in Singapore. Besides notables like the Lee and Lien foundations, there are many other foundations in Singapore, each rallying their own cause (currently there is no empirical data on the number of foundations in Singapore which includes both corporate and family foundations). For instance, one such foundation, The Silent Foundation, is carving a niche for itself by supporting causes that have no voice, that includes animals and the environment.
SALT Online speaks to the project manager of the Foundation, Tan En, to find out more about the new-kid-on-the-block, its work as well as its challenges:
Could you share briefly about The Silent Foundation and your founder’s motivation on setting it up?
The Silent Foundation was started by Teng Ngiek Lian in July 2010. He came from a humble background; over the years he has worked his way through various corporations to finally set up his own fund management business. He feels that he has benefitted from various people in his life and from society; therefore, he has a strong urge to give back.
As a fund manager, Teng invests in many companies that are overlooked and unloved by investors and this has influenced the way he conducts his philanthropy. He wants to devote his time to help those who are voiceless and overlooked by society. These people tend to be unable to speak up for themselves and suffer in silence, such as foreign workers, the insane, and dementia patients. He figures that causes which are able to shout for help and get attention are able to garner help from others. Hence, he chose the name “The Silent Foundation”.
Why choose a foundation, as opposed to a VWO or charity?
With a foundation, we are able to institutionalise the giving process and are also able to channel and redirect our resources to various organisations from time to time. Eventually, we can also attract talent to further the cause of the Foundation beyond the founder’s lifetime.
How does the Foundation function logistically? For e.g. staff size, source of funding, disbursement of funding and to whom, etc.
The Foundation was set up recently, in July 2010, and other than having me as the Foundation’s first full-time staff, we also harness resources from people who have expressed interest in helping the Foundation with tasks such as research, data mining or ad hoc assignments. As of now, we are not doing any fundraising and all donations are made by Teng. Thus far, he has donated S$11 million to the Foundation. He wants to start the ball rolling and to ensure the Foundation has proper evaluation processes, key performance measurements and monitoring channels. Eventually, when we have a track record, the Foundation may open to donations from the public.
Confucius has a saying that “Charity begins at home”. Therefore, as a registered charity in Singapore, we want to begin our work helping causes that are close to Singaporeans’ hearts. That being said, we would also like to help causes in our neighbouring ASEAN countries. Singapore being a more affluent country, we want to be able to extend our helping hands to poorer countries around the region. Additionally, many environmental issues are inter-linked; by playing a part in these causes, Singapore also benefits indirectly.
How do non-profits tap your resources? Do they need to write a grant proposal? Can you share about some organisations you have funded so far and their programmes?
We are looking for charities whose causes are in line with our Foundation’s goals, transparent with their accounts, comfortable with corporate governance and measurable with reasonable key performance indices. Once we have established that their project is worth considering, they can proceed to work together with the project manager on the grant proposal.
Our first project was the setting up of The Silent Environmental Bursary at the National University of Singapore (NUS). We are very glad that NUS has recognised the importance of environmental causes and created a new course – the Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Studies. Therefore, we want to lend our support in the form of a bursary which will provide financial assistance to students who are passionate about the environment and wish to pursue the new degree. The Foundation has pledged S$1 million and this will be matched by a S$1.5 million grant by the Government. The bursary will be managed by NUS.
Teng is very passionate about the environment as it affects all forms of life. Many plants and creatures have suffered in silence as they cannot speak out. Some have even gone extinct. This ecological effect will eventually affect us human beings. Environmental problems constitute a global issue. They transcend political and geographical boundaries. Though a small country, Singapore should play a part and show a good example to other countries.
We also feel that it will be catalytic to the cause if we can cultivate more young people to aspire to become future change-makers in the environmental sector. We are currently looking into funding environmental groups along the lines of education and outreach.
What are some tips for non-profits in writing a good grant proposal?
Before a charity embarks on the long and often frustrating road of writing a grant proposal, it is important to speak to the grant officer at the foundation for guidance. How much detail is needed for each grant differs from foundation to foundation. Be open about your expectations and even if your proposal is not approved, learn from any feedback given by the grant officer. Always customise; never copy and paste wholesale from a previous proposal written for another foundation.
What challenges has your organisation faced since conception?
We face two main challenges. Firstly, we have some transparency issues where we have problems getting information from organisations that wish to seek funding. Some of these charities might not understand the need for due diligence and are not as forthcoming with their information as necessary.
Secondly, many charities have a lot of “heart” for the cause at hand, but lack the skills to run their organisation effectively. Therefore, they sometimes have difficulties adhering to performance indices that measure their impact in the sector.
How do you envision The Silent Foundation in the future?
We want to make a difference and create an impact on causes that are overlooked by society. We also want to be professional in our giving, and help our recipients in the way they are organised and improve their transparency. This way, we are not only giving them resources, but also laying the groundwork and teaching them how to work with potential grant-makers in the future.
We hope the Foundation can create a good track record that is properly institutionalised so that others will be interested to take over the task after the passing of its founder.
Can your founder share some thoughts on foundations and the non-profit sector?
It is encouraging to see that the Government is giving strong support in infrastructure and to organisations like the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), which has been instrumental in helping young foundations like ours with capacity building.
It is also good to know that there are grants available for charities to tap into to be more effective. One example is the VCF Shared Service Grant that provides subsidies allowing charities to streamline their operations by outsourcing their administrative processes.
Teng is glad to see more foundations being incorporated in Singapore and an increasing awareness of many issues that affect our society. Even in an uncertain economic climate, people are still forthcoming in their donations to different causes.
The Foundation plans to make grants of about S$1 million per year in the near foreseeable future.