Book Review by Knowledge@SMU
8 October 2008
Doing Good Well: What Does (and Does Not) Make Sense in the Nonprofit World is a bold, exhaustive and analytical book on what makes the nonprofit sector tick — or not. It is author Willie Cheng’s offering to a well-intentioned charity sector (including the public) in Singapore that, until recently, has seemed at a loss about effective governance. Cheng is Board Chairman of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University.
Cheng, formerly country managing director and managing partner of Accenture, served as chairman of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre from 2002 to 2005. He was instrumental in launching its bi-monthly magazine, SALT — to which he is still a regular contributor — which provides a platform for his provocative views on nonprofit paradigms.
Before the crisis of confidence that swept through the sector in 2006 in Singapore, the attitude within and towards nonprofits was generally one of nonchalance. The majority of donors contributed to their favourite causes out of blind faith, boards were largely laidback in their governance, and government bodies overseeing the sector were generally tolerant.
Then the NKF (National Kidney Foundation), perceived to be the giant among social service giants, was discovered hoarding an anomalous amount of reserves and its management convicted of gross mismanagement, to name two causes for its downfall. Within the same timeframe came more revelations of mismanagement of other, long-established no profit organisations. The consequences were painful. Many nonprofits took a beating from their faithful donors; some are still struggling to get back on their feet while others have run aground.
Before the NKF saga, there had been a dearth of published resources for local nonprofits with regard to the running of their organizations. Specifically, none comprehensively talked about the Singapore experience. On the international scene, there are few that look at the conceptual and strategic issues of the nonprofit sector. This book fills both these needs.
Doing Good Well expands on the ideas Cheng previously wrote about in SALT and, occasionally, in The Straits Times, Singapore. Adding value to the book are experiences and facts gleaned from international corporations, charities and publications, giving it a wider appeal. The biggest advantage of the book is that it originates from a local practitioner with a global outlook.
Cross Sectoral Perspectives
What makes the book a refreshing resource are Cheng’s accounts of corporate practices and how they model or rue sound governance. He occasionally superimposes the image of a nonprofit on this background, and examines the new landscape.
Cheng’s perspective is partially derived from his tenure as a partner at Andersen Consulting, which later became Accenture, where he spent his entire working life. Drawing from 26 years of corporate experience, he brings authoritative insights into the workings of the corporate world. The other side of his perspective emanates from his past and present involvements in the governing bodies of nonprofits and charities. Among these are the Council for the Governance of IPCs, Lien Centre for Social Innovation, NTUC Fairprice Foundation and Caritas Singapore Community Council.
Doing Good Well discusses how nonprofit organisations can benefit from a corporate approach to thinking and practices without losing their compassionate touch. However, right from the start, Cheng asserts that nonprofits cannot succeed with a purely corporate mindset. In other words, “One cannot serve both (poor) man and money. You either love one and hate the other.”
Those who are unprepared for Cheng’s characteristic boldness will find some of the book’s suggestions controversial, if not downright preposterous. Take the chapter on Nonprofit Mission that goes by the headline, “Endgame: Extinction”. Cheng states, “Ultimate success occurs when the nonprofit’s mission is achieved and its existence in no longer needed,” a thought-provoking idea. Yet one wonders how many boards can go on a retreat to plan their proverbial exit from the nonprofit scene.
Another example is Cheng’s discourse on why social service employees do not command the same salary scale as their counterparts in the commercial sector (Chapter 7, “Heartwork, Less Pay”). The difference, he says, is that the former use their hearts more and are subject to less stress, while the latter generally uses less, make expensive decisions, and deal with a great deal of stress. One could argue that, surely, this is no different from running a nonprofit organization encumbered by people shortages and is yet expected to meet key deliverables under tight deadlines.
Discouraging as this may sound initially, Cheng takes care not to leave his reader disheartened. Despite its provocative ideas, Doing Good Well encourages nonprofit practitioners to have clarity of mission, intention and desired outcomes, virtues that make for credible charities. In fact, the barbs in some of his remarks are blunted by his use of humour.
Fundraising in Asia
A particular segment of the book that stands out for me and is worth poring over again and again is the short chapter on “Planned Giving”. Singapore is home to 67,000 high net worth individuals (estimated value: US $320 billion) yet not many nonprofits are paying attention to the great potential of bequests. In a few short paragraphs Cheng explains why Asian charities are reluctant even to raise the issue of leaving a legacy with their rich donors, and gives compelling reasons why the sector should seize the opportunity of “raising money from the dead”.
In the chapter on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Cheng states that the most compelling rationale for CSR is the responsibility that comes with power. Some multinational corporations have sales turnover that is bigger than many countries’ gross domestic product. It has been reported that, in the US for example, pharmaceutical giants have been able to successfully lobby for legislation that favours their products. Unless business takes responsibility for doing good — and not merely in the name of branding — Cheng says that CSR will just be “enlightened self-interest rather than corporate altruism”. Such a challenge must draw more corporations into the company of those genuinely trying to make the world a better place.
Doing Good Well provides exhaustive coverage of all types of engagement across the nonprofit sector, from outdated practices known in the business world as “Qwerty” to new trends such as social enterprise. The book also captures recent events that have made an impact on the charity landscape, such as international charities coming under greater scrutiny, as a result of 9/11, in an attempt to stem the flow of terrorist funds.
The Singapore Scene
Examining Singapore’s ambition to become a “philanthropic hub”, Cheng suggests the need to review restrictive rules that discriminate against international charities and international giving. Among these are the need for fundraising permits for overseas purposes, and the ‘80:20’ rule where 80% of funds raised from members of the public must be spent only in Singapore. Such donations are also non-tax deductible. This vision was further dented, he says, while hosting the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 2006, Singapore refused entry to five of 27 international NGOs that were a part of the meetings.
As a penultimate treat to his readers, Cheng insightfully illustrates the various concepts presented in earlier chapters of the books using a case study on the NKF saga. This chapter, complete with over five pages of references, makes for an exciting read. The book comes full circle, concluding with the scenario of a charity ecosystem, the result of which is doing good better.
Despite its comprehensive coverage of charity issues and views, supported by charts and graphs, Doing Good Well is a manageable book, and an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the not-for-profit world. It is being launched at a time when the global economy is close to sliding into a recession, and the nonprofit sector in Singapore is slowly re-emerging from a crisis which, some critics argue, was its own undoing. Perhaps best of all, it comes from a nonprofit practitioner within the country’s own ranks.
This book review is also carried by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
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