What value, the nonprofit work?

The following is an excerpt from an email from the CEO of a nonprofit in Singapore, reproduced with permission:

“We have much to be thankful for this week. Several people who had participated in our programmes visited us with offers of help. A 28-yr-old mother who is gradually experiencing some stability in her life offered to give free facial treatments to the mothers residing in her neighbourhood. She is now living elsewhere but wanted to do something for the people who supported her and her children when she was in difficulty.
A young man in his 30s dropped by with his fiancé asking if our reception area was still called the Peace Café. He was showing his fiancé where he lived as a child and the places where he hung out. We told him that it is now called Café Beyond and we chatted a little about his experiences here. As he left, he told us that he will be seeing us again as he will be registering as a volunteer on http://www.beyondself.sg.”
A younger man in his early 20s who had “worked” at Café Beyond also dropped by on his day-off. He was a resident of a home we used to run and is now working at a restaurant at the Marina Bay Sands. He came by offering to link our members to opportunities at his workplace.
Finally, there was also another in his 30s who rode his motor-bike right up to our door-step with his fiancé riding pillion.  He had come after work and was still in his overalls. He services the lifts and escalators at Changi Airport and is deeply grateful for the life he is having now. He told me that he woke up one morning last week thinking of us and decided that he had to visit. He recounted that as a rebellious teenager he had been in trouble a few times and wasted quite a bit of precious time. He left us a small donation and said that he will be visiting again to explore volunteering opportunities.

I always look forward to hearing from this nonprofit, Beyond Social Services. I am familiar with their work with troubled youths and their families, and I know how challenging the work is. Challenging, not because the people they serve are problematic, but because most of us find it hard to imagine and appreciate how life takes a different path for some people, and we have a tendency to hold them against some conventional standard. It’s also challenging because for many of the youths, their families, friends and communities may have long given up on them.

Despite their challenges, with the support of nonprofits like Beyond, many of these youths eventually find their paths in life. Their stories struck me, because they have gone from being outcasts of society to being active contributors, and they have gone from being receivers to givers. Their gifts may be simple: a small donation here, a little contribution there. The monetary value may not be huge, but the transformation and the intangible value is.

A friend recently sent me an article about “10X programmers” in Silicon Valley. These are programmers who are 10 times more productive than their peers. In the same breath, my friend asked whether 10X efficiency was possible in service sectors especially public service.

I don’t have a good answer, but I suspect it will not be found using the same perspectives and thought processes we are familiar with in the for-profit world. Perhaps a 10X social worker is not so much one who can work at 10 times the speed of others, or who can create a product that can be sold at 10 times the price of others. Perhaps a 10X social worker is more towards someone who can, through his/her sincerity, passion and skills, inspire and turnaround even the most troubled youths that the rest of society has given up on?

Or, might that even be 100X?


The Spirit of Christmas

I was busy the past few weeks, as the quarter was ending and many team projects were due.

But, with the winter break, I’m glad to have had more time to relax and read :)  And I’ve been reading a great book this past week, Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”, which I will write more about in a subsequent post.

With Christmas around the corner, wife and I decided to send packages home.  Somehow, the idea of receiving a package in the mail seems quite exciting (at least we think so!), regardless of what’s in it.

Having said that, choosing a gift can be a challenge nowadays, given how global we have become.  There are very few things that one cannot find back home in Singapore!

Fortunately, we did find some local chocolates and cookies which we’ve never seen back home, so we promptly built up a stockpile of these to send as Christmas gifts.  And we spent a whole afternoon packing and sealing these, and writing notes and cards for them.

This morning, we headed to the post office to mail them.  The post office is always packed with people during Christmas season.  The queue was long, but we figured it should not take more than half an hour.

When we reached the counter, we were told we had to repack all our gift boxes because the postal service does not accept the masking tape that we had used to seal all our packages!

So…  We had to take all our packages to a corner of the post office and take them apart, and repack them in the USPS postal boxes and seal them with the USPS packing tape.  It took a long time to do so, including filling out many sets of custom forms.  End to end, we spent 2 hours at the post office!

The postage didn’t come cheap too.  I estimate it’s 4 to 5 times the cost of the chocolates and cookies?  In fact, the lady at the counter jokingly remarked, “These must be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever!” 

And she’s probably right! :P

I was reminded about something I read in Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”.  It was about Christmas and gifts.  Sandel writes that the most economically efficient gift is cash, because people can use it to buy the things they value most.  However, sending cash makes many people feel “degraded” about the Christmas experience, so a new industry has emerged around gift cards (e.g. Amazon, iTunes).  Somehow, they are more acceptable as gifts, than cash.

I contrasted the Christmas gift card idea and our experience.  The gift card would have been swift and neat.  You key in the receiver’s details and click send.  You can probably settle it in 5 minutes or less.  And the economists would also consider it highly efficient, because $100 in gift card value would translate to $100 worth of products that our friends would choose to spend on.  Contrast this to the amount of time we spent shopping (and possibly buying something people don’t want), spending an afternoon to pack and seal them the first time, only to spend two more hours at the post office queuing, repacking and then paying 4 to 5 times in excess of the value of the gift.

Sounds like a whole lot of money and effort relative to the actual dollar value of the gift that our friends would receive?  To this, I would agree.

Yet this seeming irrationality may be explained by a Chinese saying, “千里送鹅毛 物轻情意重”, which translates literally to “sending goose feathers over a thousand miles – the goods are light but the meaning is heavy”.  In this case, the meaning and the spirit of Christmas is also about the trouble we take, and the inefficiencies we go through (money and time).  If these turn out to be the most expensive chocolates and cookies ever, maybe that’s what make them special!  In an age where money can buy almost anything, what we go through is something that money cannot buy.  And if we bothered to go through all that trouble and expense to honor some great friendships, those are also cherished relationships that money cannot buy :)