That Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin intends to continue championing social causes – even though this role is “not traditionally associated with [the] Speaker” – is no surprise. After all for over two years he served as the Minister for Social and Family Development, and when Mr. Tan was nominated by the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to be the next Speaker, his “good links with a diverse range of non-government organisations, voluntary welfare organisations, and interest groups” and his “concern for the needy and disadvantaged” were emphasised. And in addition to his appointment as Speaker of Parliament, he leads the national volunteerism movement SG Cares, and was appointed advisor to the National Council of Social Service.
In an interview with “The Straits Times” this week (Oct. 15), the Speaker outlined his strategy to tackle social causes from three fronts: Reaching out to schools, sustaining the interest of school-leavers in volunteerism, and coaxing companies to step up their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. And on each front, research can – and should – feature more prominently.
Reaching out to schools: The first front offers the most opportunities for effective research. Values in Action (or VIA, previously the CIP, or the Community Involvement Programme) and service-learning (SL) are the main mechanisms through which students learn about social or community causes. Hence, to what extent have VIA, CIP, and SL been effective? By seeking feedback from students and teachers – past and present – a hypothetical exploratory study could establish the pros and cons of the programmes: Should programmes be compulsory? How do students understand “volunteerism” and “community service”, and does such cognisance translate into involvement beyond the school? And what are some best practices, such as diversification of service options, giving students the autonomy to design their own projects, and giving greater focus to post-event reflections?
Sustaining the interest of school-leavers in volunteerism: Of particular concern is that the volunteerism rate of Singaporeans aged 25 to 34 often lags behind that of the other age-groups. Notwithstanding its research limitations, the 2016 Individual Giving Survey by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre showed that only 29 per cent of respondents in that age group volunteered in the past year. Only Singaporeans in the 55 to 64 years and the 65 years and above brackets had a lower rate.
In this transition from the classroom to the workforce, the lack of time – as a result of work and family commitments – seems to be the predominant concern. Besides strengthening the CSR programmes of companies (which, as the following point elaborates, is much harder), research could help in the design of better interventions. Assuming that time is indeed the constraining factor, a study could examine how existing volunteers between the ages of 25 and 34 manage their time, while taking into account (or controlling for) their occupations or professions, their family involvement, and even more instrinsic, motivational factors. At the same time, the study could also examine how charities with a large volunteer base incentivise their volunteers.
In this vein, new interventions could revolve around weaving volunteerism with the social or family lives of young Singaporeans, and improving the way they find suitable matches for causes, organisations, and also skills-based volunteerism.
Coaxing companies to step up their corporate social responsibility programmes: Because most companies are fundamentally concerned with their financial bottom-line, this is probably the hardest of the three fronts. Cynics might even argue that CSR endeavours are but a pragmatic extension of that financial or profit incentive, to improve the public image of the company or to increase the likelihood of recruiting good talents. With this in mind, research – building upon existing surveys – can ascertain if it is necessarily true (as Mr. Tan has cited) that “young people want to join companies that have strong CSR programmes”. Will this, for instance, still hold true, if other factors such as pay, compensation, and advancement opportunities are considered?
In the Singapore context, moreover, what constitutes “good” CSR? What does it mean, or take, “to make a difference”? Short-term projects – beach or house clean-ups, a day out with children or at a food distribution charity, and other one-day activities – do plug immediate needs – yet it could be hypothesised that CSR programmes are likely to bring about more long-term impact if companies partner community organisations on a more sustained basis. If so, how can this be brought about, with greater efficacy?
At the heart of this research appeal, ultimately, is the belief that evidence-based policymaking – perhaps even more so – applies to the social service sector too. This is a sector of good (social) intentions, in service of those who might have fallen through the cracks, and therefore organisations must evaluate to better their programmes and services, to better the lives of whom they serve.