Strategy with a heart
Jeremy Au, Kwok Jia Chuan
A new non-profit comes onboard to provide pro-bono consulting services to non-profits and social enterprises. By Eleanor Yap (Author). Conjunct Consulting wants to make an impact in the social sector by providing pro-bono consulting to non-profits and social enterprises. It is said to be the first and only organisation in Singapore/Asia offering pro-bono social sector consulting solutions. Not only does Conjunct Consulting help the organisations get much-needed help, but it also encourages students and professionals to continue to volunteer and give back to the community. Even though their efforts deviate from the traditional Community Involvement Programme (CIP) model, the two founders, Jeremy Au and Kwok Jia Chuan, believe they are on the right track. Their work has garnered incredible support, proving that change could be a good thing. Started in September 2011, Conjunct Consulting has already assisted four charities and roped in some 120 students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU) from various fields of study, as well as 20 professionals from different industries. SALT Online speaks to Au (JA) and Kwok (JC), both 24 years old, about their organisation and their aspirations (Au will be working in Bain & Company in October and Kwok is a civil servant): What was your motivation behind starting a non-profit organisation to help non-profits and social enterprises in Asia? JA: During my time in Berkeley, California, I was very fortunate to work with The Berkeley Group, which provides pro-bono consulting services to non-profits in California. I had a wonderful experience with a great group of students who were passionate about making a difference. At the same time, the projects allowed us to understand the challenges of the social sector – the everyday trade-offs and the painful decisions a leader has to make while serving the community and keeping the organisation alive. I knew that Asia deserved the same opportunity – for volunteers and the social sector to work together better. Every social sector leader deserves the very best – the best strategies, the best information and the best tools needed to make the right decisions for our community. We also needed to revolutionise volunteerism by moving away from the current hours-based paradigm to a system that allows us to use the best of our skills. JC: For me, my inspiration was the realisation that society has already given me a lot in my life, and that too often I take it for granted. I volunteer my time and efforts so as to contribute a little bit back to society, and to bring happiness to a few more people each day. When Jeremy and I started talking about Conjunct Consulting, I realised it was a way to catalyse and multiply the efforts of many interested volunteers out there and use their different skills and talents in order to impact the social sector beyond the application of time and effort. In doing the research before you set up the organisation, what were some of the key issues with which non-profits and social enterprises needed help? JC: A key issue is strategic and management decisions – many non-profits and social enterprises are excellent at their day-to-day operations and core functions, but often want thought partners in planning how to expand and improve their organisations. JA: Social impact assessment and outcome-based management are issues now coming to the fore. Not everything that is measured today is important, thus stakeholders and managers are increasingly demanding that everything important should be measured and improved upon. The challenge is developing a system of impact metrics that is simultaneously mission-relevant, scientifically rigorous and operationally sustainable. Why did you decide to set the business up as a non-profit rather than a for-profit business with paid professionals and paid services? JC: We are a social impact organisation creating a new model of pro-bono service for Asia. By delivering our services with professionally-mentored volunteer teams, we draw on the strengths of experienced professional and passionate student volunteers. As a non-profit, we are thus able to serve as a collaborative platform for individuals and organisations in the private, public and social sector. What are your views on CIP in schools? Community Involvement Programme (CIP) helps expose students to the needs of our communities. Many of our early experiences with volunteer services stem from school-led initiatives, and this is evidence of how CIP has exposed us to the social sector. While CIP does expose us to community service, we wanted to ask students to think about how to help the social sector and use their skills that they learn in university to work together as a team to create sustained and impactful results. What areas do you concentrate on in your consulting of non-profits/social enterprises? JC: We do not concentrate on specific areas – rather, our model allows us to assemble the best teams to find solutions to different problems in the social sector. Through a process of training students and professionals and then matching them into teams according to their different skill sets and passions, we assemble teams that match the needs of our clients. How do you choose or get the students and/or professionals to assist in the consulting projects? How much time do they put in per week? JC: The choice of members in a team is primarily values-driven. We look for three values in a consultant – passion, a focus on impact and collaboration. We care for our communities, deliver social impact rather than processes, and work well in interdisciplinary teams. To sustain this, we have structured a values-driven selection process that enables us to find members that mesh with our values, culture and results. On average, the students put in 10 to 15 hours a week and professionals contribute about three to seven hours a week. What is your training curriculum like? JA: We ready our student members for project success and equip them as future social sector leaders with three modes of development – trainings, practicums and mentorships. Our members learn the quantitative and qualitative skills needed to make decisions in the social sector. We incorporate rigorous coverage of core content, intensive group-work directed by trainers, and frank discussions by social sector leaders. Practicums teach our members how to best use their skills. All members undergo case camps, highly realistic simulations of critical organisational decisions, to learn how to better conduct research, synthesise information and deliver recommendations in a time-sensitive environment. Mentorships provide individual guidance and feedback. Just as professionals mentor their student counterparts, student leaders mentor their juniors. This is how we equip every single member to be ready for a deeper level of service. Can you share the process of a project from start to finish in the three-month time of a project? JA: During the project, the team will deliver at least 700 man-hours of service with the support of our leaders, partner, and networks. To ensure quality outcomes, all projects go through this rigorously structured cycle – assembly, scoping, work planning, data gathering, analysis, progress review, recommendation development and finale. After being assembled based on capabilities and client needs, the two professionals and five students meet, bond and form the team. The issue is scoped into a statement of work with client-defined deliverables. The challenge is then segmented, prioritised and assigned to team members with an internal work plan. Data is gathered through primary and secondary research, and then analysed to develop a fact base. The team shares its interim findings at an internal progress review and client progress update. Recommendations, action steps and operational details are developed in tandem with the client. Finally, the defined deliverables satisfying the statement of work are presented at the internal and client finale. Conjunct Consulting then conducts three follow-up sessions to the client after the project cycle – one at the six-month mark, one at the one-year mark and one at the two-year mark. During these sessions, an independent Conjunct Consulting unit conducts a quantitative assessment of increased organisational effectiveness, a qualitative assessment of how our work can be improved, and a discussion on any new action steps to enhance project outcomes. How do you all volunteer manage? JC: We operate on a hub-and-spoke system where the central Hub, consisting of the Executive Committee and professionals, coordinates national-level activities such as case camps, client relations, training standards and publicity efforts. At the same time, the student chapters in the different universities conduct the training syllabus and member recruitment, team selection and mentorship programs. This is so they specialise in what they can do best, swiftly make autonomous decisions, and innovate for results in their duties. We further enhance our coordination with knowledge management, file-sharing and task management cloudware. What challenges have you been facing since you started? JA: When we first started out, the key obstacle we faced was skepticism. People were questioning how the Conjunct Consulting model worked and their role in it, and they were rightfully concerned about how it would be managed. After all, we are a new model of volunteerism and a new system that changes how the social sector works. The way we went about facing this problem was finding the people who believed in the same cause we did, rather than focusing on the skepticism. Where is your funding coming from? JA: We have been pleasantly surprised by the community’s reception and outpouring of support for our model of service. To diversify our funding, our student and professional members make a small contribution to cover baseline operating costs. We are fully committed to financial transparency and allow all members to view our budget, financial information and independent audit reports on our internal knowledge platform. Our financial sustainability strategy is to solidify our donation base with a donor recognition program, gain seed-funding for several productivity infrastructure investments, and develop a per-project funding model with our private, public and social sector partners. How do you plan to keep the organisation sustainable? JC: The key to sustainability is to deliver results. If we provide quality advice to our clients and at the same time manage to deliver a great experience to our volunteers, people will keep coming back to us. At the same time, we are immensely humbled at the support we have received so far and that is a testament of the passion of the volunteers and team we have with us. Anything you would like to add? JC: Start now and keep thinking of new ideas to aid the social sector. Be courageous and keep trying – every step makes a difference, no matter how small. This story was first published in SALT (www.salt.org.sg), an e-magazine by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre. Additional info provided by cataloguer: The article is accompanied by two photographs consisting of a half portrait of the founders Jeremy Au and Kwok Jia Chuan and a group of people looking at a laptop.