Love's Labour's Won
For anyone closely connected to the Non-Profit industry in Singapore, the President's Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards (PVPA) represents one of the highest honours given to persons and organisations who have made an exceptional contribution in giving back to Singaporean society.
On the occasion of Labour Day, our Centre for Non-Profit Leadership (CNPL) team caught up with Dr Goh Wei Leong, a medical practitioner and educator by profession, to take a closer look at a leader's vision behind an exceptional non-profit.
Wei Leong is Co-founder and Chairman of HealthServe, winner of the PVPA 2015 in the non-profit category, and an NPO dedicated to improving the lives of the people who work to make our lives easier every day - Singapore's migrant workers.
We bring you excerpts from our inspirational chat where we understand the 5 leadership mantras that have helped HealthServe make a lasting difference.
Photo: Wei Leong with HealthServe beneficiaries at an event
A Brief History of HealthServe:
HealthServe started almost by accident. Years ago, while volunteering with the Karunya Clinic in Little India one day, young Wei Leong noticed the large number of migrant workers with various work related injuries and health disorders who frequented the clinic. Recognising a need, he and his friends opened up a free General Practitioners Clinic for these workers. Needless to say their calendars were full from the word go. Soon, however, they realised that the workers’ needs went beyond just health, and the journey of HealthServe officially began.
1) Constantly self-assess to stay relevant
One of the greatest eye openers for Wei Leong and his co-workers came in the initial days of Healthserve, through their chance encounter with an injured worker, who no longer had a job or a place to call home. The worker was completely unaware of his rights and choices and very close to ending his life. This led the HealthServe founders to reflect on the range of issues that their beneficiaries were facing. Wei Leong immediately tapped his network and sought the help of some lawyer friends to run a legal clinic. In time, they also opened up a 6 to 8 bed home to temporarily house workers who no longer had access to living quarters.
This experience would pave the path for HealthServe’s future motto to continually reassess the relevance of their services, and research the changing needs of their beneficiaries.
Today they serve the migrant worker community in areas of medical care, counselling, case work, social assistance, and other support services. They are also involved in the Geylang Food Project.
Photo: Wei Leong’s day out with some of HealthServe’s foreign friends
2) Play on strengths and form partnerships for the rest
For HealthServe’s founders, this realisation was a result of the greatest roadblock that the organisation faced after its first 7 to 8 years of operation. One of the founders felt that with their existing roles the clinic had reached its saturation point in terms of growth. This was when the team decided that it was necessary to define roles and formalise the management. Their first Executive Director was hired to manage the operations, leaving the founders free to concentrate on what they needed to do to grow the clinic - form partnerships and build momentum and support for the cause.
Today, their partnerships include regulatory authorities, agencies, schools and corporate organisations who work with them on public health awareness programs and research projects.
3) Be future-ready by embracing new ideas
Wei Leong believes that it is necessary to keep growing organisations through ideas. “One must always keep an eye out for the future. While it is important to serve in the present. It is not enough. For true uplift of a community, it is necessary to pre-empt their future needs and be prepared.”
To Wei Leong, the solution lies in millennials. While on one hand he relies on a structured processes for his senior staff, he also believes in the infinite creative potential of millennials. “Millenials have much to teach us in terms of finding new ways to express and take forward ideas. They also have the remarkable ability to harness social media to exponentially grow their networks”. He cites the example of a young millennial artist Calvin Tay who worked with HealthServe in organising SamaSama (meaning "the same"), an art exhibition on migrant workers over Labour Day weekend, in which he used playdough as a medium to raise awareness.
While the leaders at HealthServe encourage freedom of thought and expression among their staff, the senior members of the staff also participate in a continual process of development and succession planning."
Dr Goh Wei Leong - Co-founder and Board member of HealthServe
4) Give governance its due importance
Non-profits are essentially a product of compassion. To shift from a Kampong-like spirit to a process-driven organisation can be difficult at the beginning. However, in order to grow and better serve beneficiaries "the importance of checks and balances cannot be emphasized enough. At the same time structure cannot get ahead" of the spirit of the organisation. The challenge lies in finding the right balance.
So while the leaders at HealthServe encourage freedom of thought and expression among their staff, the senior members of the organisation also participate in a continual process of development and succession planning.
Photo: Wei Leong visiting HealthServe’s beneficiaries in their dormitory
5) Groom leaders by building the right culture
HealthServe looks for people who reflect its DNA. It has a learning culture. People can start their own projects while working with HealthServe. They can see their ideas to fruition and later come back to join HealthServe again. Wei Leong doesn’t believe in forced ties. "I see myself more as a sponsor of creativity," says he.
At HealthServe, the grooming of future leaders is continuous and hands-on. HealthServe members are usually also aspiring medical professionals, some of them Dr Goh’s students at NUS who are interested in family medicine. Staff meet up over coffee and kaya to discuss their plans and spend time in the dormitories of migrant workers to understand first-hand their conditions and needs. This keeps them grounded as well as provides direction to their passion to address real issues.
"We need platforms for people to rise and shine, and my role now is to act as an advisor in this journey." says Wei Leong in conclusion.
Every year the PVPA recognises giving heroes, both organisations and individuals, from various walks of life, who have created a multiplier effect in giving. The nominations for PVPA 2016 are now open. This year's categories include – Corporate (Non-SME), Corporate (SME), Non-Profit Organisation, Educational Institutional, Kampong Spirit *formerly Informal Group and Individual – Youth, Adult, and Senior categories.
So if you or someone you know has championed the spirit of giving, give them a chance at the recognition they deserve. Nominations can be submitted here.