Local NGOs share sustainable strategies to serving the needy

Running a social organisation requires a lot of heart, dedication, hard work – and also importantly, a sustainable operating model.

While many Good Samaritans have noble intentions of helping others, there remains the challenge of keeping their altruistic efforts running for the long-term.

Five prominent personalities in the Malaysian non-profit sector recently gathered for a roundtable discussion at Menara Star to share their experiences regarding sustainability challenges faced by social organisations.

The panellists were Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail, Yayasan Gamuda head Sharifah Alauyah Wan Othman, Yayasan Hasanah managing director Shahira Ahmed Bazari, NGOhub managing director Chun Wah Hoo and Malaysia’s Social Inclusion and Vibrant Entrepreneurship programme director under MaGIC and EcoKnights president Yasmin Rasyid.

Moderated by Malaysian Care policy, advocacy and research unit coordinator Santha Oorjitham, the discussion revolved around how social organisations can remain financially sustainable, and how to balance that against the needs of beneficiaries.

The roundtable discussion was held in conjunction with the 5th edition of Star Golden Hearts Award (SGHA)’s campaign, an annual award by The Star, supported by Yayasan Gamuda, to celebrate and appreciate Malaysian unsung heroes.

Since 2015, the award is presented to 10 deserving winners every year – whether they are individuals, non-profit organisations and social enterprises – for their selfless acts to make Malaysia a better place.

asmin, what are some challenges of building a sustainable social enterprise and a brief on MaGIC’s ecosystem in supporting social enterprise development in the country?

Yasmin: I would say EcoKnights is now a hybrid NGO. Legally and constitutionally, we are a non-governmental organisation but how we run and fund ourselves is very much a social entrepreneurship model. In the past, we were 80% heavy on grants and donations and fundraising from CSR. Today, we’ve reduced that number to about 15%.

Why I see social entrepreneurship as a more positive pathway is because one important element of running a social enterprise (SE) is that you are still a business. You need to be profitable. You need to be doing well financially, to do good for other people.

How does someone define an SE? Anyone can claim that they are an SE. MaGIC is working with the Entrepreneur Development Ministry, and the social entrepreneurship guidelines were launched on April 12. For the first time, in a long time, we finally have a proper definition of SE.

Dr Ahmad, the MNS is one of the oldest NGOs in Malaysia. How does it maintain the consistent support received all these years?

Dr Ahmad: We are going to celebrate MNS’s 80th anniversary next year. Why we can sustain (the organisation) so far is because we have a clear vision. We want to protect, conserve and manage nature. Sustainability is not just about making your own money, but making people trust you.

To get the funding is easy, when people trust you, then they would want to contribute. For example, when I wanted to develop a volunteering programme at Zoo Negara for schools, I mentioned it and the parents donated to the programme. There are many in the private sector who are consistently supporting us. People keep giving us jobs to support their mission, such as their CSR programmes.

The Number One way forward is education. We are lucky to have Kelab Pencinta Alam in nearly 500 schools with us. Throughout the school year, we have lots of activities, almost every week. At the university level, we have a Kelab Pencinta Alam Youth. We want to bring in the volunteers we developed in school level. Through the club, they come back to MNS and become facilitators or collaborate with their previous school.

Chun, what is your opinion on the level of awareness and willingness of Malaysian NGOs in standing up on their own without being too dependent on external support?

Chun: In my perspective, there is no one true way to achieve sustainability. It’s always going to be a mixture of what works for you and your organisation.

We have organisations that are dependent on donors and sometimes, that works for them. If you look at the history of what MNS has done, they have built up a strong base of supporters. If you look at disaster relief organisations, they are very dependent on donations. Then, there are those who need a team to operate multiple projects. They may have to create business opportunities to sustain their operations.

We did a survey several years ago, we found 60% (NGOs in Malaysia) has 10 staff or less. Some are located in small towns, sometimes you’ve never heard of these NGOS. They’re solving local issues. They can be sustainable differently than if you’re trying to scale a bigger organisation.

Times can change, how people behave in terms of supporting social organisations change. Now, there are so many technologies that can help an NGO.

Last year, we launched a crowd funding platform. Malaysian NGOS find it a challenge to learn this as a skill. We realise that different NGOs have different strengths, and you start wherever you are. Our message to NGOs is don’t box yourself in to one method.

Shahira, what are the key criteria Yayasan Hasanah looks for when selecting partners and how does your foundation work with partners to ensure sustainability of your projects?

Shahira: Yayasan Hasanah awards grants once a year. We are working with about 54 partners since 2015. We’ve supported more than 75 projects in the country. How do we give out our grants? First of all, the NGO has to be aligned to five focus areas – education, community, environment, arts or research or knowledge. We’re aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), so we make sure that the projects we support can report back to the SDG aspirations. We see how we can involve the community in designing that project, so that when we leave, there’s sustainability.

Both the donor and partner need to be beneficiary-focused. It sounds simple, but it helps with decision-making. You need to see how the beneficiary can benefit or lose out because of certain actions.

We also look at the ability of project to be measurable. We also have basic governance criteria. If NGOs want to get the grant, they need to provide audited financial statements. We support entities that have been doing work for more than two years, and are registered with the Registrar of Societies and Registrar of Companies.

Sharifah, how does Yayasan Gamuda define sustainability from a CSR point of view and can you share examples of projects that have shown good sustainability practices?

Sharifah: Yayasan Gamuda started in 2016 to house all our charitable programmes under one roof. Our main focus is on education and community improvement. The foundation supports community projects that can ensure meaningful and sustainable outcomes for the beneficiaries.

We have six criteria in our guiding principles. One of them is making sure that the projects are transformative, so that we can uplift the beneficiaries with real, effective change. It has to be empowering and sustainable so that beneficiaries can be independent and empowered to take control of their own destinies and sustain the effort. Inclusivity is also a criteria we look into, so that the whole community is gaining something out of it.

It is not just giving funds, but we also wish to focus on making a meaningful difference and support the entity that we fund. We would want to forge partnership, being co-participants with the beneficiaries to do a change process that will encourage and promote ownership for both parties. Social organisations must better understand the needs of their target groups. They have to promote self-sustainability in the lives of their beneficiaries in the long-term.

We have started in-house based on two examples before coming up with the guiding principles. For one, we have been giving out scholarships for 24 years. Another example is starting the Enabling Academy where we offer an employment transition programme that provides pre-employment training and job placement support for adults with autism to achieve white-collar and professional employment.

How can social organisations become sustainable?

Shahira: The biggest vulnerability for many of these entities, regardless what they are called, is financial sustainability. When we did the study here in Malaysia, many of our social enterprises have benefited from grant support and have grown to a certain size but are not big enough to attract the next level of funding.

They are “in between” – too big for grant but too small for the sort of next level investment. The data from the social enterprise report says that the number was about 50% of those who were driving this movement are the young, between the ages of 26 to 40, which we should support and allow them because they are looking for purpose driven life or businesses.

These are your sort of future change makers. How can we support them in a sustainable way? The first way is collaboration. One of the things we have been trying to work on with other donors as well is to see if we can pull a sort of a source or a pool of fund. Second is coordination. As a nation we have not been very good in coordination and implementation. The final one is continuity, we can pass the baton to another foundation to take it on with the energy for another five years.

Most NGOs work on a project basis and I think that is the number one flaw as well. You can’t look at a community on a project basis. These are lives of people. So you have a very big picture systemic approach and be able to recognise that you are not the only one who can make that change. You need to know other partners as well.

How can private cooperations, social organisations and the government, partner in social responsibility and what role does each of them play?

Ahmad: Many years ago when I was involved in promoting nature tourism, all hotels near the beach or the ecotourism areas must clean it. Now, it has become a tradition where they clean the beach but you go 100 metres further, you can see the rubbish.

We have developed the local awareness that helps the hotels or ecotourism operators to clean it. This means that the government mission should go along with NGOs and support the companies.

The big companies and funders should focus and see the long-term impact (of their efforts). A national history museum is one, conservation of a specific forest, or helping the government to make it a reality on the central forest spine to link the fragmented forest so that animals can move.

Shahira: A lot of the foundations do work very closely with the government. The government has been supportive, trying to do their best within the capacities that they have. However, we should have a mechanism where NGOs and social enterprises can be supported to be more effective on the ground. The government machinery provides other things like scale, reach and policies but the social workers, the NGOs on the ground, they are actually taking it to the last mile.