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Resilience ‘may be lost if charity sector gets over-professionalised’

Outgoing NVPC chief Laurence Lien says while development of leaders is needed, it is essential that the sector remains diverse.

SINGAPORE: Recent measures to professionalise social service and social work are welcome, but outgoing chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) Laurence Lien has warned of potential pitfalls of over-professionalising the sector.

Mr Lien, who steps down at the end of next month after nearly six years at the helm, said: “We know that the work is too much to do and it’s not just for professionals to handle alone, but if (professionals) take on work that can be done as a community ... something gets lost.

There’s a sense of resilience and agency within that community – the care and compassion that comes from a volunteer, a neighbour helping you rather than a professional who’s paid – that gets lost and this may reduce the role of a volunteer to nothing.”

In March, the Ministry of Social and Family Development announced a scheme to groom social service leaders with deep knowledge of their fields as well as breadth of expertise, with 200 to 300 individuals to be part of the pool.

While the development of leaders in the social sector is needed – the NVPC launched the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership in 2010 for that purpose – Mr Lien said an important part of the sector was its diversity. “People come in with conviction for the work and with their own ideas of approaching it. And from the differences, the diversity of approaches, comes innovation,” he said. “If you develop leaders who can so easily be deployed from Organisation A to B to C, that may be great from the perspective of the person who has more career opportunities, but will that make organisations and charities too homogenous?”

To avoid these pitfalls, the growth of smaller non-profits that are making a positive impact on the ground should be supported, he said. Donors should fund operational support because if they insist that every dollar donated goes to beneficiaries, non-profits cannot grow and leverage on their unique strengths. Non-profits should also be encouraged to mobilise the community to be part of their work, he added.

There has been notable progress in giving and volunteerism among Singaporeans in recent years, but the charity sector still needs to “mature a lot more” and play a more significant role than in the past, he said.

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