Insights on Non-Profits

By Adriale Pang and Chloe Mak

Discovery+ is a series of online industry panels which give students the chance to interact with working professionals and learn about the careers they aspire to enter. These panels provide youths and working professionals with the opportunity to better understand industry trends, hear first-hand perspectives from industry professionals, and gain valuable advice on entering or navigating these industries.

On 15 February 2022, Advisory hosted Discover+: Non-Profits, the 52nd edition of the Discovery+ series. Speakers on the panel included: 

  • Anthony Chng, Director, Enterprise Division, CARE Singapore
  • Grace Ann Chua, Assistance Manager, Community Matters, National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC)
  • Clarissa Goh, Programme Lead, Volunteer Management, Dementia Singapore
  • Johann Annuar, Chief Executive Officer, Engineering Good
  • Ramta Mishra, Global Human Resource Director, Conservation International
  • Stacey Choe, Chief Operating Officer, Asia Philanthropy Circle (APC)

Attendees included students at various levels of education with a desire to know the different career paths in Non-Profits, and how to best position themselves for such roles. Below are some key points shared during the session:


There are three large groups within the non-profit sector:

  1. Government-linked organisations, such as National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), SG Enable and National Council of Social Service (NCSS)
  2. Large and well-established charities like National Kidney Foundation (NKF) and Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA)
  3. New and young start-up-like charities, and even non-registered groups

Organisations in the first group may be created as a result of a ministry’s mandate, and receive substantial funding from the government. They may also work on regulation, policymaking, etc.

Those in the second group may be more well-resourced and have well-established ways of conducting their activities.

Those in the final group may feature a more evident atmosphere of excitement and informality, where staff and volunteers are eager to work and are less rigid with their methods.

Singapore’s non-profit sector has evolved significantly within the past 10 years, and presently there is a wide variety of non-profits. This bodes well for the sector, and also means that there are many pathways available for newcomers to enter the sector.

However, accompanying this diversity are the problems of lack of coordination and duplication of efforts.

The line between for-profit and non-profit is also being blurred, particularly with the increasingly widespread Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes. For-profit companies are making an undeniable impact on the non-profit sector.

Hopefully, going forward, we can all collaborate and streamline our efforts — not just operationally but also ideologically. Rather than going our own way, we should cohere our work and avoid unnecessary and wasteful duplication of efforts.

Finally, there is an added regional and global dimension. Some non-profits operate in multiple countries, which will provide you with a multinational, comparative perspective.

Day-to-day tasks include:

  1. Operations, e.g. fixing laptops and then distributing them to the less-privileged
  2. Volunteer management, e.g. interacting with volunteers and beneficiaries to better understand and match them to each other
  3. Meetings, e.g. discussing with philanthropists how their assets can be best deployed in the non-profit sector, ideating with social entrepreneurs
  4. Human resource management, e.g. reading CVs, assessing an intern on the job
  5. Recruitment, e.g. informing local universities about the interns your organisation requires
  6. Corporate communications, e.g. sharing your cause with potential donors in order to raise funds
  7. Innovation, e.g. taking the initiative to be the first local non-profit to execute a “TikTok For Good” campaign
  8. Finances, e.g. ensuring that your organisation can afford its payroll
  9. Strategic planning, e.g. planning for your organisation to become more effective five years down the road

We are definitely paid less than the private and government sectors. That said, this discussion should be much more nuanced.

We recognise that remuneration can be monetary and non-monetary, but most people only focus on the former. It is important to recognise that in this sector, much of what we gain from our work is not captured in a paycheck.

We wake up excited to go to work and solve problems because we strongly believe in our chosen cause. If what you are getting out of your job can only be defined by the amount of your salary, then yes, we are being paid worse. But if remuneration includes purpose, fulfilment, the size of the positive impact made and more, then the calculus drastically differs.

Still, an entire discussion can be had about whether, morally, we should be paid more. Why must we be expected to take a “passion discount”, e.g. accept a 30% lower salary than comparable peers in the private or government sectors?

The work of non-profits is at least as important as the private and government sectors. Hence, we should recognise the equal value of the work in all three sectors and eliminate the salary disparity.

Also, do not be tricked into romanticising the salary disparity. You should be able to afford your basic needs, even as you work in non-profits. You should not be living from hand to mouth. Look out for your interests as well, as sustaining yourself is also critical to whichever higher purpose you are committed to.

Nevertheless, the situation with salaries is progressively getting better. Compared to other countries in the region, Singapore’s non-profit sector is much better supported by the government. NCSS sets benchmarks for salaries, and as a country, we are slowly but surely realising that people who work in the non-profit sector should not be made to live on passion alone.

You will notice that you do not usually find people in their 20s in the sector. Why? Because the amount you are being paid here may not be able to support your other life goals, such as getting married and starting a family. But that is nothing to fret about, because you can always contribute in other ways, or even switch to the non-profit sector after you become financially independent.

Money will always be a problem when your funding is entirely dependent on the goodwill of others, such as through donations or grants. However, as the sector evolves, hopefully more charities will take it upon themselves to develop in-house social enterprises and become self-sustaining.

Our work allows us to come to terms with our moral obligation to make the world a better place, especially when we look into the eyes of our own children and think about the world we are leaving behind for them to inherit.

We are able to achieve alignment of our personal vision, organisation’s vision and a higher purpose. This is unlike unhappy workplaces where employees only care about their paycheck.

Working in this sector is very different from a rat race. It is far from a race to just get rich. You get a lot of happiness and emotional fulfilment that is missing in many other industries.

The human factor is also more prominent than other industries. Human resource shapes much of the work, be it through your colleagues, volunteers or beneficiaries. There is an invigorating, start-up-like culture prominent in non-profits. Teams are often leaner than other sectors, with each member resourcefully synthesising multiple domains in order to contribute to the cause. Like-minded people come together for a mission, fueled by passion, not money.

Anyone can donate to non-profits, but it is special to be able to leave the charity in better shape than when you first started.

The most important thing is that one can find people who share the same values and care about the same things. They are usually easier to talk to as compared to colleagues in the private sector or family and friends who are dismissive or more concerned about money.

Non-governmental organisation (NGO) operations are much more on-the-ground and more in touch with the needs of beneficiaries compared to governmental work, and one can seek support from other NGOs and sectors.

Being in an NGO is not about doing things for beneficiaries blindly, rather it is about finding out what they require and what you can do with them to help them.

Being in a non-profit allows one to explore what makes you motivated, with no requirement to stay in the same job your whole life; it is alright to leave as part of career progression. However, even if you are unable to work in a non-profit, you can still contribute in other ways such as monthly monetary contributions or volunteering, as long as you are passionate about what you are doing. 

People who can see beyond themselves, and those who want to work for the betterment of society. 

The work is not for those who want to make money and be on top of the rat race. Also, if one needs to see that their work directly impacts beneficiaries, certain NGOs may not be suitable, so choose carefully!

Nevertheless, volunteering with a non-profit is an experience that no one should miss out on as it offers essential life lessons.

It helps you to see other aspects of society, which is good for generating empathy. Human beings have kindness that can be encouraged by working in non-profits, which also allows one to align themselves to a cause and figure out what makes them happy. 

Firstly, there is a shift in the types of jobs being taken up. Initially, most people used to go for high-paying jobs subject to parental approval. However, there is more interest now in how to give back to beneficiaries continually. There is more funding due to increased interest in giving rather than preserving wealth.

Secondly, there is a change in focus. It has shifted from viewing beneficiaries as those who can only receive help, to empowering them. There is more emphasis on social innovation, collaboration and partnerships across various social service agencies to meet beneficiaries’ needs more holistically.

Lastly, there is an increased adoption of technology, allowing NGOs to become more efficient and broaden their scope. There are more places for people to try working in the non-profit sector to find their fit based on interest, skill sets and opportunities. Thus, nimbleness is required as these organisations increasingly hire digital natives, with communication as a key for turning ideas into reality. A future successful NGO will be able to coalesce effort to ensure that ideas come to fruition.

There are a range of skills that are easily transferable, such as HR, IT, marketing, sales and finance. NGOs require accounts management and videos and websites to increase awareness, which are similar to business development. Certain NGOs, such as environmental NGOs, may need specific qualifications depending on the company. Ultimately, it is about whether one fits into the culture of the NGO. 

It depends on what you are doing. If it is from a non-profit to a governmental job in a similar area, it will be easier.

Working in a non-profit does not dilute your skill sets or limit your career options.

All non-profits will have lots of internships where one can gain relevant experience and understanding of the sector before entering it. There is an increase in “minterns”, or mid-career interns, who may want to get a feel of the industry.

It depends on the positions available at the company. While it is possible that the company may create a new position for you, it boils down to a matter of timing. What is more important is to build good relationships with the people there so that when the company needs a certain skill set, you may come to mind. Volunteering may also open doors to many other industries rather than just leading to a full-time position that they may not have thought about. 

Career progression is a big reason. However, as long as your core purpose is there, you do not need to be a staff to have the connection to the cause, as you can support in other ways.

Communicate openly no matter how difficult. Doing so will reduce misunderstandings greatly. Also, have a sense of ownership. Connect yourself to an NGO that works for a cause you believe in, and if you feel strongly about something, reach out to someone working or volunteering there and ask questions; do not be shy! Applying for internships in non-profits can also hone your understanding of the sector better. Last but not least, do not be afraid of failing.