Championing good governance in charities

Championing good governance in charities
Mr Gerard Ee

MR GERARD Ee is a man who wears many hats. At last count, the veteran head honcho has been president, chairman or director of more than 30 organisations and boards over the past 35 years.

Public Transport Council (PTC)? Check. National Council of Social Service? Check. Changi General Hospital? Check. Council for Third Age? Check. National Kidney Foundation (NKF)? Check. SIM University Board of Trustees? Check. Almost all these positions are voluntary.

Never one to shy away from sensitive issues, the affable 65-year-old retired accountant now heads six organisations dealing in areas ranging from health to education to accountancy.

In March, he became chairman of the Charity Council, which promotes good governance among charities here.

"You work hard to pursue success during your younger days but, at some stage of your life, you then switch from the pursuit of success to the pursuit of significance so as to make a difference in people's lives," said Mr Ee, who retired as a partner of accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2005.

He believes good governance holds the key to the growth of the non-profit sector. "There are so many more charities nowadays and, at the end of the day, the one that practises transparency and has credibility is the one that is going to be sustainable."

Yet he knows that convincing charities to embrace practices such as publishing financial records online so donors can make informed decisions is an uphill task.

Some outfits, especially the smaller ones which may lack the resources to do meticulous accounting and documentation, find such practices a "distraction" from their main task of helping the needy and vulnerable.

This is where Mr Ee hopes his previous experience in communicating controversial or unpopular decisions will come in handy.

Ten years ago, he was tasked with restoring public confidence in the troubled NKF after a public outcry over the pay cheque of its then chief executive T. T. Durai, his perks and a lack of transparency in the organisation.

About 50,000 donors stopped their monthly donations in the second half of that year and Mr Ee had the unenviable job of convincing them to continue believing in the organisation and its cause.

As chairman of the PTC for 10 years, he had to persuade commuters that the council had their interests at heart by keeping fares low while ensuring the long-term viability of the public transport operators.

When he headed the ministerial pay review committee in 2011, he had to make recommendations that addressed public unhappiness over high ministerial pay and yet ensure the pay remained attractive in retaining talent in the public service.

"One common thread in all this is the challenge of achieving successful communication," said Mr Ee.

"This is crucial especially for the charity sector, where you are talking about people with passion to do what they want to do and here you are telling them that that's not good enough and you need all these other practices."

One strategy he plans to use is to open communication and information channels between donors and charities.

Next month, the Charity Council will launch a new system that gives the transparency ratings of charities. Charities will be assessed in nine areas, ranging from fund raising to board governance to financial controls.

The ratings will help donors decide which charity to give to and help create more public support and confidence.

Transparency awards will be given to charities that excel in these areas next year.

"You also have to convince donors, especially the foundations and big donors, not to give blindly and to be informed donors, and that will drive charities to start implementing all the practices to get a share of the pie," said Mr Ee.

He did not start out caring so much. He had started out as a "bo chup (uninterested)" young man in his 20s who had only cars, money and girls on his mind. But he gradually became more and more involved in community work. Part of the change was due to his father's influence.

The late Dr Ee Peng Liang - better known as Singapore's Father of Charity - often took his youngest son out of their comfortable home by the sea in Katong to meet the less fortunate.

Mr Ee recalled a time when his father asked him to join some children with physical disabilities on an outing to the then Van Kleef Aquarium at Fort Canning Hill. The slope was steep and Mr Ee, then 13, volunteered to carry some children who had polio up the hill.

"I hemmed and hawed when a child asked me if he would be able to walk like me one day, because I knew that was not possible," said Mr Ee.

The initial awkwardness soon faded. Mr Ee went on to push for buildings to be made accessible to people with disabilities and founded Bizlink Centre, which champions their employment.

He also headed the Toa Payoh Girls' Home and the Boys' Complex and pioneered respite care services with the then Assisi Home and Hospice.

And he is in a hurry to do more.

This sense of urgency came after a cancer scare in 2007, when he came down with Stage 3 colon cancer. The surgery involved removing a part of his small intestine, over half a metre of his large intestine and his appendix.

Yet within two weeks of the operation, he was back to performing a host of his volunteer commitments.

At 65, he is the fittest he has been in his life, having dropped 20kg and cut down on his chain- smoking habit.

"It gives me that greater sense of urgency in wanting to make a difference until I drop dead," said Mr Ee, who is married with two children who are studying in tertiary institutions. "My time could be up any time."

This article was first published on May 18, 2015.
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