Volunteer programme criticised for giving cash

Despite being from a low-income family, undergraduate Ivan Neo was able to look beyond his own financial difficulties and offer help to other disadvantaged families, all thanks to the GIC Sparks & Smiles Award (GIC Sparks).

GIC Sparks, a programme by Singapore's sovereign wealth fund GIC, became a talking point this week after it was reported that it was encouraging low-income youth to volunteer by giving them a cash grant of up to $5,000 in return.

The programme received much criticism online, with members of the public getting the impression that GIC was paying students to do community service.

One Facebook user said: "If you expect or receive monetary rewards for it, then it's not volunteering but more of a job."

Other netizens also took issue with the semantics of the word "volunteering".

Another wrote: "Sure, by all means award the cash grant - just don't call it 'volunteering' then. I'm sure the beneficiaries wouldn't want to be called as such."

In a letter to The Straits Times forum page on Tuesday, GIC clarified that GIC Sparks is not "paid volunteering" but a leadership programme for poor students.

Speaking to The New Paper over the phone from Germany where he is attending an exchange programme, 2015 GIC Sparks recipient Mr Neo said: "We weren't getting paid for volunteering. Rather, what GIC did was to allow us to help other people while they helped us financially.

"The cash grant gave me the time and energy to focus on volunteering, instead of having to worry about my own financial needs."

The 22-year-old said through GIC Sparks, he learnt about being more effective and sensitive in reaching out to those in need.


He also picked up skills to handle difficult situations, including counselling and advising young children.

"I now know that there are people who are in worse shape than me and that I always have the ability to lend a helping hand no matter what," he said.

Mr Neo lives in a five-room HDB flat in Tampines with his parents, two older brothers, sister-in-law and nephew. Their total monthly per capita income is below $2,000.

Mr Neo, who was working part-time as a student assistant in the National University of Singapore before his overseas exchange programme, had been taking part in community service projects before joining GIC Sparks because he wanted to help others in similar situations.

He said: "If I was truly after the money, I would have dedicated my time to more part-time jobs instead of the GIC programme."

After the programme, Mr Neo received a cash grant of $5,000, which he said will go towards expenses during his time in Germany.

Weighing in on GIC Sparks, chief executive of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre Melissa Kwee, said that while a volunteer should not expect a "return or reward", this does not mean that all voluntary service should be without any reward or recognition.

She added that good volunteer management and care can include covering some expenses or improving one's abilities to serve well.

But for founder of Keeping Hope Alive, Madam Fion Phua, 45, associating a cash grant with actions meant to be altruistic does not sit well with her.

Madam Phua, who makes weekly visits to the homes of the less privileged, said: "It should have been clearer that it's not payment for their volunteer work."

She felt that awarding credits or a scholarship award would be better.

"Charity should enrich the heart, and not the pocket. This cash grant can create expectations where people think they can be rewarded for doing good," she added.

GIC: It's a leadership programme for the poor

GIC clarified that the GIC Sparks & Smiles Award (GIC Sparks) is not “paid volunteering” in a letter to The Straits Times forum page on Tuesday.

Rather, it is a leadership programme where students from low-income households are trained to be leaders.

The programme is open to those in tertiary institutions.

As part of GIC Sparks, students serve 25 hours of community service and receive training and mentorship from Beyond Social Services, which will also connect each of them to a disadvantaged child, youth or family, said a GIC spokesman.


Separately, the cash grant, worth between $3,000 and $5,000, is for financial support.

The GIC spokesman also stressed that the money is not a reward for the community service done during the programme.

To be part of GIC Sparks, students have to show the desire to serve the community and demonstrate a need for financial support.

They must come from households with a monthly per capita income below $2,000.

GIC has set aside $2 million for the scheme and hopes to attract 200 students over four years.

Said the spokesman: “The programme is not about paying students to serve the community.

“Rather it is a leadership programme which inspires and enables our award recipients to play a positive role in the community.”


This article was first published on January 07, 2016.
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