Chairman Koh Choon Hui: Our quiet hero
Our children’s hero: Mr Koh at the 10th anniversary x Children’s Day celebration at Children Service @ Children’s Society in 2018
The following is extracted from the translated version of the original article in Chinese from Lianhe Zaobao "儿童会主席许俊辉终身义工无所不在, Lianhe Zaobao, 17 Jan 2021.”
Singapore Children’s Society Chairman Koh Choon Hui has rarely been publicly profiled, yet the list of his volunteer activities and accolades for charity work is long. His professional and charitable involvement spans prison service, clubs and associations, business and pharmaceutical trade organisations and government bodies.
At last year’s National Day Awards, Mr Koh was conferred the Distinguished Service Order, the second-highest honour just after the Order of Temasek. Three years earlier, in 2017, he was given the Outstanding Lifetime Volunteer Award by the Ministry of Social and Family Development – the nation’s highest accolade for volunteers.
The Fundraising Guru
It’s no exaggeration to call Mr Koh “The Fundraising Guru”.
In 1975, the Society’s operating costs were about $300,000. Former Chairman Dr Koh Eng Kheng, worried about making ends meet and fearing that the Society might have to shut down, asked his friend Koh Choon Hui to head Children’s Society’s Appeals Committee.
In those years, the difficulty of fundraising was compounded by the lack of a donor database. Fundraising events were usually ad-hoc: at Christmas, for example, ministers’ wives were roped in to do some arm-twisting in a bid to get donations. Mr Koh revamped the organisation’s fundraising methods, turning things around.
Take, for instance, Flag Day. The Society was then allocated just one Flag Day per year, during which a few hundred students would take to the streets with donation tins, raising between $5,000 and $6,000.
Mr Koh thought, “why not aim higher, for $100,000 to $200,000 instead?”
He sent letters of appeal to companies and individual donors, and recruited many schools, in the process mobilising up to 3,000 students to raise funds. “Approaching schools, maintaining a good relationship with them, and introducing students to volunteering became the blueprint for Flag Day. Today, we are able to raise substantially more,” he says.
A donor database was also built, and existing donors were rallied for continued support. Today, the Society has some 30,000 regular donors, which helps keep donation income consistent. Sixty percent of its donations are from individuals while 40 percent come from companies.
Mr Koh, a father of four and grandfather of six, has also driven innovation in the Society’s fundraising approach, including taking events and fundraising efforts online during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were forced to be innovative. Fortunately, with technology, we have been able to go online to seek donations. I am a realist and have always been optimistic. Now online donations will become a new pillar of income for us,” he says.
Social service that makes business sense
Mr Koh worked at pharmaceutical firm Roche for close to 50 years and established the Singapore and Malaysia offices of the company. He retired in 2012 when he was Roche’s Chairman and Managing Director. In 2013, he became Chairman of Singapore Pools.
In making the Society sustainable, Mr Koh Choon Hui was guided by business sense: “Companies need to be socially responsible while charities need a business mindset to make accurate calculations and use funds for their beneficiaries wisely.”
“When you run a company, you answer to the shareholders, but the Singapore Children’s Society belongs to all Singaporeans… even if they don’t donate to you, they still have the right to hold you accountable... That’s why you have to practise good corporate governance and transparency, to avoid conflicts of interest, and make sure all the relevant policies are put in place.”
This management philosophy has translated into transparency in all of SCS’ affairs, big and small. All of the monies raised by SCS and other pertinent information are clearly laid out on its website. SCS is a four-time winner of the Charity Transparency Awards and for its focus on brand building, the Society has also won the Singapore Prestige Brand Award (Special Merit).
It is public knowledge that the SCS has ample reserves – enough to cover over three years of operating expenses. Some have likened the charity to “a mini-Singapore”, and have opted to donate to other cash-strapped charities.
But Mr Koh said: “We shouldn’t apologise for our reserves; if we don’t have adequate reserves it would be a dereliction of duty.”
“We have 12 service centres, benefiting 70,000 people; if we have to close, the impact will be severe. As a responsible charitable organisation, we cannot allow this to happen.”
When talk turned to the subject of finding a successor, he said the Board was full of talent, with three to four candidates who could take over his position at any time, but none want to.
“They say, as long as you’re in good health, we would like you to continue to lead us. But the day will come when somebody will have to take over,” Mr Koh said.
“Many people say I’ve already done so much, it’s enough, but in serving others, there is no such thing as having done enough. It is really a privilege and an honour to be able to serve others. And as long as you are healthy, you can contribute. The needs are there, I just cannot walk away from it.”
And despite the difficult conditions faced by the children the Society helps, they are mature and more resilient, he added.
“Given the right guidance and encouragement, they can also flourish, and this is what I have dedicated myself to doing. Some children under our care have become very successful – some are heading financial institutions and some have become SCS donors themselves.”