Funding and service provision are fundamental tenets of nonprofit organizations in Singapore. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the resilience of the nonprofit sector and beckoned the government to respond with digitalization programs that blend into the innovative capacity of the nonprofit sector. Consequently, digitalization has produced different versions of innovation that have helped tide nonprofits over this difficult time, in which crowdfunding has played an important role. In this article, we use two case studies to examine how nonprofits approach and situate crowdfunding in Singapore against the backdrop of the pandemic. One organization utilizes crowdfunding as the core of their fundraising model and views it as an essential part of their operation. During the pandemic, they even used this crowdfunding model to reach marginalized communities that tend not to be the target beneficiaries of the registered nonprofit organizations in Singapore. The other organization finds itself innovating within existing fundraising mechanisms, though it has experimented with crowdfunding. We argue that this case represents the strategy that most nonprofits are using during the pandemic by developing new and existing digital programs to attract potential donors. At the core of our argument, crowdfunding has the potential to expand the type of services and reach communities that tend to be overlooked or forgotten by present nonprofit structures in Singapore. By doing so, crowdfunding provides an outlet for these groups to voice their issues.
Singapore’s nonprofit sector is home to more than two thousand registered nonprofit organizations (NPOs) located across a small, heavily urbanized island that measures 728 square kilometers (MCCY 2020) (see figure 1). Some are tucked into corners of the urban sprawl, while others are found on the high floors of opulent downtown office buildings (see figure 2). Regardless of the space they occupy, nonprofits provide a rainbow of services and products, in diverging levels of access and expertise, to a public that is multicultural, multiracial, multireligious, and multiethnic (a.k.a. 4Ms). Two things are proverbial to the survival of a Singapore nonprofit: (a) it must compete for resources and funds, and (b) it must deliver sensible services to the public (Alexiou, Wiggins, and Preece 2020; Renko, Moss, and Lloyd 2018; Manzoor 2017). A typical day for an NPO would thus be spent wondering what kind of services it needs to develop to attract government and corporate sponsors; where it can solicit funds; whether it should do a physical fundraiser at a local mall or host a gala dinner for its private donors instead; how many beneficiaries it should cover; and how much money it needs to invest to scale the event to its audiences.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many nonprofits needed to compete for a smaller pool of donations in a declining economy. They also faced the inability to fundraise and solicit in person while struggling to keep their services afloat. Many have turned to the government for additional support to canvass funds to survive donation shortages, digitalize their organizational infrastructure so they can connect better with beneficiaries and donors, and manage their organization remotely during periods of social distancing. The government-mandated digital transformations introduced as a response, together with COVID-19 restrictions, produced thicker walls and deeper fractures for nonprofit fundraising through the secondary effects of a technologized workforce and digitalized workplace. Times are tough—people have to transition to work online, and the poor are receiving subsidies for personal mobile devices. The pandemic calls for rapid technological upgrades. With limited resources, NPOs looked to innovate their service provision and fundraising methods in various ways, one of which is the utilization of crowdfunding. As part of these new technology norms, we see an increase in crowdfunding being mentioned in the local news between 2020 and 2022 (Tan 2022). For instance, in December 2020, one of the organizations we feature in this article, Purple Day,1 launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring migrant workers who had been confined to dormitories out on a tour to see the Christmas lights that incandescently decorate Singapore’s Orchard Road. Having raised more than S$30,000 that year, the campaign aimed to benefit more than 650 migrant workers who are often left on the fringes of the country’s social welfare system. In another case, another locally registered crowdfunding nonprofit managed to raise S$2.9 million in ten days to treat a baby with the world’s most expensive drug. Today, the campaign has become phenomenal in Singapore’s crowdfunding scene (Yang 2021).
In this paper, we explore how innovative practice, like crowdfunding, has the potential to unwound the tight spaces that have defined Singapore as a city with “too many rules” by providing new opportunities to NPOs and allowing them to connect with marginalized groups. For Singapore, these marginalized groups comprise individuals or groups, such as migrant workers, who sometimes fall through the cracks of state and nonprofit service provision. While the constitutional rights of these marginalized communities may be protected under law (Ministry of Manpower 2011), their actual quality of life and opportunities are often overlooked. The endeavor to deliver resources and quality services to marginalized groups via crowdfunding is, thus, one example of associational innovation attempting to smash through the veneer of bureaucracy that sometimes limits nonprofits.
We observe that most NPOs attempt to find new resources during the pandemic by digitalizing or transforming their service provisions to obtain government funding in a manner that seems inflexible. However, NPOs like Purple Day, which sought to extend its crowdfunding platform to marginalized groups in a time of austerity, also exist. Through them, the pandemic is an opportunity that hints at an understanding of how a financing platform is able to connect with marginalized communities and NPOs in society. The challenges faced by NPOs beckon us to consider how most nonprofits have coped with the pandemic. Subsequently, Purple Day, together with new digital norms accelerated by the pandemic, invites us to further inquire: how has crowdfunding transformed relationships between NPOs and marginalized communities in Singapore? Through the case studies of Purple Day and another registered NPO, which we call Endo, we argue that crowdfunding is transforming the interactions within and between NPOs and marginalized communities. Specifically, crowdfunding has presented challenges to some nonprofits, but when utilized well, it could facilitate an intermingling between other nonprofits and marginalized communities in ways that blur the line between one and the other. In the next section, we look at the developing subliterature of nonprofit crowdfunding and examine how it shapes NPOs and marginalized groups using East Asian comparisons as an example, simultaneously building a case for the uniqueness of crowdfunding for Singapore’s nonprofits.
Because our article discusses how nonprofits utilize crowdfunding in response to the crisis and its implications for relationship building with marginalized communities in Singapore, we turn to the literature of crowdfunding in nonprofits and how it is employed in East Asia settings.
Most state-nonprofit relations in East Asia societies—more specifically, in Hong Kong, China, and Singapore—are defined within the framework of state corporatism. NPOs tend to operate within a configurated provision of services in adherence to regulations to extend the state’s functions, and in return they are given some flexibilities to function, secure funding, and expand their influence (Spires 2011; Schmitter and Lehmbruch 1979). For instance, in the case of China, Spires (2011) argues that nonprofits—or government-led nonprofit organizations (GONGOs)—are instruments of state rules that are well funded by the state. They comprise a well-defined industry that has passed regulatory checks, while grassroots organizations and the communities they serve are part of a wider marginalized movement that principally attempts to conduct advocacy work autonomously using only limited resources. Grassroots organizations, depending on their issue areas, sometimes take years to overcome the bureaucratic requirements of registering with multiple government ministries, and many consequently remain informal organizations (Spires 2011; Streeck and Kenworthy 2005; Unger and Chan 1995).
Unlike China’s strong state corporatism, the state-nonprofit relationship of Singapore and Hong Kong is notably described as a hybrid statist-corporatist regime that incorporates state control in the management of nonprofits. Singapore and Hong Kong are characterized by high degrees of state intervention in social welfare provision, where there is little spending, and where the state is also the major funder and source of regulation for nonprofits (Lee and Haque 2008). Additionally, Toepler (2020) argues that hybrid regimes employ carrot-and-stick tactics to reward and punish NGOs, with the intention of depoliticizing and coopting them, as well as maintaining a status quo (Toepler et al. 2020; Falkenhain 2020). We thus find an assortment of nonprofit services that compete for funding, often relying on the state and simply providing services that advance their individual cause without a connection with wider society. In Singapore, state funding is used as a contrivance to attract and institutionalize nonprofits, creating a domain of security that NPOs heavily rely on (Toepler et al. 2020; Lee and Haque 2008; Lee 2005).
Despite strong regulation in terms of fundraising and nonprofits’ strong dependence on state funding in Asian societies, research has suggested that crowdfunding offers effective solutions to circumvent these rigid spaces (Renko, Moss, and Lloyd 2018; Clarkin 2014; Manzoor 2017). These existing studies go into how platform mechanisms aid in the fundraising cause of nonprofits and present some examples of how they intertwine. While the research is important in laying the foundations of nonprofit resourcing, they fall short of explaining the wider repercussions of nonprofit crowdfunding on the society at large. Generally, crowdfunding, defined as the accruement of capital from a pool of small donors over an internet platform, is regarded as a convincing financial fundraising alternative that nonprofits can utilize to overcome traditional challenges of competing for public resources (Belleflamme, Lambert, and Schwienbacher 2014; Mollick and Kuppuswamy 2014; Davies 2014). Its popularity is evident, and we observe its emerging vitality across East Asia that is signaled through the twofold benefits it brings to nonprofits (Renko, Moss, and Lloyd 2018; Manzoor 2017; Clarkin 2014).
First, it creates greater access to capital and plugs gaps in service provision as crowdfunding users can leverage individual or organizational networks to boost campaign successes (L. Zhao and Shneor 2020; Aleksina, Akulenka, and Lublóy 2019). In China, for instance, Zhou and Ye (2019) outline the methodology of Tencent Philanthropy’s connection to grassroots organizations. The registered NPO’s crowdfunding platform permits grassroots organizations with diverse missions—from disability to poverty, from education to animal and environmental protection—to participate and raise funds for their missions. While Zhou and Ye (2019) argue that crowdfunding has been successful for grassroots organizations, legitimacy and worthiness of the causes are less important than the social networks it brings in helping these grassroots organizations reach out to a wider pool of donors (Zhou and Ye 2019). In Hong Kong and Taiwan, registered nonprofits occasionally use crowdfunding—on top of government aid—to grow their own interests or create greater networks to other communities (Hong Kong Ballet 2022; HandOn Hong Kong 2022; Bridge The Gap Hong Kong 2022; Red Turtle 2022). This greater access has allowed NPOs to diversify their financial portfolios or seek new avenues of raising funds that may not simply be constrained by state mechanisms.
Second, crowdfunding platforms provide a dedicated space where nonprofits can put forth more organized profiles of causes and beneficiaries to potential donors, increasing chances of campaign success by building a relationship with them through storytelling. Values and emotions like empathy, altruism, or even ideology have been linked to crowdfunding success, when storytelling rallies like-minded people and compels them to donate to a specific cause (Khurana 2021; Xiao and Yue 2021; L. Zhao and Shneor 2020; H. Zhao et al. 2020; Aleksina, Akulenka, and Lublóy 2019; Althoff and Leskovec 2015). In China, Sina Weibo is used as a vehicle to campaign against domestic policy issues and motivate citizens to donate personal funds in a capacity that is different from “online venting” (Tsai and Wang 2019). In Taiwan, student and community groups were able to crowdfund for a newspaper ad to raise awareness for the Sunflower Movement, culminating in the citizen occupation of the Legislative Yuan in 2014 (Hsieh, Hsieh, and Vu 2019).
Crowdfunding has reduced the costs and logistics of a physical campaign to reach a broader audience that is not bounded by the physicality of space. Overall, crowdfunding has been successful in East Asia in providing NPOs with access to resources, and it introduces a technological mechanism that complements the traditional challenges faced by nonprofits. However, crowdfunding in Asia remains understudied, and the role it plays in Asia’s civil society has not been discussed. In this article, we complement the literature by showcasing whether and how NPOs use crowdfunding in Singapore and how it shapes their relationships with marginalized communities.
In our exploration of Singapore’s nonprofit sector, we set out to interview seventy organizations randomly picked from a generated list obtained from the charities.gov portal (“Charities Portal” 2021)—a public government registry—that is a consistent representation of Singapore NPOs. All our interviews were also conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, adding another dimension of uncertainty for NPOs to navigate. Rather than view these developments as an impediment, conditions of uncertainty where NPOs trial-test continuity strategies have allowed us to approach NPOs with a new perspective—the prominence of diverse crowdfunding practices during a period of heightened sensitivity to sociopolitics. This perspective is seen against the backdrop of a sector that heavily relies on personal donations and government support to sustain social welfare provisions and worker salaries. To supplement our interviews, we also rely on secondary data from local news sources to provide a temporal context for the socioeconomic and political conditions that influence nonprofits.
In this dataset, we interviewed the NPOs between September 2020 and May 2022 and relied on in-depth 2.5-hour interviews to capture how executive directors of nonprofits managed their organization. The 130-question survey we used included a combination of multiple choice and open-ended questions interrogating leadership experiences, fundraising strategies, interactions with their own communities, and their factors to success; we also obtained organizational data that spans the recent three-year history of these organizations. The questionnaire we utilized is also consistent with those used in the other cities mentioned in this special collection.
In this article, we select two organizations—Endo and Purple Day—from the seventy organizations and analyze them in depth for two reasons. First, we use Endo’s case to represent the everyday nonprofit experience: from its inception to successes and then to their views on crowdfunding. We show how Endo represents the best version of these other sixty-eight NPOs in its effectiveness in responding to the pandemic, even with the added challenge of belonging to the performing arts sector, which is declining in Singapore. While not every NPO engages with crowdfunding, Endo’s case study advances a fundraising strategy and service provision profile that is commonly Singaporean and consistent with what we observe in the other NPOs in our sample. This includes the general challenges they faced while considering crowdfunding in comparison to other fundraising methods. Second, nonprofits like Purple Day are rare. We chose it precisely to emphasize how some nonprofits utilize the digital platforms for innovative practices while operating within established boundaries of Singapore nonprofits. Like Endo’s case, we outline the birth of the organization, its explosive success following the pandemic, and the higher priority accorded to not just crowdfunding and its mechanisms, but also the refinements to the concept that augmented existing operations and introduced new ones. Through crowdfunding, the NPO has not only been able to diversify its resources, it has also been able to support some resource-deprived marginalized communities during the pandemic.
Despite its genesis in Singapore more than ten years ago, crowdfunding remained relatively out of sight until the late 2010s. Presently, it is still in its nascent stage—only four nonprofits are fully immersed in the platform economy. Other social organizations that are smaller in headcount and range of services turn to crowdfunding as a subsidiary alternative in fundraising, though its popularity is contestable. In an interview with Melissa Kwee, Chief Executive Officer of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre that runs a subsidiary crowdfunding platform called Giving.sg, she describes the crowdfunding purpose as “a one stop shop for everyone looking to give” and “[the platform] provided information for those looking for causes to support, how to do so, and ways that they can do so, and it will provide a platform for organizations to raise funds and get online donations” (Lwee-Ramsay 2016).
Nevertheless, the pandemic has launched crowdfunding into the spotlight, and we use two case studies to highlight some distinctions in innovation that stand out in the nonprofit landscape. First, we discuss the case of Endo, a registered Institution of Public Character (IPC), which is a special category of charities conferring tax exemptions to donors on top of the typical registered subcategories. Endo represents the swath of NPOs inhabiting the sector and emulates the same strategies its peers follow in dealing with the pandemic. Next, we contrast Endo with Purple Day, a charity that specializes in crowdfunding as its main fundraiser and service provision, to accentuate the latter’s divergent position within the sector.
We use the case study of Endo to represent registered nonprofits in Singapore and how they responded to the pandemic. Endo is a performing arts organization in Singapore, a registered charity with IPC status focusing on traditional art. Xiao Ming, the cofounder and creative director of Endo, started his music career pursuing studies in East Asia before heading to Europe for his PhD. After working overseas for a brief period of time, Xiao Ming returned to Singapore to start Endo. With its humble origins in 2004, Endo started as a simple performing arts group made up of like-minded individuals who bonded over mutual interests, intending to revitalize and dispel antiquated notions of traditional art through awareness projects. Xiao Ming shared:
There has been a large part [of society] where a lot of people feel that traditional music [is] very antiquated. It’s very old school, and so we wanted to inject new life into it. We wanted to create these awareness projects, so it wasn’t just concerts, but we wanted to do things like books, education, we wanted to do other things. We called it Endo, and then we registered it as a private limited company with a sole proprietorship for a period of time till around 2012, 2013.
In 2015, Endo had reregistered as a company by limited guarantee (CLG) under the National Arts Council (NAC); this entitled it to seed funding, which began its journey to become the formidable organization that it is today. Like other NPOs, Endo depends on traditional donations from the government, private individuals, and corporate organizations, and has been relatively successful on that front, based on Xiao Ming’s appraisal:
Government funding actually makes up most of our funding, followed by corporate and private donations. So, for example, we rely a lot on the cultural matching fund, where every donation received, the government matches one for one.
Currently, Endo boasts a staff of thirty people—including musicians, managers, and production crew—and its success can be measured by the funds it raises, as with any other NPO. Xiao Ming shared with us that he considers Endo titanic compared to its peers, in size and growth:
I don’t know if you’ve been following, but when Substation2 closed down, somebody went to pull all our annual reports and crunched all the figures together. The biggest was [another performing arts nonprofit], and I think we were around sixth or seventh in terms of size. But in terms of fastest growing, or how much organizations earned in terms of percentages, Endo was ranked first or second.
He added that even during the pandemic, Endo was trailblazing past its peers:
Even during COVID, while most arts companies went down, if you look at our annual reports, we actually went upward instead, and we were one of the few that projected positive growth. We even grew our services.
Endo’s success is emblematic of a nonprofit that is able to capture the fundraising potential offered by the trinity of the private individual, for-profit businesses, and government. Its strategies and innovation make it more resourceful than its peers, and we identify two reasons for its outstanding position in Singapore’s nonprofit sector.
First, Endo innovates through its three organizational pillars—performance arm, social welfare arm, and academy3—which has allowed it to thrive. While performance, welfare provision, and education service areas are not new to NPOs in Singapore, what is uniquely Endo is its predisposition to combine all three. As Xiao Ming shared:
I would say that there is no other organization like Endo that actually has a brand of contemporary music that we have in Singapore, but there are similar comparable offerings where you can see, for example, some dance companies actually working for special needs children, they have actual programs for that, or some visual artists working with youths at risk.
For example, Xiao Ming described one particular service that mixes music with community work:
[In] one initiative where we worked with music therapists, we went to hospitals, homes, and places in need of comfort to create music that helps with end of life and pain management. It helps with a reduction of anxiety, increased focus and concentration, lower stress, positive moods. It helps people, insomnia, anxiety.
This innovative spirit helped Endo sustain itself through COVID-19 and mixed technology with operational and fundraising strategy. Like all Singapore NPOs, the pandemic has restricted in-person interactions due to lockdowns and social distancing, and the performing arts were hit especially hard since they depend on live performances and in-person fundraising to survive. Regardless, Endo’s foresight to digitalize early has been important in cushioning these pandemic woes. Xiao Ming shared that Endo had launched a digital fundraiser, which generated successes in the early months of the pandemic:
Adapting to technology was easy. We have been conducting some digital programs even before the pandemic. So, we worked with SISTIC4 to do a recorded concert online, and we would pass the concert link to people who donated, and they watched it on demand. On top of that, the government had this thing called [a local crowdfunding platform], and it sort of subsidized all the credit card charges and all that money actually went to the beneficiaries.
Second, complementing its innovative spirit is its Singaporean identity, as well as its status as an IPC, which galvanizes support for its services.
So, we are first and foremost a Singapore arts company and Singaporean charity. Our main insured idea and initiative is basically Singapore. So, we need a very distinctive Singaporean identity, and for people to realize what we are actually doing, this blend of contemporary and finding contemporary ways to push off traditional ideas, is very unique to Singapore as well. And I would say that 90 percent of our donors are Singaporean, but roughly 10 percent comes from overseas Singaporeans.
As an IPC, Endo is able to award tax receipts of up to 2.5 times the amount donated, and this is especially attractive to corporate donors, especially since their tax is incredibly high. Moreover, it is quite safe to donate to IPCs because they are registered with the government. While Endo has this attractiveness in common with other IPCs, Endo’s duality of Singaporeanness and innovation puts it on a pedestal higher than the rest. As Xiao Ming recounted:
So, over the years, our partners have varied, from [large and famous hotel], to [a government wealth trust fund and its philanthropy arm], to [national property investment organization], to [charitable foundation for underprivileged children]. They really enjoyed the work we do and want to team up because they want to be associated with the arts. They love hosting our concerts, and it felt like a rock concert whenever we went up there.
Many of these corporate sponsors have gone beyond their simple role as donors and over the years have become partners that have been instrumental in the development of their pillars. As such, for-profits become intertwined in the same social mission adopted by Endo:
Some of these corporate sponsors also sponsor scholarships in our academy to about four to five low-income students, and we set this scholarship up to deal with inequality in Singapore. As you know, music is a rather expensive hobby to learn. Poor children are disadvantaged as a result because they can never pay for these music lessons and are consequently unable to go to a better school. So far, since doing this, we’ve had many students going to better schools.
While testing crowdfunding, Endo found itself incompatible with the technology despite its innovative culture. Nevertheless, as Xiao Ming notes, crowdfunding has restricted Endo from exploring alternative financing options:
We are familiar with crowdfunding, and we have tried it, and it’s not exactly the most effective. For instance, we tried to create a campaign with [global advertising multinational company] to advertise to Singaporeans that Endo is actually doing social work. But Singaporeans don’t really have the mentality to donate to the arts, they generally donated to social service organizations and felt that the arts were part of the government’s job [should be funded by the government]. The more you give the arts for free, the more audiences will expect it for free.
While Endo’s service areas may be specialized, Endo’s strategies during the pandemic and attitudes toward crowdfunding represent many other NPOs that share the same innovation views and fundraising strategies. They tend to approach the state, private donors, and corporations to procure funds to survive or for influence. By focusing on its spirit of innovation and its Singaporean identity, Endo was able to obtain seed funding and launched different service provisions that diversified its organizational profile. Consequently, Endo was able to attract an equally diversified financial portfolio that funds its organization today. In detail, some of these for-profit supporters participate in social welfare provisions through Endo, representing the “ordinary” nonprofit role in Singapore society. This mutually reinforcing relationship, where a nonprofit innovates services and society funds the nonprofit, maintains the status quo by providing a safety net that enables their successes through trial-tested strategies. As such, there is no desire to expand beyond this safety net as their mission falls within established boundaries. Next, we introduce Purple Day, an organization that moved beyond these general approaches of nonprofit survival and fundraising during the pandemic.
Purple Day was founded in November 2012, starting out as a nonprofit crowdfunding platform, and retains its legal status today as a charity. At the time of writing, Purple Day is not an IPC. Ezra, its general manager, shared that it is working toward obtaining that status. The NPO saw relative tranquility in its early years and remained relatively small, consisting of four staff members who ran its case accounts, crowdfunding website, and management. Purple Day peaked in growth during the pandemic and saw notable successes between 2019 and 2020, when it had a 600 percent increase in campaigns hosted and a 1,000 percent increase in donors. As Ezra shared:
My donations grew from half a million pre-COVID to 4.5 million last year. That’s because it’s crisis, it’s wartime. People wanted to get more [assistance]… and we’re able to give because we started growing more, we have to increase our resources to hire more people.
Figures aside, one campaign managed to raise a seven-figure sum for a lone individual within a few days, making national news and creating publicity for the developing platform. It was a phenomenon that Ezra himself said was ridiculous; he did not know how they managed to pull it off. He shared: “The bulk of the donations were actually in small amounts. We had one that was S$30,000, and half of them donated S$50.”
When asked about Purple Day’s success, Ezra attributed it to three reasons. First, crowdfunding is a unique service that is unlike other typical NPOs. Its fundamentals fuse technology with service provision that many nonprofits are unwilling to explore. Notwithstanding, platforming is not the only aim:
The unique thing that separates Purple Day from other charities is that our service delivery is our website. Crowdfunding is the service delivery. We use technology to drive our service delivery. We want to use AI, not just because it’s a hot thing but because it makes sense whether it be chatbots or helping people tell stories. One of the bigger challenges with our frontline workers is trying to schedule meetings with beneficiaries. If we have a chatbot, we can try to reach out to more beneficiaries on a larger scale.
Second, crowdfunding fundamentally entails transparency—with double emphasis—as an antidote to legitimacy problems typically associated with traditional fundraising, such as donors wondering whether their contributions actually go to beneficiaries or the organization’s operation costs. The financial reports—which are compulsory government-stipulated provisions for charities and IPCs—do not provide this breakdown, and transparency in service delivery was not commonly practiced in the sector:
People do not want to just donate to any organization; they want to donate to specific causes…. While there are donor reports, these are not generally read by donors, and as such, from the get-go, they want more accountability and transparency about who they are donating to.
As an extension of the need for transparency, Ezra stresses that managing money is a problem in Singapore due to the rise of fraud and misappropriation in recent years; this has involved crowdfunding too. While there is trust in terms of the government structures that regulate it and a desire to add value to the sector on the part of donors, issues come in the form of micro-transactions between different parties. Ezra illuminated these problems based on his experiences:
Managing money is a problem. Let’s say you and your friends want to raise funds to buy cleaners in your neighborhood a care pack. You raised S$2,000, you bought the care pack, but this project was raised among your friends who know what you’re doing. But what about other people who don’t know you? Why would they trust you? Why would they transfer money to your bank account?
Ezra emphasized then that managing money requires a trusted intermediary, which Purple Day functions as on top of its status as a registered charity:
We audit our accounts online so you can see transactions in plain view. You can raise more money. Then you can focus on the work instead of worrying about keeping money in your personal bank account, feel accountable, and having to keep receipts of all purchases. When donors approach you, you can say you didn’t misuse the money and it’s with Purple Day. So it’s fine. Let us worry about the finance. I believe we are still the only platform in Singapore that does this for volunteer groups.
Thus, these services are motivated by a third factor of success, wherein Purple Day is backed by an independent, financial security that plays a vital but background role in shaping its operations, survivability, and approach. Apart from financing operations, the trust’s view in recognizing marginalized nonprofit sectors—such as those from the LGBTQIA+ and migrant worker communities—is important in welcoming them into the fold, even creating profiles in their name on the platforms. Ezra likened these marginalized groups to start-ups, where many have innovative ideas but do not have the financial muscle to actualize them. The trust also views them as a “Blue Ocean”5 of sorts, where they are an “untapped market.” Ezra shared:
The trust is big in funding these nonregistered [groups]. Like a lot of big players like to give to IPCs since they are credible, and [once they do, they] say they did good [nonprofit work]. For the IPCs themselves, they are stuck in the same resource problem all charities go through. They don’t innovate. Not that they can’t, but won’t. Why? Because it’s the safe option. With the safe option, you get the government’s money. And with the government’s money, nobody wants to take risks. Thus, not many are willing to work with these smaller groups. But we felt these nonregistered groups have a lot of potential to do good, and so we help act as an intermediary, and hopefully one day they get registered as charities.
However, Ezra’s further elaboration of how its platform helps marginalized groups suggests that it functions as an intermediary to source funding for needed services to marginalized groups, where there is ordinarily no such service in the nonprofit sector. He gave the example of an unregistered volunteer group that Purple Day worked with, Yellow Umbrella, and the risks involved in assisting that group, mentioning that it is not marginalized groups that the platform directly assists, but the official services, vendors, and merchants that provide the material goods that Yellow Umbrella requires:
So, [Yellow Umbrella] is a volunteer group. Their focus is on migrant workers or market workers. They have no governance, no bank account, just a group of friends. They cannot simply go to another crowdfunding platform because they are not registered, or if they managed to find one, nobody will be handling the funds for them. Last year, in December, they wanted to bring migrant workers on a tour bus to look at Christmas lights, and what we actually do is pay the vendors directly. Only once the invoice was verified from Yellow Umbrella’s side, we would then pay that same vendor.
Ezra then acknowledges that what the platform does may entail risk because of its associations with some marginalized groups, but he firmly acknowledges that slight risk-taking is a worthwhile endeavor and an identity Purple Day wants to be associated with since the law on charities does not limit any association as long as donors understand whom they want to donate to:
We may run risks with the government, but the charity act is clear—as long as the donor understands what he or she is donating to and they receive updates, then it’s all aboveboard. Many corporates only give to IPCs and charities, they don’t want to give to these causes because there’s no governance and quite a bit of risk, which is fair. This is where the gap is, and where we come in and where we want to help.
While these three reasons are critical to the daily operation of Purple Day, we identify one other factor for success: the leader’s consciousness of the power of nonprofits. The three reasons give a clear view of the intricate dynamics at work at a crowdfunding platform, but more than just gears that move the engine, a clear understanding of nonprofit interests outside its own ensures that there is a realized direction toward which these crowdfunding or nonprofit services can be applied. For Ezra, such consciousness emerged from his experience overseas, where he hopped between civil society organizations. What he learned abroad, he has applied locally to the Singapore setting. More than that, he has compared how different nonprofits position themselves under different social contexts, and he confidently asserted that crowdfunding is the best way forward:
So, traditionally, when you have a strong government, you usually have a weak civil society. Hong Kong, along with Taiwan, is the opposite—not so strong government, but very strong civil society. In our case, we have a fairly strong government, so the charity sector is small and not many organizations do advocacy work. That’s a factor of self-censorship from charities who take money from the government and don’t want to do advocacy work. So instead, they do programs and services. Ultimately, I believe that crowdfunding is the best way forward for charities fundraising and it is the reason why I joined Purple Day.
More than just a conscious organization, however, the shared vision of reaching out to marginalized groups has presented innovative ways of looking at crowdfunding beyond its simple function as a platform. Specifically, he referred to the earlier mention of nonregistered groups as a “market” and treated the crowdfunding platform as a “marketplace” of sorts where there is a clear impact in the absence and presence of the term:
Pre-COVID, we were basically an e-commerce site, so we had to market every single campaign that comes to our platform. But post-COVID, we decided to become a marketplace. A marketplace where we have individual beneficiaries, merchants (who are charity partners), and our volunteer groups, who now list their campaigns and products.
The marketization of different causes has been important for isolated individuals, vendors, and groups regardless of their marginality. Showcasing these causes on an open platform enables social inclusion by bringing people from different pockets of society onto a singular space where members of the public, as well as crowdfunding participants themselves, can freely choose whom to support. For isolated beneficiaries, in particular, having social capital is crucial since beneficiaries are part of the working poor. Ezra added:
To combat this, we realized we need to sell another product. So, we thought, why not bring them [these marginalized groups] over to Purple Day? They have very big donors, but they don’t handle money. We are in communication with these groups, and they bring donors to my site. When these donors arrive, about 10 to 20 percent of these donors buy products for other groups. But at the same time, they will also buy products for their own beneficiaries. I don’t have to do anything. They spread the word about my platform and that we’re trustable.
The success of the market approach is evident. Purple Day’s crowdfunding platform has broadened its reach not simply to a selected demographic of society, but also to a wider group of marginalized individuals who, without Purple Day, would not have been able to participate and have a voice in their struggles. Ezra proudly described the people he serves before and after the pandemic:
Pre-COVID, we only served individual families. During pre-COVID, we raised about half a million for 120 families. Now, it’s 4.3 million for 150 families plus 56 group campaigns run by volunteer groups and charities.
In summary, Purple Day’s ability to support nonregistered volunteer groups during the pandemic provides an example of how a crowdfunding platform can serve both marginalized and majoritarian interests, rather than one or the other. These decisions break the ordinary routine of traditional NPOs, who focus on singular missions and fundraising strategies, by embarking on slight risk-taking behavior that combines civil ideology and creativity. The result of these decisions is that today, Purple Day demonstrates the potential of digital platforms in attracting attention to and supporting marginalized communities through crowdfunding.
Despite the emergence of crowdfunding in Singapore since the middle of the first decade of this century, its prominence and importance were accelerated by the pandemic (Amankwah-Amoah et al. 2021). Before, the main crowdfunding platforms simply followed what every other NPO in Singapore did—raise funds and provide a service. As a result, nonprofits in Singapore have a high dependence on state funding since seeking assistance from the state is a safe and reliable strategy. Endo’s strategy, for instance, remained relatively similar during and after the pandemic since an additional focus on technology has allowed it to tide itself over the pandemic in a manner that is slightly more innovative than its peers—it has enabled Endo to proliferate its services online while still obtaining some measure of support from government assistance. While growing financially, Endo’s service provisions remained relatively stable and served the same group of beneficiaries as it did before the pandemic. Purple Day, however, was different. Like every other NPO or crowdfunding platform, Purple Day had served a specific demographic of beneficiaries on its platform. When the pandemic came, demand grew, and it had to diversify the concept of its platform to pull resources in from other areas. Today, Purple Day calls itself a financial controller, managing capital for marginalized groups while simultaneously securing a wider berth of resources from other sectors of society.
Regardless, the two case studies show crowdfunding has the potential has the potential to bridge gaps in service provision for marginalized communities through new fundraising mechanisms. While Endo did not pursue crowdfunding for industry-specific reasons, Purple Day shows that crowdfunding allows it to grow in terms of service provision to marginalized communities and to magnify their voices through an online space.
While Purple Day is one of the few platforms for reaching out to marginalized communities during the pandemic, building greater conversation and legitimacy in its financing can improve its quality as a connector by increasing its engagement with the broader majority. For instance, the financial diversification seen in Endo is a strategy that pairs well with Purple Day’s financial model, which currently only maintains its crowdfunding space. By diversifying the branding and reaching out to more corporate and state sponsors, Purple Day would have more resources to dedicate to financing marginalized causes and create better marketing awareness, such as through in-person education, workshops, or social media infographics. Consequently, a more credible portfolio can be emphasized to the public to attract a greater diversity of donors, which gives access to additional resources that can be used to reach out to the more disenfranchised segments of society and provide greater opportunities to “widen the market.”
One implication of crowdfunding is that unregulated transactions over a platform open NPOs to money laundering, which has been increasing in recent years (L. Zhao and Shneor 2020). For Singapore in particular, postpandemic laws have been established specifically to address these issues through the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA), which deals with any attempts by foreign actors to manipulate Singapore’s domestic politics using capital (Pannett 2021). While we do not have evidence to suggest how this may adversely impact crowdfunding, the bill appears to limit crowdfunding’s transboundary reach, which NPOs should be conscious of in the pursuit of civil society. Notwithstanding, as Ezra and Xiao Ming shared with us, crowdfunding within Singapore tends to be a feasible option because of accreditation. Crowdfunding can serve marginalized communities better by educating the majority. While we do not have any evidence to suggest that crowdfunding is leading change in these dimensions, Purple Day’s example of bringing in public vendors educates ordinary individuals by bringing them closer to marginalized communities, an effort that can snowball through social networks in society. In a highly digitalized society that understands the persuasiveness and potency of crowdfunding, perhaps normalizing crowdfunding technology in a manner similar to social media, for instance, could be a plausible raison d’être that may shift majoritarian perceptions about marginalized groups.
Crowdfunding literature has focused on expanding the resources available to nonprofits through digitalization and how successful this expansion has been. In this article, we show that more than just accumulating funds and attracting donors over the internet, crowdfunding has implications for the communities that it serves. A platform that attracts donors and donations from different segments of society, as well as including vendors who are ordinarily uninterested in the nonprofit space, has created a space that marginalized groups can capitalize on in seeking assistance, especially when such access is unavailable to them in the present landscape of NPOs. Going beyond the nonprofit as the common denominator, we also build the dimension of consciousness into the literature—a consciousness that does not simply acknowledge that fundraising is an opportunistic tool but also applies it differently, as seen in the juxtaposed cases of Endo and Purple Day, in the empowerment of civil society.
However, our study is not without its limitations, which can provide directions for future research. First, while the interviews were conducted with in-depth rigor, the results are limited by the study’s sample size. It is possible that other NPOs are using crowdfunding or other methods to support marginalized groups or for other purposes. Regardless, the development of the crowdfunding landscape suggests that crowdfunding is indeed becoming more relevant to the operations of NPOs in general, and the results we present highlight one perspective on the sector. Second, while our study points out that crowdfunding could help gather support for marginalized communities in Singapore, our analysis does not suggest how it does so, how effective it is, and how long-lasting it could be. We encourage future research to examine these questions.
In this article, we have begun with an introduction to why crowdfunding has become prevalent in Singapore. While crowdfunding has existed in Singapore since the end of the first decade of this century, the challenges brought by the pandemic have pushed crowdfunding to the forefront as nonprofits seek out new ways of obtaining resources. This search is assisted by government funding, which has attempted to cushion the pandemic’s effects by digitalizing the workplace and its people. Consequently, this wave of digitalization has transformed the nonprofit landscape in the way nonprofit resources reach beneficiaries.
Crowdfunding is part of that change, and we look to East Asia to understand how these preliminary developments take shape in environments that are akin to Singapore’s. Overseas, crowdfunding research predominantly focuses on whether nonprofits succeed in using it as an alternative financial model. It shows that reducing distances and creating social networks are important factors for nonprofits in achieving financial success. While we acknowledge that financial success is important for nonprofit survivability and longevity, we also note that these financial successes are disconnected from the societal contexts a nonprofit is situated in.
We thus attempted to understand how crowdfunding has developed in Singapore. We observed it branch off in two distinctive directions in its application through Singapore NPOs. We provide two innovative case studies, Endo and Purple Day; while Endo represents the actionability of registered nonprofits in the navigation of formal spaces through conformity and decisions to avoid risks, Purple Day shows that nonprofits in Singapore have the potential to build bridges to marginalized communities through crowdfunding. We argue that crowdfunding is more than just an unconventional mode of fundraising; it is changing the focus on finance to include marginalized groups in ways that challenge the status quo. Singapore’s case is a unique development compared to its East Asian counterparts and consequently holds many promising avenues to innovate past the veneer of bureaucracies characterizing the rule-bound city-state.
Wayne Yeo is a research associate based in INSEAD, Singapore, and part of Stanford University’s Civic Life of Cities Lab. He has a bachelor’s degree in international relations (Hons) from the University of London, and his current research interests reside within the field of organizational behavior, with a focus on nonprofit organizations and new public management in Singapore.
Ling Han is an assistant professor in the Gender Studies Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is a sociologist researching the intersection of gender, technology, and digital platforms in social innovation projects and the entrepreneurship process in Asia. She received her PhD in sociology from the University of California, San Diego, and was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. She has published about nonprofit organizations, women’s entrepreneurship, online feminism, and queer activism in China. Her current research explores topics of gender, nonprofit organizations and philanthropy, and the politics of work in contemporary Chinese society. She served as the academic advisor for Stanford Social Innovation Review China and cofounded the Asia Academic Social Innovators Forum. She leads the research cluster on gender and digital transformation.
Winnie Jiang is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, Singapore. She received her PhD in management from Yale University. Her research centers around the dynamics of meaning making at work, career mobility and transitions, and personal and professional development. She studies how the meaning of work relates to individuals’ objective and subjective career experience, organizational effectiveness, and changes. She seeks to answer questions such as how individuals find, pursue, and sustain meaning in their work in complex and rapidly changing environments; how individuals’ quest for meaning in work influences the organizations and institutions to which they belong; and how organizations could cultivate meaningful work experiences for the benefit of individuals, organizations, and society. Her research has been published in leading management journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, and Organization Science.
Nitin Natrajan is a research associate at INSEAD, Singapore. He received his bachelor of arts with honors in international affairs from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. His honors capstone focused on anticolorism movements and their impact on the marketing and sales of skin-whitening products through case studies in South Asia. His current research interests are in the field of organizational behavior, focusing on emotion and its impact on strategy and innovation in organizations.
We thank the entire global Civic Life of Cities Lab for excellent comments on successive drafts of our paper. Our research is supported by the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University and the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society at INSEAD.
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest in writing this paper.
All names have been anonymized in this article to protect the identity of the organization and its incumbents.
The Substation is an independent contemporary arts nonprofit organization founded in 1990 and is known for pioneering and experimenting with arts programs.
Each pillar has prominent branding that we opted to anonymize since it would reveal the identity of Endo.
SISTIC is Singapore’s largest ticketing agency and one of the country’s leading e-commerce players, selling more than six million tickets annually.
See Kim. W. Chan and Mauborgne Renee 2004 for more information on the Blue Ocean Strategy (Kim and Mauborgne 2005).