“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Jeremy Au is the co-founder of Conjunct Consulting, a non-profit organisation that provides pro bono social impact consulting services for Asia’s non-profits and social enterprises. By deploying teams of trained student and professional volunteers, Conjunct Consulting assists social sector decision-makers with the strategies, tools and information necessary to achieve maximum impact for the community. Six months old, Conjunct Consulting has been wildly successful – growing from an idea sketched out on a pad of paper into a non-profit organization with over 100 student and professional members across the 3 universities in Singapore.
What’s the inspiration behind Conjunct Consulting?
For many years, I volunteered at many different levels: sealing envelopes, packing bags, opening doors. I enjoyed all these experiences, and wanted to be more deeply involved. So I started studying how to increase my social impact and taking part in activities that showed me what works and what doesn’t in the social sector.
During my time in Berkeley, I was very fortunate to work with The Berkeley Group, which provides pro bono consulting services to non-profit organisations in California. I had a wonderful experience with a great group of students who were passionate about making a difference. At the same time, the projects allowed us to understand the challenges the social sector faces, the everyday trade-offs and the painful decisions a leader has to make while serving the community and keeping the organisation alive.
I knew that Asia deserved the same opportunity – for volunteers and the social sector to work together better. Every social sector leader deserves the very best – the best strategies, the best information and the best tools needed to make the right decisions for our community. We also needed to revolutionise volunteerism by moving away from the current hours-based paradigm to a system that allows us to use the best of our skills.
Kwok Jia Chuan, my co-founder, and I first made contact in the early summer of last year. Within four short months, we managed to create this nucleus of energy and bring together the resources needed to make it happen. Conjunct Consulting was officially founded in August 2011 with a small team of dedicated volunteers. Since then, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds because the team I’m so privileged to work with is an amazing one. We have a lot of fun together, we share the same passion for volunteerism and we trust each other.
How exactly does a consultation work?
Fundamentally, we need to know where we want to be, where we are, and how to get there. First, we need to know what our organisation is about – mission, vision and values. We ask ourselves, what is the change we want to see in the world? Second, we figure out where we are. What are our programmes, who are the people we’re serving and how do the things we do align with what we want to achieve? Third, we plan how to cross the gap between the change we want to achieve and who we are now. That’s where the operational factors come in. How do we run and market an entire operation? How much money does it take? What are the commitments we expect of our leaders and volunteers to make it happen? Throughout this process, we work with our clients saying, “Let’s solve this problem together.”
What happens on our side is that a team of volunteers, drawn from a pool of trained students and professionals, comes together to help our clients solve their problems. The fundamental principle every team holds is that we must understand not just their mission, vision, and values, but also their environment, the people they serve, and their strengths through interviews, industry research and benchmarking. With this richer understanding, the team can now synthesise the information and develop a set of solutions. The entire process is built on strong communication between all parties to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The consultation is always a good experience because we’re all here for the same reason: to change our communities for the better.
Sometimes, the magnitude of a challenge can be very daunting. Decision-makers are often confronted with problems that are beyond any one individual’s ability to understand. That’s where our team steps in to help them make better decisions by understanding, synthesizing and simplifying the problem, and empowering them with the confidence, knowledge and data to develop the right solution. It is a two-way relationship: the teams get to learn about the client and the challenges they face, and the clients are strengthened with the passion and skills of a highly motivated and trained team. It is a win-win relationship for everyone involved.
What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced?
When we first started out, the key obstacle we faced was scepticism. People were questioning how the Conjunct Consulting model worked and their role in it, and they were rightfully concerned about how it would be managed.
After all, we are a new model of volunteerism and a new system that changes how the social sector works. It’s scary for everyone; it’s terrifying and it’s risky. Who’s to say that this organisation will be able to deliver what they promised? People often wish to help, but it’s difficult to take the plunge if you’re faced with a new idea. It is imperative of the people within the venture to make their case as best as they can.
The way we went about facing this problem was finding the people who believed in the same cause we did, rather than focusing on the skepticism. When you first seek your team, it’s not about quantity; it’s not about persuading 100% of the community to join you. It’s about finding that 1% that is willing to trust you, work together to build the services, deliver on our promises and exceed everyone’s expectations. Then go back to those who were reluctant to step forward and say, “Hey, let’s try this again.”
How have you grown as a person from this experience?
Growing this organisation with a team of very dedicated volunteers has strengthened my belief in the power of helping people. What’s really amazing is seeing an idea come to fruition in our community and knowing that this was only made possible by people who are passionate, committed and driven.
I have learned so much from them: they’ve taught me about what it really means to serve effectively and efficiently in a way that is truly impactful for everyone.
What is the social impact you’ve seen as a result of these consultations?
We’ve seen for ourselves the results and impact of our work in various communities. We follow the news of our clients and check in regularly with them to discuss how our recommendations are working out in real life. It’s empowering to see all your hours of research translate into something that is deployed on ground, into an actual dollar that a child can use, into additional volunteer man-hours for the elderly who require it. These are the results that keep us volunteers coming back for more.
It has also been a very humbling experience. When we’re working with numbers, words and information, it’s sometimes possible to forget that behind every digit is a human person; it’s about someone’s life being impacted for better or for worse. To know that our work involves real people and translates into real impact helps us remember that we’re part of a larger movement working to positively impact the lives of others.
We also understand that at the end of the day, our clients are the ones who are fighting on the frontline every day, hour and minute. Sure, we do bring in our skills and contributions to the table, yet it is nothing compared to the blood, sweat and tears of the people who are out in the field. The heroes that we should really respect are the people who are out there fighting for our communities.
I understand that you’re currently working on two beta-phase social impact ventures. Could you tell us more about them?
In my free time, I’ve been working on two ideas that are admittedly a little unconventional. The first venture, Billioncare, is fundamentally about success. If you’ve seen the movie “The Social Network”, there’s a part where Sean Parker asked Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, “You know what’s cooler than a million dollar? A billion dollars.” What’s interesting is not that people find a billion dollars cooler than a million dollars, but why we’re measuring ourselves against dollars.
Billioncare redefines success such that it isn’t about having a billion dollars, but about making a billion social impacts. The people we should really be looking up to are the people who’ve inspired, mentored, and empowered. We need to rethink the way we see ourselves and this project provides the tools necessary to track our social impact based on the values we hold ourselves accountable to. What everyone can do with these tools is to estimate the extent to which they directly impact society and how much their actions ripple across the community. Basically, we empower them to live by their value systems in a way that works for themselves and ultimately for our society.
The second venture, Equivalent Utility, is an attempt at valuing the invaluable. I remember being asked a question: which is more valuable – a tree or a baby? The interesting part is not the value itself, but the way we go about valuing it. The world of economics has an unfortunate tendency to reduce trees and people to their economic value in dollars and cents. We measure people by the economic value they generate and the value of nature by the economic value that is destroyed when we chop it down. We have it backwards.
We don’t think about the economic value of a person, instead we make decisions based on trade-offs. By allowing individuals to make a series of trade-offs between invaluable objects, we’re able to calculate the equivalent value of many things. By understanding these trade-offs and aggregating the responses across many people, we can understand their collective preferences and desired trade-offs to an extent that has not been captured before. We’re no longer trying to reduce invaluable things into dollars and cents; we’re trying to understand the differing values that we assign to the things we hold dear.
Last words for aspiring consultants/ future founders of social enterprises?
Collaborate, mentor and be mentored, inspire and be inspired.
The common thread is that you can do so much more as a team. By collaborating, you create results far greater than what you could ever have done on your own. Every teammate can bring to the table very different things, and through this combination you form a whole greater than its parts.
Mentorship is more than just collaborating at the same level – it’s about mentoring people below you such that you can equip them to do what you do, and allowing yourself to be mentored by others so they too can empower and equip you to do more. All of us have had our own personal journeys and there’s a lot to learn from different experiences.
Lastly, inspire and be inspired. We oftentimes keep our heads down, and forget that people need encouragement and inspiration to dare to take that step forward. Other times, we grow sceptical, sometimes even cynical about the way the world works. It will benefit all of us to live life with wonder at the probabilities and possibilities that made us who we are today, and allow ourselves to be inspired by the world and people around us.