It was a blazing hot day at the Singapore Sports Hub, and some 40 staff members from the Community Chest were standing on a flight of stairs waiting for Ng Ling Ling to show up. She was due for a photo shoot with this magazine as she had just been named Her World Woman of the Year 2018, and her staff wanted to surprise her by being part of it.
In the heat, their discomfort was obvious – their shirts were sweat-soaked, and they used whatever they could get their hands on to fan themselves. But there wasn’t a single complaint. In fact, more than one person told us: “Ling Ling is a great boss. It’s the least we can do for her.” It was, in effect, a warm goodbye to a well-loved leader who was then in the midst of prepping her transit to a new posting in the Ministry of Health.
Ling Ling, 46, may have stepped down as managing director of the Community Chest (Comchest) in June, but her achievements as Singapore’s chief fundraiser in the last five years are pretty much legend. During her tenure, Comchest, which supports more than 80 charities, rallied 240 social service organisations to raise a record $800 million in donations through the Care and Share Movement (launched as part of the nation’s SG50 celebrations). Her work also helped to increase Comchest’s donations from an average of $40 million to $50 million annually, and she worked relentlessly to build a culture of care and authenticity within the Comchest team.
Beneath her warm exterior is a steely resolve – a necessary trait, given that rejection was part of the job, but so was getting up and trying again. What kept Ling Ling going were the words of Comchest founder Dr Ee Peng Liang: “If you are seeking money for yourself and begging, then maybe you should be shy about it. But if you are asking for a cause, and the money is going to a charity to help the disadvantaged and underprivileged, you ought to be very thick-skinned. There’s no shame in asking.”
“I was sensitive to the brokenness in families in the community”
Ling Ling’s desire to make people’s lives better was born out of personal circumstance. Growing up in the Punggol-Hougang area, she lived in an estate largely made up of two and three-room flats. Her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a second-hand car dealer, provided a “loving, secure and supportive” home. But even at a young age, Ling Ling was aware that others weren’t as lucky. “I was very sensitive to the brokenness I saw in the families in my immediate community due to drugs, gambling, abuse and other social problems,” she says. At the time, she felt helpless, but it would return to tug at her heartstrings in later years.
After graduating with a degree in accountancy from Nanyang Technological University, Ling Ling – a self-professed “practical” person – decided that her first priority was to get a job that would improve her family’s circumstances. To her, there was no question that their needs would always come before her own.
So, she got her first job in treasury in DBS Finance, where she stayed for seven years. “I was in my late 20s by then, and I felt a void. I had a lot of energy and I wondered what I could put that energy into,” she says. She left DBS to take up a short-lived international relations role at the Singapore International Foundation, before joining the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) – Comchest’s parent organisation – in 2001.
The rest, you might say, is history.
“People say I have the heart to do it”
Ling Ling has always been a problem-solver. Close friend Ong Puay See, who’s known her since they were teenagers, says that Ling Ling’s “mathematical” approach probably put the head aspect into a sector that is usually all about heart. “Ling Ling brings structured thinking and meticulousness in looking at numbers, is results-oriented, and focuses on setting goals and reaching them,” she points out.
Before taking on the Comchest role in 2013, Ling Ling worked on establishing corporate governance standards for non-profits, set up the Social Service Training Institute,and developed a Fund Allocation Team – a central fund administrator to streamline resources for beneficiaries, handle budgets for charities, and provide accountability to funders. “This gave me a lot of insights into the resourcing needs of our social service charities,” she says. “By the time the opportunity came to interview for the Comchest role, I had a deep knowledge of social services, and a lot of ground experience with the charities, their management, their board and their struggles in terms of resourcing.”
But beyond the practical qualifications needed to get the job done, Ling Ling really wanted to make a difference. “Most people said I had the heart to do it. They say that when I share about a need, I’m very authentic and passionate because I’m just speaking from my heart,” she says. It also helped, adds Comchest chairman Phillip Tan, that she had a knack for spotting a gap within the charity sector and matching it to a donor’s aspirations. He says: “We can strategise, but Ling, as the field commander, had to be able to implement [our strategies] and keep donors happy.”
Take Singtel. It had, for the past two decades, raised between $2 million and $3 million each year for children with special education needs. Ling Ling noticed that most programmes catered to those up to the age of 18, which made her wonder how to convince people that more had to be done for young adults with special needs. “There were just too few options,” she says.
At that time, Comchest was trying to raise funds to help start the Enabling Village – a pioneering space to provide community support and employment to young adults with special needs. Ling Ling spotted an opportunity and went for it. She says: “I stretched Singtel’s imagination to where their aspirations were. I said, ‘You know these children whom you’ve been investing in these last two decades? They’re growing up and they need that support, that booster, to transit into adulthood’. It took months, but in the end, we got an additional donation of $1 million from Singtel for the Enabling Village.” The approach was typical of Ling Ling’s belief in simply having the facts at hand, then speaking from the heart.
“You either let your environment overwhelm you, or you adapt”
As a student, Ling Ling didn’t have the money to buy gifts for friends. So she got creative and made unique gifts like teddy bears dressed in clothes she’d sewn herself. Puay See recalls: “She would always make little gifts for us, and when we did project work, she would be the one working with her hands, using very few resources to make new and amazing stuff. I think she actually brings a lot of that to her current work.” Ling Ling’s ethos has always been that you can either let your environment overwhelm you, or you adapt and thrive in it.
You see that can-do attitude in how she shaped her introspective personality to be more extroverted (“Because the job really requires it”), and boldly reshaped the culture at Comchest so the team could be more effective. “I really didn’t know how to fundraise. But because of my banking background, I’d always appreciated the relationship management approach of account servicing. In a lot of relationships, if it’s just transactional, people are put off,” she says. “But if you care about the involvement that you’re putting people through, you want to build an understanding with them, and you want to follow through.”
This translated into the creation of a team of relationship and engagement officers who, rather than simply canvassing donations to hit a target, would dive deeper to understand the causes that resonate with donors, build stronger relationships with them, and get them more involved with the beneficiaries – for example, through volunteerism. The giving, she says, would naturally follow.
“Get to know what special needs children go through during their education. Get to know low-income seniors in rental flats – how do we engage them in senior activity centres to prevent social isolation? Young adults with disabilities – how do we empower them to do vocational jobs? When people know what’s at the heart of it, the giving of treasures becomes much more meaningful and sustainable,” she adds.
Her hypothesis eventually paid off. “The first year was tough. I didn’t meet my target,” she admits. “But I felt we were on to something and I saw my team members being more motivated. And then the results came.”
“Volunteering is important because people begin to think beyond themselves”
It’s clear that Ling Ling has always been all about taking action – particularly in the social services sector, where manpower constraints pose challenges. It’s why she’s such an advocate of volunteerism. “I feel the challenge is how to rally people to volunteer more in such a time-strapped economy and society. I find volunteering so important because people begin to think beyond themselves. You’re helping others with a simple action that is real and practical – being present,” she says.
At Comchest, she led by example. Ling Ling started an eight-week programme for the staff to volunteer at Rainbow Centre – a school for children with special needs. For two hours a week, they assisted the teachers with classroom activities. “Sustainable, regular volunteerism is very important – not only for making the volunteerism experience meaningful, but for real change and sowing of your love and heart. I felt I needed to lead my very busy Comchest staff to believe it could be done,” she says. That vision paid off, and helped her staff realise it was possible to engage busy corporates in sustained volunteer programmes.
Kids were not left out of Ling Ling’s plan to create a kinder, more empathetic Singapore. In 2015, Comchest persuaded the Ministry of Education to reintroduce Sharity the elephant into the school curriculum for younger children, to help inculcate the importance of caring for and sharing with the disadvantaged from a young age. Sharity now has a website with resources for parents and kids – like songs, classroom activities an animated episodes.
“I protected the time to get to know my team”
For Ling Ling, the little things mattered when it came to her team. “I evolved over the years. I was a lot more task-oriented when I started leading teams, but I realised that people make all the difference. I’ve learnt how precious people’s experiences are in getting things done,” she says. Among the hardest but most valuable lessons she has learnt is to let go and trust other people, and to forgive herself and them when the results are not perfect. “It just opens up more possibilities,” she adds.
It’s why she deliberately carved time out of her busy schedule for informal chats with her staff. Every member of her team has had an hour-long one-on-one session with her. “I protected the time for getting to know them as individuals – what inspired them, what disappointed them, what was important to them, and what spurred them on. I used a combination of those insights to lift them up,” she says.
She fostered a more nurturing work environment and took the time to learn about her team’s personal circumstances (whether they had a parent with dementia or a child with special needs), to see how they could be supported. “I have seen many such cases where you engage them at a personal level and affirm them, and you see amazing results,” she says.
Beyond encouraging ideas and innovation, she’s all about the big picture. “I like to paint a compelling vision of where we are going, and why we are doing this. Then I’ll paint an aspiration that’s quite a stretch from today’s situation. But I’ll allow a lot of space for people to express their interpretation, their way of seeing how that can be done, and I’ll work alongside them.”
In fact, so close was Ling Ling to her team that when she left Comchest, she gave each of them a fragrance-infused keychain engraved with their initials, because “they have been the fragrance in my life for over five years here and made it sweeter”.
“Mum, if you don’t do it, who will?”
Ling Ling is married to data scientist Ian Lo, 44, and the couple have a 10-year-old son. She adds that her husband’s and son’s support was a big reason why she was able to excel at work.
She recalls grappling with “really bad” hours when starting out at Comchest, with back-to-back fundraising events on weekdays and weekends. Knowing that Ian would take over at home gave her much-needed peace of mind. “My husband’s support is tremendously important for me to feel like I’m doing the right thing,” she says. “He wanted me to fulfil all my potential, and released me to carry out my roles. He was very understanding and not demanding of my time.”
For Ian, it was a no-brainer. He says that although Ling Ling may not have been in frontline work like what social workers or the voluntary welfare organisations do, she played a big role in providing the resources they needed to be successful. “I’m very proud of her for doing that. Despite the obstacles, she soldiered on. Even when she was discouraged, she found the strength again to continue,” he says. “I truly believe that it’s my role as a husband to help her succeed. And I was just doing what I promised to do when we got married – to help her along the way.”
One particular incident stands out for Ling Ling. She recalls getting home around 10pm one night, just past her son’s bedtime. He was still up and waiting for her, so they had a conversation – one that addressed her punishing work schedule and her guilt about not being able to spend as much time with him as she would like. “I asked if he thought I was doing the right thing, and he said ‘Mummy, you know I really miss you, but if you don’t do it, who will?’. That one childlike comment just released me,” she says.
Ling Ling has always lived her life by the values her parents taught her – to be resourceful, resilient, and above all, creative about generating possibilities. She takes that can-do spirit with her wherever she goes. Just like when she was a kid and had a little badge pinned to her backpack with the words: “If you cannot do big things, just do small things in a big way.”
And that’s exactly what she intends to keep doing.