Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is a concept that many companies are defining for themselves, given that sustainability is a target for both consumers and businesses.
One player championing “do good” efforts within Asia is DBS Bank, the largest bank in Southeast Asia. In 2014, it launched the DBS Foundation in celebration of Singapore’s jubilee year (SG50), and to develop a supportive and thriving ecosystem for social entrepreneurship in the region. Each year, the DBS Foundation gives out grants and loans to selected social enterprises.
We sat down with Claire Wong-Low, executive director of the DBS Foundation, who shared her thoughts on developing an agenda for social entrepreneurship and rallying allies within a profit-driven organization.
Oasis (OS): Tell us about the DBS foundation and how you became its executive director.
Claire Wong-Low (CWL): I started my career with the Economic Development Board as a government scholar, and then spent many years in Singapore and Washington, DC. Then I went into consulting, focusing on the energy sector, which led me to DBS, where I was an industry banker for five years.
I found out DBS had a foundation that supports social entrepreneurs. Providentially, there were people on the board who provided me with really good counsel and guidance to make the transition from banking to philanthropy.
Before I joined, the chair of the DBS Foundation Board, Euleen Goh, spoke to me and challenged me to think about why I wanted to take this path, which was a far cry from banking. The perception is that you only move to such roles—charitable causes—when you are about to retire, especially in banking.
OS: How do you propagate the agenda of social impact in a profit-driven organization?
CWL: By finding a value proposition that actually works.
First of all, stakeholders have to acknowledge that this is not going to make them a lot of money. However, I can help them understand that sustainability, communal impact, and a good reputation will be good for them in the long run. I don’t really receive much opposition to this.
Also, the DBS Foundation’s strength is the support it receives from the bank. For example, mentors from our HR department partner with social enterprises. We leverage existing resources to formulate impactful social initiatives.
OS: How do you drive the sustainability agenda on a day-to-day basis, especially in a large organization?
CWL: There is no cookie-cutter solution. A lot of it is finding new ways to connect with different types of people. For example, if we work with a private bank, we have to understand what the private bank client wants and how we, as a foundation, can add value for them. We talk to our DBS corporate banking teams, and ask them whether they act as mentors or provide business skills to enterprises.
How do I make this compelling? It’s really about learning to think on our feet and reach out without feeling shy.
OS: How do you select social enterprises for your grant program?
CWL: Business sustainability is a key factor in the selection of social enterprises that we support, because we have a limited budget.
The first step is to determine whether their business model is sustainable, whether they’re solving the problem they spotted. Then, we look at the founders and their teams: are they business-savvy? Can they leverage technologies and trends in business to grow? Can they adapt to changes?
OS: Have there been more enterprises seeking funding from the bank since the beginning of the pandemic?
CWL: Yes. But apart from funding, we also connect the enterprises with partners and high-net-worth individuals to take their business to the next level.
We sometimes assume that by giving people money, we are solving their problems. But because of the pandemic, we came to realize that’s totally not true. That’s why we are quite targeted in issuing grants. The only money we gave last year, in addition to the grants, was for business transformation. We are thinking more about the long run.
We also worked with our banking team to roll out zero-interest loans to a number of social enterprises. There are different ways of financing that fit different needs.
This interview was produced in partnership with TBN Asia, which seeks to support social enterprises fighting poverty in Southeast Asia.