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GIC’s pay-for-volunteering scheme gets criticised

In what is already turning out to be a controversial initiative one day after it was announced, Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore, or GIC Pte Ltd, is handing out cash grants to students who do volunteer work for 25 hours.

Called "GIC Sparks & Smiles (GIC Sparks)", the programme "seeks to inspire and enable youths in Singapore to play a positive and active role in their communities", the company says on its website.

The programme is open to over 500 students across six universities, five polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

"To receive it, GIC is looking for students who show the desire to serve the community, as well as demonstrate a need for financial support," the announcement says. "The students who receive the GIC Sparks study grant commit to providing at least 25 hours of community service including mentoring. They will get exposure to range of experiences, skills and opportunities to enable them to volunteer and give their time in a way that makes a difference."

GIC plans to give S$2,000,000 worth of community service grants to these students over a four-year period - but only students from households with a per capita income of below $2,000 will qualify for the programme.

It is unclear why there is such a cap.

GIC says it "is working closely with its charity partner Beyond Social Services (Beyond) to deliver the programme."

"Beyond provides the students with mentorship training and connects each of them to a disadvantaged child, youth or family. Acting as facilitators or mentors, the students must build a relationship so they can make a difference through the act of doing. The activities done together can include tutorship, mentoring or facilitating conversations about key issues such as employment or education."

Reaction to the scheme has been critical.

Ms Leena Kumari, posting online, said, "I personally feel this idea takes away the actual meaning of volunteering. If you expect or receive monetary rewards for it then it's not volunteering but more of a job."

Mr Loh Wai Poon questions the rationale of paying for volunteer work.

"A bit of twisted logic," Mr Loh said. "It may be another form of financial aid. Frankly, volunteerism cannot be boosted by paying volunteers. It is very good to be paid $3K to $5K for 25 hours of community work. This is $120 - $200 per hour! Will it lead to monetarism? Are we sending the wrong message to future volunteers?"

Mr Steve Lim also questioned the scheme.

"Having an allowance for meal and transport is common for volunteer where by at time a token of appreciate is given for some. However when you place a large amount of money for a small amount of duration, it better to put the money to good use instead. For $3000 - $5000, you could have up to 4 full time staff per month, or part time staff at $ 5 to $8 per hour."

In June last year, the Ministry of Education (MOE)'s introduction of cash incentives as rewards for students who show certain leadership and personal qualities was also criticised. (See here.)

For example, the MOE announced that students "who display good leadership, service to community and school or excellence in non-academic activities are eligible for the Edusave Award for Achievement, Good Leadership and Service."

These awards are in cash and range from $250 to $500 each.

Some critics say cash incentives should not be used to entice our young students to do better for themselves and the community.

Nonetheless, the GIC's Director of Human Resources & Organization Development, Deanna Ong, speaking of the GIC scheme, says, "Through the quality interaction between the recipients and community members, we believe both sides will experience the impact of empathy and positive role modelling, which builds confidence for their future.”