MAY 25, 2008, Vol 58, No 11

PAY, ESPECIALLY WHEN it is funded by the public, tends to be a lightning rod for public scrutiny and media attention. Usually, it’s the big numbers that gets the buzz – compensation of CEOs of publicly listed companies, ministers’ salaries, etc. Of late, the low level of pay of the average charity worker has come into some focus.

While there is a lack of good data on pay in the charity sector, there is hardly any contention that they are paid less than the commercial and public sector. The question is how much? Based on input from human resource compensation firms, my sense is that charity executives here are paid 30-50 percent lower on average compared to their commercial counterparts.

Is that fair?

That’s where the divergence of views begins. A 2004 U.S. survey by Guidestar, mainly of charity workers, say "no". By contrast, a 2005 poll by The Straits Times on Singaporean attitudes towards charity found that 60 percent feel that charity organizations should be run by volunteers or staff paid below-market wages.

Those who view current pay levels as unfair call for charity sector pay to be levelled up to be in line with market. By market, they mean the commercial market. The implication is that nonprofit pay is not market-based.

I would argue that they already are market-based. The nonprofit market for full-time staff is as capitalistic a market as that of financial services or any other industry. As in the commercial world, employees join and stay in nonprofit organizations voluntarily – it is a classic case of willing buyer and willing seller, with full disclosure. No one is compelled to do nonprofit work. People choose to work in charities at wage levels that they know of upfront and therefore fully accept.

In fact, the human resource market is one single large capitalistic market made of different market sectors, one of which happens to be the nonprofit sector. And within the nonprofit sector, like other sectors, there would be different market segments.

And each market sector and segment comprises of individual organizations who decide how they want to price their executives and the law of supply and demand works to move the players around (over the long run).

The collective pricing for a particular job by all the organizations in a particular sector of the human resources market results in a narrower band of acceptable compensation levels for that job; this merely reflects prevailing common characteristics of that sector. And this leads to its competitiveness of pay relative to other sectors.

So if the job market works according to natural market forces, what accounts for the wage differential between the charity sector and the others?

Most observers, inside and outside the sector, cite the noble spirit of altruism as the reason. Since the sector is about charity, so workers should also be charitable. This is seen as a "discount" given by employees for working in a charity organization. Or you could argue that it is a "premium" the individual gets for the joy of heart work.

Is this heart factor a good reason for the supposed premium of charity work? I think so.

In many sectors and in many organizations, there are intangibles why people would take on the job for a lesser sum than they could command elsewhere. Many technology companies, for example, rally their employees behind the idea of changing the world. Apple tells its employees that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it".

These intangibles often relate to our very human desire for meaning in life. What is unique about charity work is that sense of nobleness, of doing good, of giving back to society as part of one’s job.

There are other sectors where sacrifices of pay are expected for noble reasons.

Many (although not all) religions require their religious to live a modest life as part of their higher calling. A 2006 Sunday Times survey of religious pay showed that the Taoists, Buddhists and Hindus pay their religious workers relatively small sums of money. Catholic priests in Singapore seem to receive the least – $500 per month with lodging.

Even our public service sector which leads the rest of the world in paying well seeks to factor in a one third discount for ministers and top civil servants compensation from the benchmark pay. (Critics however question whether the benchmark pay which is determined using the top eight earners from six professions is appropriate).

For sectors driven by nobleness, the relative disregard for pay levels provides the moral authority intrinsic to the sanctity of the sector and sometimes is very necessary for the incumbents to be effective in doing their work. Revving up their pay to commercial levels would be corrupting that very value of charity.

Yet, I find it difficult to explain the whole difference between current charity and commercial pay as being due to the sacrifice for nobleness.

Most people who have straddled both charity and commercial sector would attest to the significant differences in work environments between the two. The pace in the nonprofit sector is much slower. Outcomes are less clear. People are much nicer to each other.

Hence, I would say that part of what accounts for the differential between charity and commercial pay is this environmental aspect of lower stress, slower pace, and less demanding expectations. You could say it is the head factor, in contrast to the heart factor.

Differential pay for different environmental factors is a common phenomenon across the capitalistic human resource market. Foreign currency dealers are very well paid because of their odd hours, high stress levels and less secure tenures.

A lawyer in a legal firm who is defending clients, working to tight court schedules, bearing the risk of personal liability for his work generally get paid more than if he were employed as a legal counsel in the more stable, less risky legal department of a large corporation.

This occurs even within a company. Those on the revenue-generating side of an organization generally are better compensated than those who are not.

In tandem with the call to level up charity pay is the call to level up the quality of charity work. Over time, the lower pay of the charity sector has resulted in a work culture and effectiveness that lags far behind the corporate world. Why is this so?

Consider a professional of a certain calibre who is worth/earning $12,000 and who is willing to take back 25 percent less (let us say that this is the value of the heart factor for him) for performing exactly the same job in a charity organization. Assuming the charity he is interested in offers only $6,000, two possible scenarios result. The first scenario is that another commercial candidate of a lower calibre earning a lesser pay of $8,000 takes a 25 percent pay cut (same heart factor) to do the job at $6,000. The second scenario is that the first candidate earning $12,000 joins at a 50 percent pay cut, the first 25 percent for heart and the second 25 percent for head i.e. he judges that the charity he is going to is less demanding and therefore merits a further 25 percent pay cut. Both scenarios mean that the quality of work and outcomes would be less than what it would be in a commercial organization.

Certainly the charity sector has many examples of successful professionals who have given up well paying jobs in the commercial world and taken very big pay cuts to follow their heart. However, the number of such people is probably not large and if anything, they may create the illusion that the premium for the heart factor is very significant. When it gets to large numbers of workers, the average value of the heart premium would come down. So to populate the many jobs available, the sector has likely attracted staff which at the margin may not have been paid much more in the commercial world anyway.

It is the law of supply and demand at work again. Without enough properly qualified people who value a high heart premium, the old adage "pay peanuts and you get monkeys" applies. And it does not help in the effectiveness of the charity sector even if these monkeys come with a heart of gold.




So, my take is that the capitalistic job market is alive and well. People are being paid what they are prepared to take for the jobs they do.

In charity, the heart factor is a drawing point and should never be replaced by money. However, the price gap established by charity organizations seems to be too big (for the quality level desired by many) given the large number of charity workers needed. The sector thinks that the price gap is for heart. But over time, in addition to the heart gap, a head gap of lower quality and slower pace has built up.

Having been involved with both secular and Catholic charities, my observation is that we are more extreme in the church. There is a much higher heart premium demanded – rightly so, and our priests and religious have led the way in this respect. Nevertheless, the unwillingness to pay what some would consider a "living wage" means that the quality of staff and outcomes has to take a hit. In fact, there are many church organizations that have not crossed the bridge to even move from relying entirely on volunteers to having paid staff, no matter how poorly paid. It is testimony to the power of our faith and the hearts of those involved that collectively we have achieved as much as we have with such constraints. Yet, I am sure there are many who wonder at how we can scale and sustain our endeavours without due regard to the head factor.

The situation in the outside world is changing. With greater demands for accountability and professionalism in the charity sector, charities are being pushed to pay what it takes to bring on appropriate staff – which is more than what they have been paying. With the arguments being made for rising public service pay scales, not relying purely on nobleness to bridge the pay gap is also becoming more acceptable.

As individual charity organizations raise their pay, it will generally lift charity sector pay. Hopefully the pay rises will only serve to narrow and even eliminate the head factor, and hopefully it will never reduce or remove the heart factor. - By Willie Cheng


[This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Salt, May/June 2007.]


Willie Cheng is Chairman of the Catholic Social & Community Council.

AFTER THREE YEARS of work, the results of the first-ever census of the Singapore Catholic population are out.

The picture that emerges is varied. Eight in 10 Catholics in Singapore say they attend Mass every weekend, which is high compared to 48 percent in the Philippines, 33 percent in the United States, and 17 percent in the United Kingdom.

But the level of engagement is low, with nearly half saying they don’t do anything else church-related beyond going to Mass. Seven in 10 have never been involved in a small prayer group or community, although 30 percent say they would like to.

There are also complaints about the lack of a prayerful atmosphere at Mass, with six in 10 saying that the chatter of others before Mass disturbs their private prayer.

This snapshot of the Catholic population is the result of a census conducted over the weekend of Aug 25-26 in 2007, with a second survey the following weekend for those who missed out on the first one. The census was conducted by the Catholic Research Centre of Singapore and Family Life Society, both headed by Jesuit Father Charles Sim. It was funded by the Lien Foundation.

Sociology professor Stella Quah spearheaded the development of the questionnaire which began in the second half of 2005. She led a team which analyzed the findings and wrote the census report. She is now working on individual reports for each of the 30 parishes that took part in the survey. The main census findings were presented at the priests’ Annual Presbyterium in March.

In all, 94,447 people completed the survey. This is a significant proportion of the total Catholic population, which was estimated at 170,000 in 2006 in the official directory of the archdiocese. The Singapore Census conducted by the government in 2000 had put the number of Catholics at about 120,000.

Of the nearly 95,000 Catholics surveyed, 80.5 percent said they attend Mass every weekend.

Most Catholics feel a sense of belonging to their parish church, with 76 percent agreeing that there is one church in Singapore that they feel is their parish church. Over eight in 10 express a wish to know their parishioners better. But they feel that the church has to play a role to foster such relationships, with 55.5 percent saying that "parishioners cannot get to know each other better unless the church helps them".

Despite their desire to know fellow Catholics better, not many Catholics are engaged in a church activity. Nearly half – 47.8 percent – do not spend any time on church activities beyond attendance at Mass. Another 15.7 percent spend less than an hour a month. Only a small fraction – 12.9 percent – spend more than four hours a month in church activities or ministries.

On the bright side, teenagers are the most engaged in church. Those aged 12 to 19 have the most regular church attendance, show the greatest attachment to their respective parish churches, take part in more church activities than adults, and feel more connected during weekend Masses.

Prof Quah attributes this to the catechism programme: "It is likely that many years of Catechism in Catholic Churches can claim credit for this. It is true that youngsters are more gregarious and more open to activities in church for social reasons."

While at Mass, many Catholics like to have time for quiet prayer, with 52.5 percent saying they prefer to pray and meditate by themselves when attending Mass. About six in 10 say that other people’s chatter before Mass disturbs their private prayer.

In her report, Prof Quah highlights the need to balance the individual’s desire for quiet meditation with the church’s wish to foster collective prayer and a sense of congregation during Mass. One way to do this, she suggests, is to set aside time during Mass for quiet meditation and prayer. Churches can create meeting places outside the church, such as at a lobby or entrance hall, for social interaction, to discourage parishioners from disturbing others’ prayer in the main church.

Despite their preference for prayer in church, in fact most Catholic families do not pray together as a family. Two in three say they seldom or never pray together as a family.

Still, the Catholic family remains strong. Six in 10 Catholics come from families where all members are Catholic. Of those who are married, a high proportion – 83.5 percent – are married to fellow Catholics.

Not surprisingly, most Catholics attend weekend Mass with family, with 64.6 percent saying they attend weekend Mass with one or more family members. Those who go to church as a family are most likely to attend regularly: 86 percent of those who go to church as a family, say they go to Mass every weekend, suggesting that Catholic families support each other in church attendance.

While this is encouraging, the flip side is the possible alienation of those who are not from Catholic families, or those who are single, divorced, widowed or estranged from family. One in five Catholics attend Mass alone. This proportion increases to nearly one-third (29 percent) among older parishioners.

Language is also an issue. One in five parishioners do not speak English, and speak only one Asian language at home, suggesting the need for more services and ministries to cater to the non-English speaking.

The census also highlights the impact of globalization on the Catholic community, with a large minority of foreigners captured in the census. About 26 percent of those surveyed classified themselves as "others" when asked about race. Of this, 17.8 percent are Filipinos, about five percent are Eurasians, and one percent are Caucasians. The largest group of foreign parishioners are from the Philippines (16.6 percent), Malaysia (three percent), and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh combined (2.6 percent). The findings again throw up a possible gap in services to this group of foreign parishioners.

The census is significant in providing the first comprehensive and accurate picture of the Catholic community in Singapore.

The findings highlight areas of concern, such as the need to engage more Catholics beyond Mass, the need to grow small Christian communities, the need to improve the prayerful atmosphere at Mass, and the need to strengthen the prayer lives of families.

At the same time, emerging trends – such as more older parishioners attending Mass alone, and the growing numbers of foreigners – should alert the church to cater better to these groups, whose numbers will surely grow. n

SINGAPORE – Vocation stories by priests are a new way of evangelization and are an effective means to reach out to the young, said a Philippines bishop.

Referring to the book, "Called and Chosen" (a compilation of 17 vocation stories of Singapore priests produced by Serra Club of Singapore), Bishop Grace Jesus Y. Varela commented that the priests in Singapore whose vocation stories were featured in the book had made a great contribution to society by stepping forth courageously to witness to their vocation.

He further encouraged all vocation promoters to make available to young Catholics copies of the book to awaken them to God’s calling.

Bishop Grace was speaking to about 200 participants at the recent 14th Serra International Asian Convention in Cebu, Philippines.

They were from various Serra Clubs in Asia gathered to learn from one another the various ways to promote vocations and to collaborate.

Serra Club of Singapore will host the 15th Serra International Asian Convention in 2010. The objectives of Serra Club of Singapore are to foster and promote vocations to the ordained priesthood in the Catholic Church.

SINGAPORE – About 100 parishioners comprising parents and youth from Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary attended a Vocation Forum held in the parish hall on Apr 20. The forum was chaired by parish priest Father Joseph Tan. Sisters Agnes Claire (RGS), Sylvia (FMM), Jessica (FDCC), Brothers Alphonsus, Colin (De La Salle Brothers) and Friar Desmond (Franciscan Friar) shared their personal vocation stories.

The speakers told the audience of their very "normal" teenage lives. Sisters Agnes Claire and Sylvia went to parties, had boyfriends and boyfriend problems.

Among them, there was no Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience. But there were feelings of dissatisfaction and emptiness in their early years.

Brother Alphonsus wanted "a more meaningful vocation" while Sister Sylvia who loved kayaking and was an outdoor person, spent five years in discernment, finally choosing the life of a missionary after being challenged by her experiences in India.

Friar Desmond, who worried over the sufferings of the poor and the disadvantaged in Africa, also wanted "a more unconventional life-style". Brother Colin knew he did not want to teach but to counsel the youth. As God’s instruments, Sister Jessica spoke of her work with prisoners and Sister Agnes Claire spoke of hers with unmarried mothers, their children and with migrant workers.

The panel of speakers also identified other important factors which helped them to find God and stay connected to him in order to answer his call. These included daily Mass (Brother Colin had a never-miss-Mass family), the Eucharist, a deep, personal prayer life, involvement in parish activities such as teaching Catechism, serving as an altar boy, singing in a choir, attending church camps and retreats, reading books about the faith, understanding the importance of relationships and the brotherhood and, last but not least, having the loving direction of spiritual mentors.

Suggestions about ways to foster vocations were made by some parishioners at the forum. They included: allow older youths to continue to serve as altar boys, create more opportunities for direct dialogue between the youth and the religious, give more information about religious orders in Singapore, highlight activities and programmes for the youth and encouragement and support from families who know their faith. - By Mary Lim

SINGAPORE – With cars lining one side of Sallim Road leading to the Church of St. Stephen, one would have wondered what was going on in this quaint little parish in the east on Saturday afternoon, May 10. It was the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Canossian Sisters that drew over 500 people to the newly renovated church.

"The Church of St. Stephen is very significant to us because the beginning of the church was in our compound in Sallim Road," explained Sister Anne Tan, who has been the Provincial Superior for the Canossian Sisters since 2003.

Sister Anne added that the theme of the 200th anniversary celebration "Big Hearts" captures the Canossian spirituality and was used in a song specially composed by Stephanie Kwok, which was the closing hymn for the Eucharistic celebration.

Archbishop Nicholas Chia celebrated the Mass with 18 other priests from around the diocese. The Mass was attended by all the Canossian Sisters, together with lay people and religious whose lives have been influenced one way or another by the Canossian sisters.

Since they first arrived in Singapore in 1894, the Canossians have been very dedicated and always open to building God’s kingdom on earth, said Archbishop Chia in his homily.

"We pray that more young girls will be inspired by their lives and join the mission of the Canossians. We rejoice with the Canossians and be thankful for all they have done, and assure them of our prayers and support," Archbishop Chia added.

The Canossian Daughters of Charity is the largest religious congregation in Singapore, with 56 Canossian sisters serving the Archdiocese of Singapore, and two postulants training to be Sisters. The congregation is engaged in ministries varying from education, catechesis and theological reflections, pastoral care for the sick, elderly, and terminally ill, counselling, youth ministry, retreat and spiritual direction.

There are two kindergartens, two primary schools, one secondary school, and a Hearing Impaired Learning Centre run by the Canossian Sisters in Singapore. In addition, both the St. Joseph’s Home and Villa Francis Home for the Aged are run by the Canossian Sisters. -By Daniel Tay