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  Book Review

Brain Food
BY LIN YANQIN 03 Nov 2008

Today

Few books look closely and comprehensively at the local non-profit sector, and here’s one that not only examines the state of things, but also presents theories for why things are the way they are.

As the former chairman of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, and now chairman of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Mr Willie Cheng is well placed to provide a guide to the nonprofit world.

For instance, he details the aims of charitable organizations and their historical impetus in Singapore, using examples such as the National Kidney Foundation scandal’s role in bringing about regulatory reform to the local non-profit scene.

Mr Cheng, who was a partner at management consultancy firm Accenture before he retired, presents the non-profit sector’s own paradigms and compares them with the commercial world to underline the differences.

In a chapter on social entrepreneurship, he compares the straightforward profitmaking mission of a commercial entity, with the multiple bottom lines of a social enterprise — economic and social — to illustrate the why the latter sometimes fails, and what they can learn from commercial businesses.

The author delves into a broad range of topics, from the motivation behind giving to charity, to giving internationally, to the issue of how large a reserve a non-profit organisation should have. For clarity and structure, the book is divided into five sections: Sector Structure and Governance, Non-profit Management, Giving, Social Innovation and Doing Good Well?.

The book is written in a way that allows readers to dip in and out of the various sections.

The chapter on “Informed Giving”, for example, which discusses how donors can be more discerning about the ways their donations are used, is able to stand on its own without needing to refer to other chapters.

Case studies and examples — local and foreign — are used to illustrate Mr Cheng’s points, making it easier to digest some of the more theoretical concepts that he puts forward.

While its content is extensive enough to be overwhelming at first glance, it nicely balances concepts with reality, to make for an enjoyable and informative read.

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