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Why entrepreneur and Give.Asia co-founder raised his pay from S$500 to S$7,000 in order to 'do good'

Pong Yu Ming, CEO and co-founder of crowdfunding platform Give.Asia, shares why you need to be strong to be kind.

Pong Yu Ming, CEO and co-founder, Give.Asia.
Pong Yu Ming, CEO and co-founder, Give.Asia. (PHOTO: Give.Asia) (GIVE.Asia)

SINGAPORE — Online crowdfunding platform Give.Asia was born when its founders eschewed traditional careers post-university. One of them, Pong Yu Ming, was a mechanical engineering graduate but wanted to use technology to solve a social need.

During his last year in university in 2009, Pong, now 39, and his group of friends at the National University of Singapore (NUS) co-founded Give.Asia – it highlights the cases of charities and individuals such as children in need of medical funds or underprivileged families – which facilitates donations directly to receivers at no additional fee to donors.

Some 15 years on, the organisation has raised some S$145 million from about two million donors and helped more than 20,000 campaigns across Asia.

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"Our mission was to inspire people to become givers. When we started off, the problem was that we were not willing to stand under the sun and collect coins in tin cans. We always wanted to use technology to solve the problem," said Pong in an interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore.

Campus misfits

The group of "misfits", as Pong described themselves, was already known on campus for their business acumen. They experimented with many online-to-offline start-up ideas, including selling second-hand items and delivering food on campus, predating the likes of Carousell and Grab. According to Pong, these entrepreneurial ventures were "decently successful" and made them extra cash.

Then, Pong went on a university exchange programme in his third year, which would shape his future career. The group went their separate ways; Pong, an engineering student, went to the Netherlands while his friends were scattered across other parts of Europe and the US. It was at this time that he first experienced a different culture of giving.

"When we were there, we noticed that the charity was... part of (people's) lives, and we wondered whether it was the culture or approach," said Pong.

Kindness doesn't have to be a weakness. If you want to be generous and kind, you actually have to be capable.Pong Yu Ming, co-founder, Give.Asia

Upon returning, the group contemplated whether to get jobs or to continue working on start-ups. After deciding on the latter, the students brainstormed ideas for their next venture.

The final piece of the puzzle, Pong said, came when they saw how former US President Barrack Obama successfully rallied social support in 2008 by asking people to donate US$1. Another source of inspiration was a TED talk by American social entrepreneur Dan Pallota, who argued that non-profits should act more like businesses

"He was basically saying that there are a lot of double standards in this space (the non-profit sector). There was this idea that to do good, you have to make sacrifices. But this idea had a problem because you could never really take risks. If you don't take risks, you have no chance of innovating and solving problems," said Pong.

Living cheaply

To raise funds for their new start-up, Pong and his friends entered university business plan competitions. They won several competitions by "telling a good story about crowdfunding" and collectively garnered S$120,000, which became the seed funding for Give.Asia. An NUS professor who noticed what the students were doing also gave them an additional S$20,000 to kick things off.

For the next seven years, Pong and two Give.Asia co-founders used their winnings to live and operate the organisation from a storeroom-turned-business-incubator at the NUS campus, staying past their graduations. They paid themselves S$500 per month and survived on the kindness of a canteen operator and the professor who allowed them to use the space.

Whenever they needed extra cash, Pong said that they worked freelance on the side. They learnt to code on the job and built software for clients.

"We had no life... We were used to living cheaply, so we never really thought about needing too much money," said Pong, adding that he was the beneficiary of a scholarship, and that he and his friends "didn't have families who needed us to send money home".

"My satisfaction wasn't financial. I can use the same iPhone for years. I can eat the same food every day," said Pong.

Pong of Give.Asia eating pizza with a friend, posing for a photo from a storeroom in NUS.
Pong (right) roughing it out in a storeroom on the NUS campus. (PHOTO: Give.Asia) (GIVE.Asia)

Doing good and doing well

However, such idealism was not financially sustainable. In its early iteration, Give.Asia's only sources of income were derived from the freelance work of its founders and a short-lived five per cent platform fee that was eventually removed.

"When we started off, I didn't think it was a sacrifice. Money wasn't such a big factor; we wanted to be on a high learning curve. Doing our own start-up gave us more exposure, more opportunities to do things.

"But over the years, we saw our peers who took the more traditional path become more financially stable while we were still stuck because we never managed to figure out how to make it profitable. We could do good, but we couldn't do well. About seven years in, it broke us," Pong recalled.

The lesson I learnt was that if you want to be kind, you have to be strong.Pong Yu Ming, co-founder, Give.Asia

Pong said that he and the co-founders took a break from running Give.Asia for a year. They found full-time jobs. Pong secured a sales role at Facebook (now Meta) but left four months later for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) course.

"The problem was that we were trying to make 'do good' and 'do well' exist in the same entity. We couldn't make Give.Asia profitable because we never wanted to make profits off people," said Pong. "But we still needed to survive."

After completing his MBA, Pong worked in software development in a freelance capacity. He realised he needed to "do some things for money and some things for giving". The result was the creation of a software consultancy firm Beam-X – to generate income.

Currently, Pong said the salary of Give.Asia's staff follows a market rate that is between the social and tech sectors, ranging from S$2,000 for a junior position to S$10,000 for senior managers. Pong said he now earns a monthly salary of about S$7,000.

"The first seven years, we took it with the mindset that we have to make an insane amount of sacrifice in order to do good. The lesson I learnt was that if you want to be kind, you have to be strong," he said.

"Kindness doesn't have to be a weakness. If you want to be generous and kind, you actually have to be capable."

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