Why this 35-year-old philanthropist made senior citizen welfare her mission
Losing her grandmother to cancer spurred Rebekah Lin, co-founder of The Social Co., to focus on elder care issues. The think-tank raises awareness of, and funds for, geriatric welfare and suicide prevention, among others.
Fast-talking, self-effacing and all of 35, philanthropist Rebekah Lin associates her work in the social impact sphere to her affinity for the elderly.
“I can talk to older people about anything; they have no inhibitions and we should strive to be more like them. In general, we've become very awkward and unauthentic, with all these guards we put up,” said the co-founder of local think-tank The Social Co., which raises awareness of, and funds for, causes including suicide prevention and geriatric welfare.
Awkward. It's a label uttered more than once by the multi-hyphenate during our prandial conversation, which she uses to describe herself as a child. A finance professional who counts volunteer work, writing and filmmaking among her passions, Lin revealed that she was a victim of bullying.
“I was an introverted kid who only developed social skills when I was in university,” she said, smiling. Beyond an instinctive desire to shield others from the same sense of self-isolation she once struggled with, Lin's interest in mental health issues also stems from loved ones' experiences with them. “I've lost a couple of friends to suicide, which drove the realisation that depression and isolation are real challenges faced by young and old alike.”
Any social ineptitude that may have pervaded her earlier years evidently did not stymie The Social Co.'s first movement named 50 for 50, which was launched in 2014.
Under their singular initiative, the newly-incepted non-profit gathered more than 80 individuals under the age of 35 to garner funds for lesser-known charities in the span of three months.
Matched by corporate organisations, before being further matched by the Government under the S$250 million Care and Share movement, their funds totalled S$4.5 million.
Success aside, why focus on millennials to drive the project? Underlying their mission, was a resolution to alter the stereotypes of young people being apathetic and self-serving.
“My co-founder Cheryl Chong and I kept hearing that millennials only care about the next Prada bag and holiday, yet we were seeing a lot of them start social initiatives within their own neighbourhoods. We wanted to bring these people together,” she said.
While being taken seriously as a coterie of young change-makers with no track record was challenging, the duo worked closely with the National Council of Social Service to convince underfunded charities that they weren't just conducting a one-off school project.
Canvassing for funds was not new to Lin, whose job in private equity spans investor relations and fundraising. She also tapped on her client base for donations.
“My day job trained me to be thick-skinned. It occurred to me that if these people could put money into financial products, they would have the capacity to donate to charity,” she rationalised.
“My co-founder Cheryl Chong and I kept hearing that millennials only care about the next Prada bag and holiday, yet we were seeing a lot of them start social initiatives within their own neighbourhoods. We wanted to bring these people together.” – Rebekah Lin
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PRIVILEGE AND PHILANTHROPY
There seems to be an odd dichotomy between the image of Lin as a bashful child and my forthcoming interlocutor.
The daughter of private equity investment firm Tembusu Partners founder Andy Lim and former Cabinet minister Lim Hwee Hua, she alludes to her privileged background before I can broach the obvious. Philanthropy, she says, runs in the family.
“I feel very grateful for what we have. My parents and grandparents have always given generously, and growing up I was taught to think of how to make the world a better place, as cheesy as that sounds,” she shared in her folksy manner. “My mother commits her time to helping others, which makes me feel that it is never just about money.”
The same altruistic slant has inspired Lin's volunteer efforts.
Between 2011 and 2017, she raised funds and sought employment opportunities for inmates of Changi Women's Prison. “It was hard to witness senior inmates grapple with the question of survival once they were released from prison. I wanted to do more than just sit on a committee and approve things,” said the self-professed “doer”, whose former appellations include chef, magazine writer and photojournalist for World Vision.
Far from being a dilettante, Lin has followed through with helping the disadvantaged. She’s made lasting social impact The Social Co.'s mission. Three years ago, the collective began focusing on working with the elderly, as well as causes related to mental health.
“I think people don't instinctively want to support such causes as there isn't really a way to measure the impact of your work, unlike, say, providing kids with an education,” she explained. Determined not to be “typical young punks working on an issue we didn't understand”, she attained a Master's degree in gerontology at King's College London in the UK.
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In a way, studying the social, cultural and psychological aspects of ageing was a natural progression for Lin, who remembers witnessing her grandmother, with whom she shared a close relationship, become vulnerable from illness.
“She had cancer and was gone in two weeks. I was saddened and later realised how ageing can really make people frail.” In 2018, Lin anchored an episode of Channel NewsAsia's The Big Questions documentary series, which dissected Singapore's healthcare system. Beyond pablum, meeting various experts for the show gave her insights on relevant elder care issues, including ageing within the community.
Using a studied approach, her team at The Social Co. – which is comprised of volunteers – selected five charities in the senior care sector to engage with meaningfully over five years. This includes meeting with them to understand their priorities, before rendering assistance.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, they gathered change-makers to respond to their beneficiaries' pressing needs. The group also plans to host dialogues with seniors.
“I feel very grateful for what we have. My parents and grandparents have always given generously, and growing up I was taught to think of how to make the world a better place, as cheesy as that sounds.” – Rebekah Lin
Needs- and skills-based volunteering, she asserts, are lacking in Singapore's social sector, which requires more coordination between social enterprises. “We tend to work in silos, and the various groups aren't coming together to share manpower, strategies and other resources,” she said.
Can that be attributed to an inherently guarded community? “I feel that many in the social sector tend to seek (and protect) original approaches, which is great. But you also have to make sure you are being creative to solve a problem, and not for the sake of being different,” she posited.
Perhaps this pragmatism is borne from past failure, which Lin is candid about. As the manager of Jia Foundation, her family's philanthropic fund, she helped establish a now-defunct organisation in Cambodia to provide education and primary healthcare to children in Siem Reap.
According to her, their efforts petered out after about five years due to a lack of clear objectives and cost-effectiveness.
“It got me wondering if we did more harm than good. I've met people who say they are going to bring their one million dollars and change Cambodia – it just doesn't work that way,” she shared.
Describing herself as inexperienced and idealistic back then, Lin admits to being negligent in managing the various aspects of the project, which she assumed could run on its own. “I don't regret it but I would be a lot more careful about starting a new project.”
“I feel that many in the social sector tend to seek (and protect) original approaches, which is great. But you also have to make sure you are being creative to solve a problem, and not for the sake of being different.” – Rebekah Lin
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
For now, The Social Co. focuses on “moving the needle forward”, rather than replicating past successes. That's not to say that the hundreds of thousands they've raised for various charities between 50 for 50 and now is a paltry amount.
This March, the group hosted an intimate dialogue on mental health and suicide prevention between bartenders, proprietors and individuals from Samaritans of Singapore. It's an oft-overlooked topic in an industry given to bibulous pleasures, where service professionals are invariably expected to be cheerful.
“Participants shared that the discussion gave them new awareness on how to talk to friends who may be going through a hard time,” she shared.
And she draws inspiration from like-minded millennials too. Among the “cool young people” she admires are the organiser of the first Singapore Climate Rally at Hong Lim Park, and a youth worker from local charity Boys' Town who reaches out to youth on the street through applied theatre.
Which begs the question, is there any truth to the notion that millennials are apathetic? “For the most part, yes. Not everybody has the space and time to give, because we are so distracted by what's going on in the world right now. It can feel like whatever you do is not going to make a difference,” Lin admitted.
But for her, nihilism is not an option. “There are many young people doing interesting work, plus the next generation of Greta Thunbergs is very much driven by activism. They feel very strongly about issues, and I definitely see a lot of drive and commitment from them.”
Sanguine? Yes. Authentic? Sure. But as someone with quiet conviction write large on her face, awkward is certainly a misnomer for Lin.
“There are many young people doing interesting work, plus the next generation of Greta Thunbergs is very much driven by activism. They feel very strongly about issues, and I definitely see a lot of drive and commitment from them.” – Rebekah Lin