Researcher by day, social entrepreneur by night

Published on 24 Oct 2018 | By Fabian Koh | Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Francis Tan often jokes that he has two full-time jobs. When his day job as an A*STAR researcher ends- he starts his other job as co-founder of Trampolene- where he uses his expertise in analytics to help people and organisations in need.

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They say only friends and family help you without hoping for anything in return. However- there is another category of people who will do the same.

“Fools like me-” quipped researcher Francis Tan- with a laugh. Francis is unabashed about calling himself a fool who got hooked on volunteering – one of the most meaningful things he has done in his life.

He recalls a particularly poignant session at a nursing home. As it was after office hours- he thought most of the residents would be busy chatting with their loved ones. However- among the 160-odd beds- only a handful had visitors.

As I walked past one elderly resident- he called out to me.. ‘boy- can you talk to me?’ He said no one had spoken to him for two weeks. That broke my heart.

Francis Tan- co-founder of Trampolene

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These experiences pushed him to take his passion for volunteering a step further- using his expertise as a computer engineer to help volunteer welfare organisations (VWO).

The VWO manpower headache

A common lament that Francis often heard from VWOs was the high volunteer turnover. It could be as high as five out of 10 volunteers dropping out within three months.

The VWOs did not know how to solve this because they had no insights on why it was happening

Francis- who is from A*STAR's Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC)

This was mainly because VWOs do not have proper volunteer management systems- which mainly comprised stacks of registration and feedback forms- and poorly put together excel sheets.

He decided to put on his computer engineer hat and solve the problem. Together with a few friends who are scientists and engineers- they set up a non-profit organisation Trampolene two years ago.

We chose to name our company Trampolene because we wanted to help those who fall through the cracks to bounce back up

Francis explained using a reference to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s quip to BBC presenter Stephen Sackur- at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland in 2015.

DPM Tharman was quizzed by Sackur on whether he believed in the concept of a safety net- to which he replied: “I believe in the notion of a trampoline.” He was describing Singapore’s approach to social welfare where the Government helps people bounce back rather than merely catching them when they fall.

Making a difference with VOOP

The Trampolene team developed VOOP – a volunteer optimisation app that helps VWOs match volunteers to their preferred locations- activities or timings. VOOP also provides volunteer managers a snapshot of the volunteers they have- their profiles- the activities they like and tend to sign up for- as well as identify the more active volunteers.

As the system also allows input of feedback (including the reason for volunteer dropout)- it enables the VWOs to pinpoint and fix problems early to prevent volunteer attrition.

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“In the past- there was no hard data- just anecdotes. This resulted in an internal debate on what is the problem and what they should do-” he added.

Currently- the VOOP app is being used by about 20 VWOs. Among them is RSVP Singapore- an organisation of 1-000 regular senior volunteers who run a range of programmes- including IT training for seniors.

Previously- we would have to trawl through the database ourselves. It was possible- but very painful. Now- we can filter out volunteers we think will be suitable for a certain activity very easily.

Koh Juay Meng- RSVP Singapore’s president commented that life was much easier with the app.

With the VOOP system- people are now able to sign up for their volunteering activities online. “All they need to do is to press a few buttons. We used to do it manually and forms would sometimes get lost too-” said Juay Meng.

This allows the VWOs to spend less time on paperwork- and more time on the things that matter – caring for those in need.

No need to be cutting edge

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With vast technology knowledge ranging from computer science to engineering- researchers like Francis are well placed to come up with useful innovations that can solve everyday problems.

When asked for his advice for fellow researchers who aim to follow in his footsteps- Francis shared two points. One- you need to believe in the cause. Two- you need to speak the language of the man on the street and offer practical innovations- which need not always be cutting edge.

Scientists and engineers are comfortable using jargons when speaking to their peers- and are drawn to creating technology that is cutting edge- he shared. As VWOs may not be as technology savvy- using the same language with them means they will either not understand what the researchers can offer or get so overwhelmed that proposals fall through.

So leave this technical language behind. Go in to understand the problem. It may not be cutting edge- but it really helps them.

Francis- co-founder of Trampolene explained.

Above all- Francis still seeks to be the “fool” who continues to touch someone’s life.