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What skills can we nurture in social sector leaders to prepare them for an uncertain tomorrow? How can cross-sector collaboration build a healthier and more resilient ecosystem to serve the community in the future better? How can NGOs leverage technology without losing the connection to their constituents?

These were just some of the questions posed at this year’s virtual On Board Hong Kong conference, hosted by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation and Chicago Booth’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation on June 15-16, 2022. The event brought together Hong Kong NGOs and business leaders virtually to learn and connect.

The first day featured a keynote conversation with Sue Toomey, Executive Director, HandsOn Hong Kong, that focused on how the nonprofit sector can thrive post-pandemic. Chicago Booth professor Jean-Pierre Dubé then shared his research on nutritional inequality, and Gabrielle Kirstein, the founder of Feeding Hong Kong, discussed how Hong Kong can address nutritional inequality and food waste together. The day ended with a workshop led by the internationally renowned storyteller Robyn Moore, designed to help participants profoundly impact community supporters and create social change.

The second day featured several local NGO leaders on two panels that explored how the social service sector can develop the next generation of talent and how nonprofits can integrate technology without losing their humanity. The conference ended with a workshop led by social innovation leader Maris Garcia, which introduced human-design thinking tools and frameworks to encourage stakeholder-informed innovation.

Here are key takeaways from select sessions from this year's virtual conference:

Stronger Together: Cross sector partnerships for a resilient future (Opening Keynote)


Great challenges lead to creative solutions

The pandemic was an unprecedented challenge for the nonprofit sector, but it also taught NGOs what they can get done with a little elbow grease and creativity, said keynote speaker Sue Toomey, Executive Director, HandsOn Hong Kong. While life may be returning to the pre-pandemic status quo, these lessons of mutual aid should not be forgotten because they show the power of determination.

“What we are really excited to see are the new collaborations that have formed and innovative ways of working together, whether it’s NGO to NGO, funder to funder, or cross collaboration,” Toomey said. “We are excited and encouraged to see an opening of the minds, greater flexibility, and acceptance of just new ways to work together through the pandemic.”

The corporate sector is here to help

The pandemic made many ordinary people volunteer for the first time when they discovered the social and personal benefits of donating their time, Toomey said. The bumper crop of volunteers can be used for basic hands-on tasks, but don’t forget to make use of volunteers’ professional skillsets if they work in spheres like law or accounting. “Skilled volunteers who can bring in a specific expertise are really, really valuable and can be an extension of your team,” Toomey said.

Future proof with your board

Management and the board should think years ahead in the future and collaborate on innovation to test out ideas with pilot projects. Toomey said many valuable lessons were learned during the pandemic, and they should be kept in mind.

“Getting the future ready for our sector means investing. It means investing in our people, investing in our entire organizations. Remember, though, that innovation can look like drafting a new project or simply supporting an existing one that just needs a little help,” Toomey said.

“The reality is there are a lot of funders who want to support the next innovation, the next shiny thing when there are some amazing programs that just need to continue to run, need support, and may have innovation in them just by evolving to meet the needs and adjusting to the situation of the times,” she said. “That’s innovation too.” 

Back to the classroom: Food deserts and the cause of nutritional inequality (Faculty Keynote)


Interpreting a problem with the best data

Data is power, and it should drive policy. Take “food deserts” in the United States where communities lack access to food options –  conventional wisdom has held this inequality which can be closed by opening new grocery stores, but data tells a different story.

Jean-Pierre Dubé, the James M Kilts Distinguished Service Professor of Marketing at Chicago Booth, analyzed data from 150,000 households to find that opening grocery stores in food deserts are not enough to solve nutritional inequality. Dubé found that some 90% of the food gap is associated with food preferences, which skew less healthy as income decreases. Dubé’s research shows that there is no way to shortcut long-term and meaningful nutritional education, a lesson many nonprofits have learned across the industry.  

Solutions may look different than you imagine

Help can come in many forms, said Gabrielle Kirstein, founder of Feeding Hong Kong, and sometimes NGOs do their best work in the background. Kirstein shared that her nonprofit bridges the nutrition gap in Hong Kong by connecting donors and NGOs and acting as a clearinghouse for supplies.

By working together, Feeding Hong Kong each month helps rescue 65 tonnes of “surplus food”, or food that is still edible but not sellable, from some 400 food companies, said Kirstein. The NGO’s success would not be possible without the dedicated work of different actors working together to fill important gaps each step of the way. “It’s all about the power of partnerships. At Feeding Hong Kong, we are really a conduit between a few companies on one side and frontline partners on the other,” she said.

Going forward, Kirstein said more government “carrots and sticks” are needed to nudge corporations towards donations with tax breaks and away from food waste with waste charges.

Winning with Technology without Losing Our Humanity (Panel Discussion)


Serving communities in new ways

Technology is important, but it still needs guidance and leadership to be used effectively, said Daniel Lai, program director of CoolThink@JC, an initiative that teaches young people how to think like a programmer.

“Technology can create great value and prosperity and enhance the quality of living and efficiency once it is applied properly,” Lai said, “But in adopting technology, we need talent, leadership, and vision to drive development and create appropriate solutions, especially in the social welfare sector.”

The pandemic rewrote the rules on tech

Technology played a critical role in serving communities during the pandemic when social distancing measures and other health concerns made face to face interactions untenable. During the pandemic, many organizations were forced to find solutions rapidly.

Choi-ying Tong, Programme Director of Home and Community Care Service at the Christian Family Service Centre in Hong Kong, shared how her organization used tablets to reach elderly people living alone with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “The pandemic pushed us to take a big leap using technology,” she said, although her organization still values face-to-face interactions.

Tech can help but not replace services

Just as Tong found limits in working with tablets, Ernest Leung, Group Chief Operating Officer at WeLab, said it’s important to remember that during non-pandemic times, technology is meant to enhance, not replace, services.

Similarly, he said, it’s not always tech that’s the catalyst for disruption, but rather the beneficiaries and customers who disrupt the nonprofit sector. As a board member of the Make A Wish Foundation, which fulfils the wishes of critically ill children and teens ages 3 to 17, he said the organization’s clients are all digital natives.

During the pandemic, many “wishes” were granted through tech or online due to pandemic precautions, but for some recipients like teens, this was also their preferred method to connect.

“Engaging with children and catching their wishes through an online meet is exactly how they would like to engage. Some of them will need more handholding and physical presence,” he said. “ But for efficiency and for some of the teenagers, that’s their preferred mode of engagement. So are we really disrupting that model, or are we supporting it because they are anyways beginning to expect that?”


All the content of works are independently produced by the organiser / creative team / talk speaker, and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation nor The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust.

About The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation

The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation provides resources and programs to help the city’s NGOs, nonprofit leaders, and social entrepreneurs do their best work. Operated by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the Programme offers a range of opportunities, including scholarships, social entrepreneurship workshops, and trainings for NGO boards of directors and board members.

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Erin Hale

Erin Hale