NGOs in Penang: A Heritage of Passionate Caring

By Yeong Pey Jung

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NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (NGOS) are widely recognised as essential components of a thriving society and are often very intricately woven into a society’s developmental fabric. The diversity of NGOs makes it difficult for them to be singularly defined. The United Nations, in essence, categorises NGOs as organisations that are non-profit orientated with voluntary members, functioning on a local, national or international level. They play a fundamental role in addressing a broad spectrum of social, economic and environmental issues.

NGOs generally operate independently of governments, although they do often act as bridges between the people and the policymakers. They strive to complement government efforts by providing essential services while supporting and empowering communities to achieve positive change. Some NGOs also serve as a monitoring body, observing both the government and the private sector, and holding them accountable for their actions.

In Malaysia, all NGOs are legally obligated to register with the Registrar of Societies Malaysia (ROS). As of 2021, ROS recorded 5,410 active NGOs in Penang, and this positions the state as having the sixth-highest number of active NGOs in the country. Even before the formalisation of NGOs, charitable and community organisations had existed in Penang during colonial times, laying the groundwork for the future establishment of other NGOS.

The spirit of social activism has always been deeply ingrained in the heart of Penangites, making Penang a natural incubator for NGOs, each passionately dedicated to working for their chosen cause. Penang NGOs are often seen as vocal, passionate and fearless. Some of the more prominent and nationally well-regarded NGOs, such as the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) and Third World Network (TWN), were fostered in Penang. TWN has also achieved an international presence, maintaining offices in Geneva, Switzerland and New Delhi, India.

The Diversity of NGOs in Penang

Penang has continued to witness a steady growth in the number and diversity of NGOs over time, reflecting the evolving needs and aspirations of its population. Today, NGOs in Penang are remarkably diverse, individually and collaboratively tackling a wide range of issues, including but not limited to providing aid, fostering development, protecting the environment, heritage conservation and enhancing the welfare of the community.

KAWAN is one of the many organisations dedicated to delivering aid and welfare for vulnerable and marginalised communities. As part of Penang Youth With A Mission (YWAM), KAWAN runs a “drop-in” centre where basic and essential needs such as meals, sleeping areas, shower and laundry facilities are provided for those who need them, such as the homeless—some who are drug addicts and those suffering from mental illnesses, and the poor. The NGO also provides counselling services and facilitates referrals to other service providers based on the needs of the individuals.

Spay Adopt Manage Assist Society (SAMA), established in 2020, recognises the importance of animal welfare and dedicates its efforts to helping stray cats and dogs. Founded in response to the plight of abandoned animals during the Covid-19 pandemic, SAMA prioritises a Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR) programme to manage stray populations humanely, with a particular emphasis on neutering as a core aspect of its operations. The NGO also strives to educate the public on the importance of neutering stray animals.

Environmental conservation and protection is another crucial area of focus for Penang’s NGOs. One notable NGO would be the Friends of the Penang Botanic Gardens Society (FOPBGS), dedicated to supporting the Penang Botanic Garden’s botanic, horticultural, educational and recreational objectives. They work closely with the state department responsible for the Botanic Gardens on joint conservation and research efforts. Additionally, FOPBGS works to generate publicity and raise awareness and interest about the Gardens, in hopes of fostering a deeper appreciation for their botanical and ecological significance to Penang.

Human rights and citizen empowerment advocacy is also apparent in Penang’s NGO landscape. Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran) is one of such NGOs focusing on promoting justice, freedom and solidarity across the state and nation. Through workshops, seminars and publications, Aliran strives to build public awareness towards issues such as economic inequality, environmental sustainability, press freedom, political reform and beyond. The organisation also actively encourages civic engagement through constructive dialogue, empowering citizens’ participation in voicing their concerns on matters that have a direct impact on their lives.

Funding and Securing Resources

As with any other organisation or business, the success and the long-term viability of NGOs are fairly reliant on sufficient funding. Funding supports administrative needs and capacity-building efforts for the staff and volunteers, vital to encourage sustainability and organisational growth. Having adequate financial resources allows NGOs to carry out their advocacy work effectively, enabling them to successfully serve the community according to their purposed goals.

KAWAN explains that financial resources are needed to provide meals and to maintain shelter facilities, as well as a safe space, for the vulnerable communities they serve. Similarly, Aliran’s expenses— besides administrative spending—are geared towards their online outreach (the website, weekly e-newsletters, social media maintenance, regular webinars and translation of articles to Malay).

Sarah West, the honorary secretary for SAMA, shares that beyond fixed expenses such as food, boarding and medical expenses for the animals they help, resources are needed to run important neutering projects within communities. “SAMA’s primary focus is to ensure that stray animals are neutered and returned to their safe space, to curb the population of strays and to ensure the safety of the animals.”

Similarly with FOPBGS, funds are needed to purchase the necessary materials for various nature activities and programmes for both children and adults. As Tengku Idaura Tengku Ibrahim, FOPBGS’s vice president, explains, these programmes play a crucial role in outreach, education and raising public awareness.

Donations and Other Sources of Funding

With NGOs being non-profit and non-revenue generating, a majority of them depend on public donations as a source of funding. Donations are, in fact, the lifeblood of many NGOs. Prema Devaraj, the executive committee member for Aliran, acknowledges the critical role of public donations. In the past, sales of their periodicals, Aliran Monthly, were enough to sustain the organisation, but sales revenue has decreased with the rise of online news consumption.

However, after moving online, public donations have started increasing with increased readership. “We rely on support from the public, including Aliran’s members, through donations to sustain our activities,” she says, expressing gratitude for the people and groups who support and appreciate Aliran’s work. She firmly adds that Aliran does not accept funds from questionable sources, such as groups with a poor human rights record or those who promote unsustainable developmental practices.

That said, securing donations continues to be extremely challenging for NGOs due to reasons such as competition and differing interests of the general public. West says that SAMA, being reliant on public donations, struggles with getting support at times; animal welfare often takes a back seat compared to other pressing issues. Candidly, she admits that resorting to pleas for support is sometimes necessary. Fortunately, SAMA was qualified to receive a government grant, which helped greatly in the NGO’s neutering projects.

To avoid being wholly dependent on public donations, some NGOs have diversified their avenues to obtain funds, e.g., fundraisers or charity drives. Instead of solely relying on donations, KAWAN and FOPBGS supplement their funds by running a retail shop. The sales revenue goes towards funding the organisations’ initiatives and programme implementation. FOPBGS’s Botanika Shop features unique hand-drawn products such as bags and T-shirts created by volunteers, while KAWAN’s shop offers a selection of pre-loved items.

“Nearly 60% of KAWAN’s funding needs are contributed by our shop,” Ed de Visser, a KAWAN coordinator discloses, highlighting the significant role of their retail shop. The shop also welcomes donations of household items, clothing, books, stationery and more, offering the community additional ways to support KAWAN’s work.

In addition to donations and the Botanika, FOPBGS’ nature programmes also act as a source of funding. “We sometimes charge for our programmes, but some are on a donation basis. As for children’s programmes, we usually charge on a perhead basis,” Tengku Idaura explains. She goes on to say that FOPBG’s programmes are focused on nature education, conservation and environmental protection. The revenue generated from these programmes is reinvested to support future initiatives.

Handling of Donations

With public funds and donations being the primary source of income for many NGOs, ensuring transparency and accountability in their operations, spending and decision-making processes is a necessity. Moreover, transparency and accountability will build and foster donor trust, ensuring continued support. These principles are also paramount in maintaining the legitimacy of NGOs in the eyes of the public and relevant stakeholders.

One key aspect of transparency is the careful handling of public donations. Each donation, no matter the amount, must be formally receipted. The clear documentation of donations acts to enhance accountability and is vital in increasing donor confidence.

In Aliran, donations are monitored closely by office bearers; with proper records and receipts issued to the donor. Devaraj adds that the executive committee are always informed about donations obtained during monthly meetings. The same goes for KAWAN and FOPBGS. However, while asserting that SAMA issues receipts for all the donations they receive, West reveals that this is not always possible. “For instance, we often receive anonymous donations, and we are not able to provide receipts for them.”

However, she clarifies that all donations are recorded internally to maintain transparency. “We follow the donor’s wishes strictly—for example, if a donor specifies the donation to be for the Hillside cats, we will not spend it on anything else.”

Transparent Expense Management

When it comes to organisational and management expenses, transparent expense management is an important indicator of solid, effective governance. It acts as a safeguard against the misuse of funds and helps to build and develop a culture of accountability and shared responsibility within the organisation.

All the interviewed NGOs stress the paramount importance of transparency in their organisational expenditure and maintain a central committee or a leadership team responsible for various duties, among which are deliberations on spending and expenses.

For SAMA, it is a democratic process: their committee collectively decides on spending for the neutering projects they undertake, and decisions are made based on a majority vote. Meanwhile, de Visser divulges that KAWAN’s monthly spending is typically consistent across the board but the discussion is warranted within the leadership team if the proposed spending of an item or service goes above RM300.

FOPBGS’ central committee also keeps a close eye on its management expenses and aims to be as transparent as possible. “Every decision we make, and this is not just limited to the financial decisions, goes through the committee for a round of discussion,” Tengku Idaura stresses.

Similarly, Aliran’s monthly executive committee meetings deliberate on the organisation’s expenditure and jointly agree on spending needs. “There is a consultation process within the committee before the submitted bills are approved,” Devaraj discloses.

Audit and Public Accountability

Internal and external audits provide an independent and objective assessment of an NGO’s financial records and internal financial controls. Audits also act to detect discrepancies and potential instances of fraud, safeguarding an NGO’s assets and resources.

As far as Aliran is concerned, Devaraj confirms that the NGO engages with an honorary internal auditor to ensure that financial statements correctly and fairly reflect Aliran’s operation expenses. These statements are then submitted to ROS. Likewise, KAWAN concurs on the importance of an audit. “As KAWAN is a company limited, meticulous financial records are vital, and KAWAN’s finances are audited annually by external auditors,” explains de Visser.

As for SAMA, West mentions that the NGO’s only paid employee is a qualified bookkeeper, who ensures that the NGO’s financial reports are by the books and are frequently submitted to ROS for transparency and accountability purposes. “Our financial reports are readily available to our supporters and the general public. They only need to ask to see them,” she adds.

FOPCGS presents its financial and annual accounts during the NGO’s annual general meeting (AGM), where members are allowed to scrutinise the accounts and raise questions. The same applies to Aliran, where annual financial statements are subjected to the members’ approval during the AGM.

Volunteer Challenges

The legitimacy and transparency of an NGO is also paramount when it comes to attracting supporters and volunteers to engage in their endeavours. NGOs are highly dependent upon volunteers to carry out their advocacy work. For instance, SAMA relies entirely on volunteers to serve as feeders and foster carers for the strays under their care. SAMA’s adoption team, who works tirelessly to find homes for animals who can no longer remain on the streets, is also made up entirely of volunteers.

However, NGOs do face hurdles in drawing and recruiting volunteers to support their initiatives and advocacy work, especially from among the younger generation. Tengku Idaura laments the lack of youth volunteers and engagement among FOPBGS’ members. “Young people nowadays are more interested in technology, social media or games,” she says, adding that it is a pity that the youth lack interest to engage with botany and the Gardens.

Devaraj shares the same thoughts on youth engagement at Aliran. “It is a challenge to get younger people interested in diving deeper into the analysis and discussion of current issues,” she says. She also stresses that younger volunteers and members are needed to take Aliran into the future.

KAWAN, however, is fortunate enough to have a steady stable of volunteers, comprising of retirees, the people they have helped, and overseas groups looking for volunteer work. These groups are usually comprised of younger people aged below 30. de Visser also raises the point on the importance of sincerity when it comes to volunteering. “If we want to achieve change, we need to learn how to love people, because that can change lives.”

Collaboration for Better Outcomes

The many challenges faced by society are often interconnected yet multidimensional. Therefore, partnerships and collaborations with other NGOs, government sectors and private entities are recognised as an effective way for NGOs to overcome certain limitations. Collaborations often foster knowledge sharing, and allows for the leveraging of the strength and expertise of different organisations and a significant collective impact.

In every area of advocacy, there are often gaps to bridge and relevant people to reach. Partnerships between different sectors can remedy this. As stakeholders tap into their respective networks, their combined efforts amplify their voices, facilitating more effective interventions and potentially influencing policy outcomes for the better.

However, Devaraj emphasises the importance of striking a balance. While collaboration offers significant benefits, NGOs must never compromise their ethics and independence. It is important for an NGO to remain true to their principles and advocacy work, and not shy away from holding their partners, governmental and otherwise, accountable for potential wrongdoing. An unwavering commitment to the NGO’s core values ensures that collaboration strengthens, rather than weakens, their ability to advocate for positive change.

The vibrant NGO ecosystem in Penang signifies the ongoing commitment of Penangites to continue addressing and speaking up for critical social, economic, political and environmental challenges through civic participation and collective action. This is probably what makes Penang truly different—an element that trailblazes us forward.

Reach out to these NGO's for more information:


Spay Adopt Manage Assist (SAMA):

Please contact SAMA for charity neutering prices for strays, and if there’s interest to foster and adopt.

Friends of the Penang Botanic Gardens Society (FOPBGS):

Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran):

Yeong Pey Jung

is a senior analyst with the Socioeconomics and Statistics Programme at Penang Institute. She is a reading enthusiast and is surgically attached to her Kindle.