The Pitch: Kids4Kids founder Michele Lai plans new fundraising strategies with Jen Loong

Inspired by the creativity and determination of youth, Michele Lai founded Kids4Kids in 2010 with a vision to empower children in Hong Kong to help make the city a better place. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the NGO has evolved from a bootstrapped charity to a force of change, having worked with more than 15,000 youth over the past decade.

Engaging both primary and secondary students to take part, Kids4Kids runs six programmes each year, including perennially popular Buddy Reading sessions, where secondary school students read to underprivileged children; Code + Create computer science workshops; and Powered by Service, a series of hands-on leadership and community workshops.

The charity’s largest annual event is Powered by Youth, a two-day forum in September where students from over 40 Hong Kong schools tackle social issues. This year, the forum was hosted virtually in November due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Past success stories include BamPads, a reusable sanitary pad company that donates 20 per cent of sales to girls and women in need, and One Stitch One Heart, where volunteers knit with older people to promote wellbeing. The five best projects receive a seed grant of HK$5,000 at the “Action for a Cause” pitching on Day 2 of the forum, and another 25 ideas receive HK$3,000 in seed grants.

As Kids4Kids hits this milestone anniversary, Lai and her team are reassessing their fundraising strategy. To provide a wealth of insights, we introduced Lai to Jen Loong, the managing director of HYPE Asia, a venture builder firm that invests in high-growth companies.

Loong previously introduced some of the world’s most influential lifestyle brands, such as lululemon athletica, TOMS and Alipay to the region.

Jen Loong: I’d love to understand what you’ve been doing so far. Can you give me the run-down?

Michele Lai: When Kids4Kids started 10 years ago, we relied on private funding from dinners and luncheons. Then we started doing one large fundraiser every two years, which would cover our operations.

But we were so busy delivering our programmes that we didn’t have the manpower to put together in-depth proposals for the government, foundations or corporates. Little by little, we managed to accumulate more external funding, including some government grants.

JL: How does government funding work?

ML: The government normally covers up to 50 per cent of a programme’s budget, then you need to find an organisation to match, or cover the rest yourself. They also have strict KPIs [Key Performance Indicators] to measure your impact.

To reach those, we work nonstop and don’t have the bandwidth to pitch to foundations or corporates. We’d like to explore other options, and hopefully find strategic funders who share our vision and core values.

JL: How much do you need to raise every year?

ML: Each of our programmes cost about HK$500,000 to run annually, so we need to fundraise about HK$3 million per year to cover all six. Right now, about 40-50 per cent of our total budget comes from external funding and the rest is private funding.

JL: Have you worked with corporates before?

ML Yes, we have worked with some – mostly big investment banks with a CSR [corporate social responsibility] department. However, a lot of these banks are looking for regional projects, such as building schools or libraries, rather than local charities. We are also Google’s community partner, which is wonderful, but they don’t support us with much funding.

JL: I’ll ask one more question, then go into sharing mode. Can you describe your volunteer community?

ML: Our community of volunteers is made up of students of all ages, ranging from primary to secondary school. We engage over 1,000 volunteers each year, or about 15,000 in total over the past decade. Since we have different programmes for each age group, we see lots of longevity. Just one programme alone, Buddy Reading, sees about 100 volunteers on a weekly basis.

“You are shaping potentially qualified candidates to help these companies – that’s where the value-alignment may be.”

Jen Loong

JL: What I think is really appealing about Kids4Kids is that it is really ‘kids for kids’. In this city, there is no shortage of NGOs competing for funding, but what you are doing – instilling confidence, communication, empathy and leadership – sets you apart from others. 

In your fundraising approach, I would suggest that you consider ‘leadership development’ as your key value. Then think, what organisations may need those types of skills? This question should always be your north star when you are deciding how to invest your manpower.

ML: So what does that mean for our fundraising strategy?

JL: I’d slice it into three layers: Out of the HK$3 million you need to raise annually, I’d earmark HK$25-50,000 for your own community of youth to cover. Get those 15,000 alumni to fundraise for the organisation that gave them so much – give them a challenge. 

Maybe for every dollar they raise, Kids4Kids promises to get the funding to match it. I think your organisation has an advantage because you have a community of youth – and the creativity of kids will amaze us all.

ML: That’s true. We’re always blown away by their creativity. What’s layer two?

JL: I would connect with engaged parents at privileged schools, where your volunteers are coming from. They are a major stakeholder group who would likely be willing to fundraise or donate because they have already seen firsthand how their children have grown with this programme. I’m not suggesting you only rely on parents and children, but they can be part of your overall strategy.

Then layer three can be corporates: To be successful with pitching corporates, you need to step into their shoes. What do they truly care about? Do they get to hire more quality candidates because Kids4Kids alumni have leadership skills, confidence, self-awareness, etc?

Does their staff get to have hands-on, feel-good moments to relay company’s values to a wider audience? Does it build a sense of community and culture over a sustained amount of time? Do they look good in front of their investors and board of directors?

ML: We have worked with banks before. Do you think that is a good fit?

JL: I wouldn’t dismiss banks, as much as I wonder if there is a better way to reshape that offering [for CSR] so it goes beyond monetary funding. Can their staff become trainers, mentors, virtual coaches and share their leadership skills with Kids4Kids participants? 

ML Do you think that’s enough of a draw for corporates? As we are competing with regional charities.

JL: I think you can also emphasise the leadership aspect of your programming. Right now, your programmes end at secondary school, right? But if you were to extend them so that they go from primary school to university, then you would also have a nice, neat lifecycle.

It then becomes one long pipeline of youth who have been developing leadership, confidence and problem-solving skills with Kids4Kids during their formative years. 

Companies like Jardine Matheson Group or Swire rely on an intake of management trainees every year. And you are shaping potentially qualified candidates to help these companies with their pipeline of interns, trainees, entry-level associates – that’s where the value-alignment may be. 

“Youth who go through the Kids4Kids programme are not your typical intern. They’re 22-year-old managers, ready to take the lead.”

Jen Loong

ML: What other types of corporates do you think are worth approaching? What about educational businesses like Scholastic?

JL: Traditional publishing companies have extremely low margins, on average 10 to 15 per cent. So when you’re looking at a down cycle of the economy, they’re not the ones with extra gravy to give. 

For now, I’d focus on industries like logistics (like SF Express, GOGOX, DHL, UPS, and Li & Fung), large marketing and communications agencies (the WPP and Omnicoms of the world), which will likely be less impacted by COVID-19. They would also stand to gain a lot from working with you because they always need production interns and business development associates. 

I also think it’s worth approaching consultancies, banks, legacy conglomerates, R&D, platforms, healthcare companies and even tech. Maybe you can revisit that Google relationship. Could Google’s millennial employees teach leadership or creative coding to your students? 

It all comes back to: Who needs capable, aware candidates to join their workforce? 

ML: That reminds me, we recently reconnected with one of our Kids4Kids alumni, Avi, who volunteered with us during secondary school. He was just hired to join the executive trainee programme of a multinational conglomerate.

During the interview, applicants had to work on challenges in teams. Avi said one of the reasons he did well was because of the real-life ‘learning by doing’ skills he learned at Kids4Kids.

We could probably do much more – not just with our alumni, but also with our amazing interns over the years. One of our earliest interns now works with Teach for Hong Kong and is actually their longest serving employee.

JL: Yes, definitely. Since your name is Kids4Kids, I would expect youth to be involved every step of the way, including your pitches. In addition to strong testimonials, you will still need to demonstrate your traction, overall impact, and examples of those feel-good moments.

Just keep in mind that a CSR officer or HR manager will be looking for ways for their staff to be directly involved. Perhaps that means offering opportunities for them to practice leadership skills outside of their job.

ML That’s a great idea. Speaking of leadership, we have another alumnus who has been promoted to a managerial position at 22. She told us she felt prepared because of the leadership skills she learnt from working with Kids4Kids.

JL: You just gave me an idea. You could position it this way: Youth who go through the Kids4Kids programme is not just your typical trainee or intern. They’re 22-year-old managers, ready to take the lead. 

ML: Do you have any other parting advice, in terms of how we can improve our pitches?

JL: You have history, use it! What better way to engage people than with personal testimonials and emotive connection? Show a compelling video of an alumni’s journey or even bring a youth to join you – and a lot of these pieces should come together.

This conversation has been edited for brevity.