Mixing Charity With Business

Tess Mackean, CEO for TalenTtrust, has been so focused on connecting corporates to the non-profit sector that she neglected her health. She pulled through with support from other women.

Tess Mackean, CEO for TalenTtrust, connects corporates with the non-profit sector

At 18, Tess Mackean followed her gut and left her native UK for the coasts of Borneo, where she stayed in a tiny kampung for three months, scuba diving as a conservation volunteer.

While on the project, she met her future husband, and the two had their first date in Singapore before they both returned to the UK for university.

For nine years, the couple hoped for a chance to return to Southeast Asia. When Mackean’s husband was offered a posting in Singapore, the duo jumped at the opportunity to return to the tropics. Here, Mackean dove into a different opportunity, joining a charity portal as country manager.

In September 2015, Mackean was tapped as CEO for TalenTtrust, then a fledgling startup. Their mission? “Skills-based volunteering”, as TalenTtrust calls it, connecting leaders from the corporate world with those from the non-profit sector.

“Most corporate volunteering schemes are like using tissue paper to patch a hole in a cruise liner,” says Mackean. “Sometimes, a company will call a charity and say, ‘Can we bring a hundred of our team members down for our volunteering day?’ But they don’t see the huge amount of work that places on the charity.”

Hoping to create more meaningful volunteering opportunities is TalenTtrust. “Charities do extraordinary work but can lack the business skills they need to grow, while corporate leaders have those skills but need the right opportunities to share them,” says the company.

Over twelve months, mentors help charities improve operations in various areas, drawing on their experience as chief executive, film producer, accountant and even as a Member of Parliament.

“You have a limited amount of time in your corporate career to volunteer. But when you do commit time to volunteer, we want to make sure that time is spent as effectively as possible, that you are creating as much impact as you can,” she says.

With each meeting, leaders from both sides are transformed, says Mackean. “There’s a moment in all of our projects when our mentors realise that charities’ bottomlines aren’t about creating vast amounts of profit for their boss; their bottomlines are far more high stakes, because they involve people’s lives.”

“That’s when you see them get serious about the project, [and] charities really respond to that energy. When they see the sincerity of the mentors, they are able to trust them and confide [in them] their true challenges; that’s when we get to the heart of the problem,” says Mackean.

To ensure deep commitment, each mentor pays a program fee, which also sustains TalenTtrust and its seven employees. “It’s really important that our mentors have some skin in the game… I think we’re the only charity in Singapore that asks volunteers to pay for their experience,” she adds.

In this way, TalenTtrust is perhaps heeding the advice its mentors are giving to charities: to diversify revenue streams. Mentor contributions alone made up one fifth of TalenTtrust’s income last year.

Today, TalenTtrust may have a team of seven overseeing some 15 projects each year, but the initial years were extremely tough, says Mackean.

“I think women tend to get very passionate about things, and when we’re passionate, we are very committed… In the non-profit sector, a lot is asked of you, and we can really fall victim to burnout.”

“I didn’t listen to my body when it was telling me to rest. I was pushing and pushing to try and keep work going,” says Mackean. “I had a couple of warning signs that I just didn’t really listen to, because, you know, you’re driven by the mission.”

Finally, Mackean broke out in a severe bout of shingles, forcing her to take a break. “Sadly, I also had three miscarriages in a year,” she says.

Mackean hopes other women in the sector can learn from her experiences. “If you’re dealing with heavily emotional topics, get yourself a therapist or close friend and tell them, ‘Please keep an eye on me. If I start seeming not quite myself, tell me’,” she says, “You can’t help anyone else if you’re not well yourself.”

When Covid-19 hit, Mackean, like many others, took to working from home. As a young mother, the lockdown year proved “surprisingly easy”, she says. “When you have a kid, taking them out is exhausting and terrifying. It’s much easier to stay in when they’re tiny, so I think we’ve been lucky.”

“We’ve just had a lot of joy in the last year. The hardest thing is being separated from our families because they’re just so desperate to meet him. Still, it’s been an absolute pleasure; I’m really lucky.”