Read our Latest Cheatsheet on Changemaking

Read our Latest Cheatsheet on Changemaking

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Social Space recently connected with us to understand the work of Emmaus Strategies and how our social enterprise works to sustain impact in growing individuals, organizations and communities.

Read their latest Changemaker Cheatsheets feature on our Lead Thrive-Synergist & Founder, James, as he let us in on the nuts and bolts of running Emmaus and how he feels good while also fueling good.

You may also catch the full interview transcript we submitted below:

1. Please tell us more about yourself.

Hello everyone! I’m James, 41 years old and a father of 2 young, energetic and cute boys. While I am not spending time with my family, I run a social enterprise and movement to help develop people, organizations and communities to “thrive for good”. One of the areas of work I’m involved in is in helping people grow their mental well-being. Having experienced and overcome depression and burnout, I have a passion to use my experience, skills and time to help people overcome burnout and keep mental health challenges at bay.

2. What drives Emmaus Strategies?

Emmaus’ social mission and motivation can be summed up succinctly by our tagline, “Fueling Good”.

We strongly believe that every person, organization and community can be a force for good. With all the problems, issues and challenges in the world that needs to be met, we recognize that we can only do so much individually. And so, fueling good, we hope to help individuals, organizations and communities overcome challenges, rise up and multiply the good in the world.

And so, we work to help them grow and overcome hurdles, for example, burnout (for individuals and organizations) and lack of resources (for charities). These hurdles keep them from thriving for good and we believe that once these are out of the way, greater good can happen as a result.

3. How did Emmaus come to be?

As much as I would like to say that there was a clear grand plan of how Emmaus was to “change the world”, the fact is that Emmaus’ work came to be over months of dialogues with people and organizations, observing needs, and then deliberating and fine-tuning what we can offer. We are doing work in “uncharted waters” and as such, we had no existing models on how we should proceed to achieve what we set out to do.

And so, from the non-so-distant early days of Emmaus, we started off with a simple desire to want to help people recover and rest from burnout and to help charities grow their volunteer programmes; two seemingly unrelated areas of work that are close to my heart. But over time, I have come to realise the common thread between the two; helping people, organizations and communities to thrive. Just as we think about how more could be done to reach that goal, the topics of burnout, stress and mental well-being were also beginning to surface as pertinent social issues, while the age-old problem of a lack of resources continues to plague charities, thereby limiting how much good they can do.

With these in mind, we started to look at how we could address the needs within our ability. And so, we expanded the scope of our services. Today, we are meaningfully engaged in journeying with individuals, organizations and communities to overcome burnout, grow volunteer partnerships and in building capacity and capabilities through training and consultancy.

4. What does Emmaus do, in a nutshell?

Just like a human body, Emmaus has two “arms” that work to help individuals, organizations and communities thrive for good.

In the area of mental well-being, we provide talks, conduct workshops and retreats to help individuals, organizations, charities and helping professionals enhance their mental well-being, by helping them prevent and overcome burnout and mental health challenges.

In the area of strategic volunteer partnerships, we engage in training and consultancy work to help build up social purpose entities (e.g. charities, social enterprises, grassroots and ground-up movements), governmental bodies and corporate organizations in the area of volunteerism. This takes the form of:

  • simulation programmes for volunteers to understand the challenges faced by families in need,
  • volunteer training to equip them with the fundamental skills to be effective volunteers,
  • volunteer management training for volunteer programme managers to be equipped with the fundamental skills and perspectives to run effective volunteer programmes, and
  • consultancy projects to help organizations grow their volunteer programmes.

In both areas of mental well-being and strategic volunteer partnerships, we also develop and publish contents e.g. toolkits and articles that can be freely accessed from our website.

5. Your social enterprise has an interesting name. How did it get its name?

Emmaus, pronounced as “Ee-May-Yers”, is from the Bible. It tells of the account of how two downtrodden persons went on a journey to Emmaus and how God came alongside them and took them on a growth journey. By the time they arrived at Emmaus, their spirits were uplifted. This name is significant for us because it is a nice metaphor of what we hope to achieve; our strategy of journeying alongside people, organizations and communities and helping them to grow and thrive over their challenges.

6. As a social enterprise founded on Christian values, how does this impact the services offered?

Emmaus serves anyone who comes through our doors, regardless of their background or faith. We have been privileged to have been able to work alongside many social service agencies, healthcare institutions, ground-up movements and government institutions.

What really drives the work we do is the fundamental belief in our faith that everyone is significant, that they can live out the best version of who they are meant to be and that individuals, organizations and communities can thrive for good.

As such, our programmes, which has been designed based on my life and professional experience as a social worker, would provide useful handles for anyone seeking to grow as a person, their organization and/or their community.

7. Burnout is not often discussed. Why is it an important issue to be aware of?

Chances are, people might have encountered the use of the word “burnout” in one way or another. But yet, not many understand what it really is. So, for us, one of the key areas of work we do is that of public education; we help people understand that burnout occurs when a person is exposed to a prolonged period of chronic stress and start to experience psychological, physiological and social consequences as a result of it.

Some of these symptoms include a loss of confidence of self, increased illnesses, inability to sleep well, cynicism and withdrawal from social interactions. We give talks about burnout and why it should matter. This is then followed by workshops, where we encourage deeper conversations about the topic and also share a model (PRISM© model) we developed to help people prevent and overcome burnout. For those who are keen to dive deeper and go on an introspective journey, we also conduct a faith-based retreat that is based on the model.

8. Emmaus has in your hands some major endeavours in building mental resilience and also helping non-profits positively impact more. How do you manage and scale up along the way?

I started Emmaus as a personal mission to go out on a growing journey with people, organizations and communities. I frankly did not have a plan of approach and had not given thought to how I would form a team to help advance the social mission.

But after realizing the potential expanded scope of work that Emmaus could be involved in to build capacity and capabilities, I started to ask myself how I could scale up and sustain the impact we are to make. It is then that the Volunteer Manager in me (I had been one for 13 years before I started Emmaus) reminded me that I needed more help. And so, I asked. I am indeed blessed that people and friends responded to my call for help and came forward.

Today, I have volunteers and friends who help me with marketing, research, administration, events support and also strategy. Much of what we achieved in Emmaus today, impacting over 500 individuals and 90 organizations over a short span of 1.5 years, is because of the dedication of the team of associates and volunteers.

My Strategy Team, in particular, keeps me in check. Whenever I have a new idea or a challenge, I would always run it by them. They would then process through them with me, oftentimes referencing me back to the objectives of Emmaus and asking how it would fit into it. So, I am grateful to have like-minded people on this journey with me.

9. Running a Social Enterprise could be hard work. How do you prevent burnout personally?

I have come to learn that running your own business, especially a start-up, is really tough work. I have learned that there’s always a lot of work to be done and without the luxury of having a big team and big budgets, I would often have to personally oversee the various elements of business development, administration, website, accounting, volunteer management etc with whatever resources I have.

As such, when I am not careful, I stand the risk of burning out again despite the fact that I am working on something I am so passionate about. I have to constantly remind myself to not only care for my business but also myself and my family.

In addition, without a physical office, there is no physical work community that I can be a part of. This is challenging because I could end up being socially isolated despite meeting many people in my line of work. I had to, as such, intentionally schedule face-to-face check-ins with my team and also make an effort to meet up with other like-minded entrepreneurs and friends to just share life rather than “talk shop”.

Deadlines are always an issue because with me having to wear multiple hats at any one point in time, I would need to really know what is important to work on first. Just to provide a little context, at any one point in time, I could have over 70 items on my to-do list. But with my to-do app, I would usually start my mornings “shortlisting” my top 10 to-dos to focus on that day. In addition to my trusty to-do app, my team is also a powerful “strategy” as I tap into their strengths and “divide and conquer” the work with them.

10. Your Social Enterprise turns three in 2020. What kept you going in your entrepreneurial journey?

If I can summarize it into 4Fs, it would be family, faith, fervour and focus.

The first F is family. Till this day, I am grateful for the support my wife and my family give me. This especially so when I first made the decision to leave my full-time job to enter this new phase of my “calling”. Then, I had no idea how to approach it and how it would turn out. Yet, my wife and my family believed in me and gave me their blessings to pursue what I felt I needed to do. This has given me the reassurance that sustains me till this day.

My faith also plays a big part especially so since these all began as a personal faith and social project. Yet, on a daily basis, I can see how things fit together nicely in its own time. On “bad” days, my faith keeps me sane as it provides me with the lenses to understand what is happening and gives me the assurance that I am not in this alone.

Fervour is also crucial because the passion for my work keeps me going; it gives meaning to the, sometimes menial, tasks I need to do, to the challenges I face and it gives me a vision of where I am heading.

Finally, the last F is focus. I needed to also remember the reason and mission I am working towards and I have to avoid taking on projects that may seem profitable but which would steer me off course from what Emmaus stands for. For this, my strategy team keeps me in check. Besides that, with a small team and a small budget, I have to rely on technology and streamlined work processes to help us keep focused on mission-critical work and avoid unnecessary paperwork.

11. When did you realise you were making a difference with your work?

It is interesting that you ask. We recently completed the development of an impact assessment toolkit for social purpose entities to use to evaluate the impact of their volunteer programmes. We are currently using it ourselves to understand the impact of the work we do. We do hope to be able to be pleasantly surprised by what we will eventually find out from this meaningful exercise.

12. Having worked in the social sector for so many years, what advice do you have for someone looking to enter this space?

I have had the honour of working with former colleagues who made mid-career switches to the social service sector. In my conversations with them, I understand that the culture in the sector could be rather different from that of the commercial sector. As such, I would suggest for those who are looking to work in the social sector to have a chat with someone from the sector about their interest and to find out about work there, to understand why they are keen to join the sector and to try serving as a volunteer to get an “up-close-and-personal” experience of how working in the sector would be like.

13. In terms of making a positive impact, what does success look like to you?

Personally, I would love to see how people, organizations and communities thrive as a result of what I do, both professional and personally. This could take the form of people sharing how they are finding meaning in the work they do, people sharing how their family life is thriving, positive work atmosphere being created and sustained in organizations and a greater sense of kampung spirit flourishing in the community, as people step up to care for one another. It is definitely a wonderful vision worth working towards.

14. Let’s conclude this interview with a book recommendation. Anything to help us chill out before we burn out?

I was looking for a book for my children and chanced upon a bright yellow book called “The Stressed Ball” by Lydia Lim. Though it seems to be a simple illustrated book, I love how it contains a profound message of how one can deal with stress, as it chronicles the journey of a stressed ball, Elliot, in trying to find out why he is so stressed. Every time I read it to my kids, I can’t help but myself think about the stress that has surfaced in my life in recent days and reflect upon the lessons I can learn from Elliot. I believe the book would be a great reminder to adults and children alike.

Keen to feel good fueling good? Partner us to grow good through our Mental Well-Being and/or Strategic Volunteer Partnerships Programmes. Do also consider being part of the fueling good action with us and/or give to grow this movement.


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Read our Latest Cheatsheet on Changemaking

by James Lim
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