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A Non-Profit Is Not Just For Martyrs, But For Real People Too: Zhang Tingjun of Mercy Relief

How do you run an NGO? Put people first, ask questions and be open says Zhang Tingjun.

This March, Zhang Tingjun will clock in 1.5 years as executive director of Singapore’s first humanitarian relief agency, Mercy Relief. To say that the past 18 months has been busy would be a gross understatement.

“I have been making sure all my ducks are in a row. This means finding the ducks, figuring out how to fix them, and then aligning them,” says the 35-year-old, who was a former national netball player and co-founder of non-profit start-up The Chain Reaction Project.

And there were a lot of ducks that had gone astray. Her most immediate task was seeing to capacity building internally. Also on her list of priorities was changing the way the organisation communicates with its external stakeholders.

“It has been all about people, processes and systems since I joined in September 2015,” reveals Zhang. “Back then, the organisation had just 'right-sized' from 15 to eight and morale was low.”

Zhang Tingjun, Executive Director of Mercy Relief Singapore

Undaunted, she plunged straight into the fold and started “taking care of people”. Among the things she did were salary benchmarking, staff training, taking another look at human resource policies and even renovating the office.

As a result, Zhang is happy to share that 2016 was the first year that they had 100 per cent staff retention, coupled with two promotions. Mercy Relief also set a record high of 220 hours of training for the team on subjects such as impact analysis, climate change and disaster resilience.

“We were literally knocking down the walls in our office. I wanted my team to know that I was there fighting for them for the tangibles such as empowerment and salaries, while they were out there fighting for other people [in the disaster zones]. It is important that society realises the non-profit is not just a sector for martyrs, but for real people too.”

Externally, Mercy Relief responded to six major regional disasters and funded 12 sustainable development projects across eight countries. Aside from lending aid, Zhang was also concerned with reporting on their efforts.

She overhauled the accountability process, seeing to less complicated and more straightforward documentation of what the organisation has done, so that “the layman can understand”.

She benchmarked the measurement of their impact and effectiveness against United Nation standards, and even commissioned an application to be developed that can track the exact time taken by her team and volunteers to roll out a project.

Therefore, I was surprised to learn that the Mercy Relief’s executive director today is a far cry from the one she was when she first started out. Back then, Zhang was filled with self-doubt about her ability to take on the role, “I thought I could only do 50 to 60 per cent of what the role entailed. I didn’t want to under-deliver because the work actually impacts real life.”

The turning point came when she went to Nepal to help after the earthquake in mid-2015. While there, Zhang met a woman who was clearing the rubble from her home, “I asked if she had received aid and found out she had turned it down because she felt others needed it more. There and then, I decided I might not have everything to take on the job at Mercy Relief, but I should still do it.”

Her solution was to seek help with the things she didn’t know — everything from working with a CIO contact for tech support to getting a CEO of a public relations firm to help steer the direction of Mercy Relief’s communications.

“I was honest and open about my strengths and weaknesses when I talked to people. Because I came with so little, it means I can bring so much more, because I didn’t have the knowledge, so I had no baggage. The great thing was people do want to help when they realise you don’t know. Where I am today, is an accumulation of talking to all these people.”

This year, now that the house is in order, Zhang can shift her focus to getting sustainable funding streams. She also wants to reach out more to Singapore and cultivate them as an audience and donor base.

Since we are celebrating women this month, the question about if her gender has played a part in her work inevitably comes up – she is after all the first female executive director in the organization’s 14-year history.

“I never think of it with a female lens. It is important to come in gender free. But if I had to pin it down to one thing, it is that I am not afraid to admit what I don’t know and am open to asking for help.”