Meet Theresa Evanoff, 42, founder and CEO of Gift-It-Forward, an events and gifting platform with a charitable twist. As a mother of three young boys, Theresa has attended her fair share of kids' birthday parties and observed how most presents tend to be duplicated, tossed aside or simply not appreciated. She therefore came up with an online service that allows party organisers to set up an event and invite guests to contribute to a specified gift. Fifty per cent of the pooled funds would then be channelled to a selected charity. The former engineer and global management consultant chats with NURIN NAZIFA BINTE MOHD YUSOFF about meaningful gifting and her mission to imbue a giving spirit in children.
Tell us more about your journey prior to setting up Gift-It-Forward. Did you have a giving spirit even from a very young age?
I grew up in Canada in a home where my parents were exemplary role models for exceptional generosity, genuine kindness and compassion. They showed me that you can always give back to the community. I believe that this upbringing has helped form the foundation of who I today am as an individual, and also one of the reasons I became a social entrepreneur. After pursuing my MBA in Paris, France, I moved to Singapore as part of an exchange programme and I studied for one semester at NUS Business School. I then launched my career in Asia with Deloitte Consulting in their Strategy & Operations practice for Southeast Asia and subsequently as the Regional Strategy Director for Motorola Mobility. After taking a break from my career to start a family, I wanted a job that could leverage my skills and experiences and also provide flexibility to spend time with my loved ones, so I established my own company.
People wouldn't usually associate birthday parties with charitable giving. Tell us more about this unique business model.
We live in a very privileged and consumer-driven society. As a mother of three, I see firsthand how materialistic birthday parties can be, and thought there must be a better way to do this. I wanted to teach my kids, as my parents had taught me, about the true meaning of giving. I envisioned a way that gift-giving would be meaningful for the receiver, simple for guests, good for the environment and beneficial to local charities. Instead of gifting excessively, we should use the money to get one or two presents that the intended recipient would truly appreciate, and use the rest to help others in need. With all that in mind, I created Gift-It-Forward, an online platform that connects people to charities through celebrations. You can invite friends and family to raise funds for a charity you care about as well as receive a group gift that you're guaranteed to love. As adults and youths are becoming increasingly socially aware and seeking more meaningful experiences, we are expanding to include them in our target market. We are also looking to work with more corporate partners as they focus on sustainability goals and corporate social responsibility.
Theresa and her family
Have you managed to raise many donations for your stable of charities?
We have helped our users create personal campaigns for their celebrations, so that they can fund their dream gift as well as donate to a charity they care about. So far, we have raised over S$60,000 for our users, of which more than half has been channelled to our local charity partners. Not only have we saved that amount of money that would've otherwise been spent on numerous, less meaningful gifts, we have helped the charities access new funds and donors.
How else do you promote your charities?
We collaborate with our charities to conduct educational tours and raise awareness for their causes. For instance, one child chose ACRES as the beneficiary for his birthday, so we arranged for him and his class to visit ACRES and learn more about what they do. It was a meaningful experience for the child to see where the money goes “in real life” and also to show others what can be done to help charities. We also do speaking engagements at schools on the topics of community service, entrepreneurship and technology, which tie in to various parts of the curriculum. We want to engage and empower young people to make a difference, no matter how big or small. I love that our platform can turn anyone into a philanthropist, whether you’re the one celebrating, or the one invited to a celebration.
ACRES Tour as part of birthday party celebration
What are some special contributions that you remember?
We had one man raise over $5,300 in contributions from his friends and family for his fortieth birthday, and I thought that was such an amazing thing to do to mark a milestone! He then donated 80 per cent of the contributions to support Canossaville Children & Community Services, and used his own share to splurge on a connoisseur’s whiskey collection! We’ve also had some amazing contributions from our young “Superstars”, as we call them. One little boy turned five last year, and raised over $1,500 in contributions for his birthday party. He shared half of his contributions with the SPCA, and he got an electronic drum kit with his portion. It’s so great that people are getting gifts that they would otherwise not be able to receive from one or two guests, but collectively, we can all make a difference!
As a young start up, what are initial challenges that you faced or still face?
When I first dreamed of Gift-It-Forward, it was merely an idea fueled by passion. Yet, in order to succeed, I needed to convince charities to partner with me so I could launch the platform. Armed with only a vision and a desire to make it happen, securing the first few charities was challenging. It took some resourcefulness from my side and faith on theirs, but we eventually launched with seven partner charities, and I am infinitely grateful to those first partners for their early support. Today, we are working with 17 charity partners. Another obstacle I faced was my lack of experience in website development. I had to spend some time getting up to speed on designing wireframes, writing test scripts, and so on. However, it was amazing to finally see my concept come to life. I am thankful for the help of my designer and tech team whose patience and skills are immeasurable.
How do you sustain the business financially?
At the moment, it is fully founder-funded, but we are seeking our first round of funding and are open to finding the right investors and partners.
Do you consider Gift-It-Forward your greatest accomplishment?
Yes. Successfully launching Gift-It-Forward while raising three kids under the age of four was no mean feat. It's already very difficult to manage a household with young children who are very close in age, yet I took it one step further by starting a business. It was important to me that I did something professionally that would leverage my skills and experience as well as help me give back to the community.
Gift-It-Forward can change the way we celebrate birthday parties
How has your social enterprise impacted you as a person?
It's made me realise just how much I love meaningful work and how I can help touch the lives of both my users and their beneficiaries. In the past, I worked for large corporations, which was exciting and a constant source of learning in a different way. But now, knowing that the long hours and hard work I put in will ultimately help other people do good and change the lives of those in need makes it all the more rewarding.
Do you find Singaporeans generous?
believe everyone has the potential to be generous but let’s be frank: people are typically cautious with their money and Singaporeans are no different. They just want to understand where their hard-earned cash is going and why. That being said, I find Singaporeans very kind and generous. The amazing national initiatives such as Giving.sg and the Singapore Kindness Movement are certainly succeeding.
Can we do more to teach children and youth about generosity and gratitude?
Gift-It-Forward was inspired by my own desire to teach my kids about generosity and gratitude, so yes, I think we can all do more. I believe it does not have to be major gestures but it is important to teach children to be grateful for what they have and using that kind of language at home. With my kids, we have started doing Gratitude Charts for what they are thankful for so they can recognise how much they already have. We can also teach our kids that even though they are little, the smallest efforts can change a person’s day or life, and highlight how they are probably already doing it. It could mean sharing a snack with someone who forgot theirs, giving someone a turn at the playground or simply smiling at a person who looks sad. Lastly, it is really important to lead by example. Show them what it’s like to give or share by doing the same with your time or your things, whether it’s at home or for a cause you care about. You never know who is watching!
Theresa teaches her three children about generosity and gratitude
In Singapore, there are a number of social enterprises that leverage tech to bring about positive social impact. What are your thoughts on "social tech"?
I love technology and I really think it can really drive the social impact scene. We have already seen how platforms for crowdfunding, social lending, or micro-financing impact people's lives and livelihoods, so imagine what it can do as we scale these in new markets to touch more people.
Technology also makes education and healthcare more accessible, amongst other things, and I am optimistic it can and will do so much more. Singapore is a great launching pad for technology and start-ups, and organisations such as the Lien Centre for Social Innovation and raiSE contribute to this nurturing environment. Tech can drive companies to deliver social impact globally, but specifically in Singapore, I see it working in a few ways.
First, fundraising can now be digitised and more accessible. Because of the digital connectivity in Singapore, everyone can contribute online, and platforms such as Giving.sg, Simply Giving, and Give.Asia allow people to crowdfund and donate to causes that matter to them. Next, technology can help connect people to charities and to communities, not only for fundraising but also for volunteers. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned in his Budget 2018 speech, we need to foster a caring and cohesive society. Tools like marketplace apps and online community groups can help connect Singaporeans to help one another, delivering social impact within communities.
Finally, technology can provide the undeserved with information and access to services they may not have had previously. This could include personalised education apps for low-income children who may lack quality education support; or medical information and access to doctors that people could not otherwise support; or tools for employment opportunities.
Do you have any advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs out there?
For any entrepreneur, I say “Just do it”! There is never the perfect time or moment. If you have found something you are passionate about and have the time and resources to support an entrepreneurial journey, then that’s the right time. Sometimes you might have a great idea but for other reasons, be it financial or personal, you can’t run with it at that point in time. Making a social impact is really fulfilling and while the journey can be long and tedious, do keep in mind the lives you are changing or potentially changing, and that will help you persevere.
Looking back on your journey, what do you know now that you wish you'd known when you first started out?
I wish I hadn't underestimated the potential of the business and the amount of work and investment it would take. While I enjoy being a single founder, I think I could've benefited from a partnership. At the time, I wasn't sure if there was room for more than one person in the business. But now, I dream about disrupting the gift-giving industry on a large scale, so it is the right time to take on the right partner.
Let's shift gears to something more lighthearted: you've helped organise so many birthday parties through your platform. But what would your ideal birthday celebration be like?
It'd definitely take place on a private island, somewhere remote with crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches. And I'd want to be surrounded by close family and friends.
If your birthday wish granted you any superhero power you wanted, what would you wish for?
The power to control time! I wish I could stop it when I need more of it, turn back to my favourite moments and fast forward to know there is no need to worry now.
Finally, who inspires you the most?
My parents. As mentioned earlier, they have been the greatest influences in my life and have always been positive role models. They supported me through whatever interests and passions I had, regardless of how crazy my ideas were. Their unwavering faith, positivity and perseverance during tough times are admirable qualities I aspire to have.
Nurin Nazifa Binte Mohd Yusoff is a Year 4 undergraduate from SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business, where she majors in Operations Management and Corporate Communications. Keen to develop a greater understanding of social innovation around the region, her areas of interest include youth empowerment, social inclusion, entrepreneurship and entertainment. She can be reached at email@example.com