Interview – Cherie Nursalim

Cherie Nursalim is Executive Director of GITI Group. She lives in Singapore and was born in Singapore but she’s Indonesian by nationality. The greatest influence on her giving, as with most of the other donors we talked to, is her family. Her grandparents moved from China to Singapore in the 1930s. Having done quite well for themselves in Singapore, they began helping those back in China, supporting schools among other things, and her parents continued and expanded this charitable tradition. ‘So I guess I have learned from my parents and grandparents; it didn’t start from nowhere, it started as a family tradition.’

Co-founding United In Diversity (UID), along with MIT Sloan School of Management, the University of Indonesia and local publishing company Sinar Harapan, was Cherie Nursalim’s first big step towards setting up a foundation. UID’s mission, according to its website, is ‘to use dialogue and the exchange of broad-based ideas to promote participation of the private sector with civil society and the public sector in advancing Indonesia’s sustainable development and improving the quality of life for all its people’. Its first conference was held after the Bali bombing in 2002, and it was ‘a significant statement of getting together from different parts of the world to support the future of Indonesia’. The name ‘United in Diversity’ stems from the Indoniesian ph__ Pancasila, which conveys the central vision of the founding fathers of Indonesia: although Indonesia is made up of hundreds of different ethnic groups, we are still united in our diversity.

Synergos founder Peggy Dulany, who she met over ten years ago, is one of UID’s advisers. Nursalim describes her as an ‘inspiring mentor’ and says that it is through her influence that UID has adopted the same tri-sector approach as Synergos.

For Nursalim, the biggest revelation was the idea of working with NGOs. ‘Even though we have been donors we have not worked so much with non-profit organizations,’ she explains. ‘We donated directly to build schools or clinics or mosques or churches, but we haven’t really worked through non-profits outside those institutions. It was through Peggy that I got to understand that there is a whole world of civil society.’

It was Dulany who introduced Nursalim to Indonesian NGOs. ‘It was my own part of the world but she was familiar with NGOs whereas I was not exposed to them. We visited organizations in villages in the mountains that were employing disabled people to do handicraft work and things like that. We have a lot of retail outlets, and I realized we could easily help with distribution, help them reach out to the marketplace.’ In general, she feels that Synergos and the Global Philanthropists’ Circle (GPC) have been very instrumental in inspiring business families like her own to do a lot more in their own areas.

What was so significant about working with NGOs as opposed to just donating straight to a school or a hospital or a church? ‘We discovered a whole new world of people who were passionate and dedicated and already experts in this field. We found NGOs working on AIDS education and awareness to be very scientific, effective, solutions-based. Of course we come across those who are not, but I think there are many more who are doing a great job. For me, this tri-sector approach is the only way we will solve the challenges we face.’

A GPC visit to AIDS hospitals in South Africa about six years ago was another formative experience. When she went back to Indonesia and started talking to NGOs there, she realized that they had great difficulty making any inroads because the media were reluctant to carry any news about AIDS or AIDS education messages for fear they’d come under attack by religious fundamentalists in a predominantly Muslim country. ‘As one of the largest Indonesian business groups, we decided we’d take this on as a major campaign and we educated all our workforce, tens of thousands of people, as well as schools and communities in surrounding areas’ – for which they received an award from UNAIDS and other awards for raising AIDS awareness in workplaces.

Cherie Nursalim sees each sector as contributing in different ways. Businesses, foundations and individuals can all provide funding for projects. One of the advantages of businesses is that they can act quickly, and they can also bring in their networks and offer in-kind support. For example, a car rental company provided cars for the distribution of materials after the tsunami, while government provided helicopters. ‘We’re a small foundation,’ she says, ‘but we were the first to move Indonesian tsunami victims to their permanent homes. We use very little resources, we don’t need to set up an office, we just stay with the villagers. Things can happen faster and more cheaply when you work across sectors and you don’t need to rely on your own resources.’

Nursalim cannot speak too highly of the U process, developed by Otto Sharma and others at MIT, which she regards as ‘the only process that we know for developing a very deeply rooted tri-sector approach. When the problems are very complex and you have to get people of different mindsets and beliefs together and there is blame and distrust, this is one way to really bond people.’

Peggy Dulany personally, and Synergos more broadly, have clearly helped Cherie Nursalim in her philanthropic work. But is there anything else that would have helped her that wasn’t available? What is missing? But she can’t really think of anything. In her view, what Synergos has done is quite amazing, what is missing is her own time. ‘I think that is more the weakness.’ She wonders if technology could help, for example cheaper video conference facilities, creating what she calls ‘a global classroom with MIT so people from different parts of the world can link up’. But, she admits, what few would deny, ‘I think there is power in being present. I wish I had more time to attend these group sessions and learn from other people from around the world.’

Asked whether it would be helpful if there were similar organizations in Asia, she says that she has been hoping that Synergos would have a presence in ‘our part of the world’, but admits that that may be a while to come.

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