Interview by: Nicole Friets | Images provided by: Alex Toh
Many people categorize their lives into different spheres such as work, fitness, and socializing. Alex Toh, on the other hand, has intertwined all of them. Her strong passion for fitness led her to become one of the founders of the non-profit organization, The Chain Reaction Project (TCRP). TCRP uses adventures as a platform to raise funds, human capital and public awareness for critical social issues.
Recognised by Singapore's President's Office as one of the country's leading Social Enterprises, TCRP has grown exponentially in the past seven years into an international movement of team-based volunteerism, civic engagement and community development. In this interview, we talk to Alex about how she uses her passion for fitness to impact and influence the lives of others and how her non-profit Organization (TCRP) helps to do that.
Why and how does TCRP use adventures as a platform?
TCRP uses adventure as a platform to create change. We organize trips in the region that incorporate an element of adventure - be it climbing up a mountain, running a marathon or skydiving. These adventures are designed to challenge participants and push them out of their comfort zone to do something, a lot of times, they have never done before. Collectively, participants work together to reach a fundraising goal, as well as raise awareness for a cause that they are supporting in the country they visit.
We use adventure because sport is something so universal - it brings people together and fosters a sense of community. It is also a great way to ease people into giving back and becoming "Catalysts for Change". Sometimes, the idea of doing good and giving back can be quite daunting, so we wanted to change the face of charity and change people's perspective of it and show them that it is not limited to just flag day. We wanted to show them that it could be a fun and more meaningful experience.
In line with TCRP's mission to marry passion with a higher purpose - a cause that resonates with each individual - Catalysts give back by doing what they love, for good. Through these efforts, we hope to create a pay it forward, chain reaction of sorts and inspire others to do the same. Everyone’s journey is different so I believe, in the words of Rumi, that we should “let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
How did the founders of TCRP realise their common passions of fitness and social activism?
Seven years ago, TCRP began with a trip to Timor Leste for the Tour de Timor - a five-day, 450km mountain bike race across nine of the country’s 13 districts.
Jasmine Wong (one of the Co-Founders of TCRP) approached me about starting an all women's team for the race. Jasmine, Anina, Tingjun and I then came together and found that we all had the same desire to give back but had no idea where to start.
So, as we learnt more about Timor-Leste and its turbulent history, we decided to use the race as a platform to help the country and its people. The endeavour raised more than $44,000 for the launch of HIAM-Health (now a key player in the fight against malnutrition in the country).
What were some of the initial challenges in running a non-profit organization? What are some of the current challenges?
When TCRP started in 2009, the Social Enterprise scene was still budding in Singapore. There were no industry standards or practices we could use as guidelines to benchmark our work to.
Everything happened so fast and we jumped in head first into a space we were all very new to. There was a very steep learning curve we had to tackle. A lot of what we’ve learnt has been through trial and error.
We have also been very fortunate to have had some really amazing partners and advisors along the way that have helped us to build TCRP into what it is today.
What is the process in choosing causes?
We try to focus on causes that tackle issues related to women and children - malnutrition, poverty alleviation, human trafficking, women empowerment, etc. More importantly, due diligence is always taken before we make a final decision to work with or raise funds for any organization.
We also prefer to work with more grassroots organization as they are usually the ones that need more help on the ground. They usually rely heavily on donations to keep their doors open. They also have a better understanding of the issues that plague the country as they work more closely with the local communities.
What are the pros and cons of having an all female leadership team for TCRP?
Pros - Women bring a lot of heart, sensitivity and patience to the table, and in some ways speak with a different level of conviction. This helps when we try to bridge things between donors and the charities on the ground and in developing trust with both sides..
Cons - Too much estrogen in one space.
Most of TCRP’s trips have been in Southeast Asia, but there have been some to the US and Africa. How did they come about? Is this indicative of a broader reach?
We went on that big adventure to Tanzania because one of the co-founders, Anina, who is from South Africa had always wanted to do something with TCRP in Africa. In a similar vein, we did something in the US because Christina, who used to work with us, wanted to bring TCRP back home to where she was from.
Our initial project in Davao was also because I wanted to give back to the place I call home. We run trips that resonate personally with the team so each one is special and significant in some way.
I think we initially had this big idea to bring TCRP worldwide. However, we found that individuals in Asia found it quite difficult to connect with causes so far away from home. People were more interested in giving back to causes nearby or within Singapore so we’ve since focused our efforts in the region.
Are you looking to collaborate with like-minded organisations in other parts of the world?
As of now, we already have 12 adopted charities that we’ve continued to support over the years. With these charities, we’ve made some pretty solid partnerships on the ground with like-minded organisations in our efforts to make a difference within those countries.
Instead of spreading ourselves thin, we rather take a more concerted effort with the partnerships that we already have. By doing so, we hope to be able to have a greater impact over time with our chosen causes.
How has your background in business helped you in your current roles both as a spinning instructor and director of a non-profit Organization?
My background in business has probably helped me more as a director of a non-profit organization.
Operating within a small team, we had to put on many different hats on to get the project up and running. With the skill sets of my teammates and my basic knowledge of the different business functions, we were able to build TCRP into what it is today.
When did you first realise that fitness was going to be a central part of your life and career?
Leading an active lifestyle has always been an integral part of my life. I grew up playing basketball and swimming for school. It was always a source of community for me as a kid and I think a lot of the more important life lessons I learnt on the courts or through those after school training sessions.
I was never the best one on the team or the fastest but It was always more about the game for me; the constant challenge and knowledge that I could always do better, go faster, be stronger.
In pushing myself, I also developed a certain degree of awareness about myself as an individual; embracing my shortcomings and at the same time recognizing my strengths and honing those.
Shortly after I graduated from high school, I started working out at the gym more. Spinning was something I picked up in University and initially became a side job to earn some extra money.
However, it turned out to be quite a significant stepping stone for me into some of the most important relationships in my life. It was also what coincidentally led to TCRP.
The website talks about how the "physical challenge was much less daunting than the reality of life" during that initial trip? Has this continued to be the case?
Always. A central part of every trip is to expose each Catalyst to the realities many people face every day. The adventure is the stepping stone in all of this. We reveal not only the beauty that lies behind many of these countries but also the grim reality to give them a better understanding of the causes and the issues these people face.
Your biography on the TCRP website says "Taiwanese by birth, Singaporean by nationality and Filipino at heart." Can you explain the last part?
I was born in Taipei and hold a Singaporean passport because my Father is Singaporean. However, I consider Manila my home as I spent my formative years there and my mom is Filipino. Growing up surrounded by such abject poverty, I've always felt a moral responsibility to give back to a country that has given me so much and shaped me into the person I am today. I feel very fortunate to have grown up with such privilege and realise that I have the ability to make a difference.