GoAbroad Interview

Tim Spijker - Chief Operating Officer

Tim Spijker - Chief Operating Officer

Tim is originally from The Netherlands and has a great passion for humanitarian work. He joined the social sector after obtaining his master’s in marketing from VU University Amsterdam. As Chief Operating Officer of SOLS 24/7, he is responsible for the operational and administrative processes within the organization and aims to bring the best possible services to communities in need. Tim is committed to ensure all programs reach their goals and truly serve their beneficiaries.

You began your relationship with SOLS 24/7 as a volunteer in 2009. How did this experience change your perspective of the world and your career goals?

The first time I came to SOLS 24/7 in September 2009 was when I just finished my master’s degree. My plan was to volunteer with SOLS 24/7 for three months and to travel a bit through Southeast Asia before starting my own professional career in The Netherlands. However, my experience as a volunteer with SOLS 24/7 changed my career goals tremendously. It was the first time I was involved in volunteerism and working with underserved youth in Malaysia made me realise how blessed I am to come from a warm and close family, to grow up in a wealthy country, and being well-educated.

Volunteer talking to children at a community center in Southeast Asia

Speaking with Orang Asli students at our community centre in Air Banun, a very remote village deep in the jungle of Belum Forest

Life has given so much to me while the vast majority of people in this world are in a less favourable position. I have gained many skills and experiences and I have a lot of energy and passion to share. I feel it is a unique privilege to give back to society and to contribute by making this world a better place with more justice, equality, and a fairer distribution of wealth.

Although six years ago I wouldn’t expect myself to work in the non-profit industry by now, it is actually very much in line with what I studied for, as management in the nonprofit sector is not so different from the private sector after all. Through my experience, and in particular my discussions with the SOLS 24/7 founders, I realised that running a non-profit is as challenging as running any other business. As a social entrepreneur, you have to deal with not only project management and service delivery to your beneficiaries, but also with accounts, operations, administration, HR, stakeholder management, fundraising, and much more. I would even say that running a nonprofit is more challenging than running a business, since the ultimate objective is not to gain the highest profit but to create the highest impact possible while being self-sustainable.

What attracted you to SOLS 24/7?

What attracts me most to SOLS 24/7 is the vision of the organisation and the values that it stands for. SOLS 24/7 is all about education and social empowerment. Our tagline is “serve, educate, and empower”, which is reflected in everything we do. Education and social empowerment is the core of everything that we do, whether it is through English, technology, or personal development. Mandela said it beautifully many years ago: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”; this is exactly what I believe in and what SOLS 24/7 stands for.

There are many humanitarian organisations that do fantastic work, but since I already had a very wonderful earlier volunteering experience with SOLS 24/7 and I could see the huge potential that this organisation has, it was the most logical choice for me to join SOLS 24/7 in its mission to change the world.

The advantage of working for a relatively young organisation is that there are plenty of career opportunities here that otherwise would have likely taken me many years at large international aid agencies. Through our rapid growth in the past few years and the ups and downs that we have gone through, I have had a crash course in NGO leadership and what I have learnt and experienced in a short span of time is more valuable that any management course can teach me.

Berjaya Air plane on a runway in Southeast Asia

Traveling for the launch of our community centre in Tioman island

How do you use your own experience as a volunteer with SOLS 24/7 to continue to improve the organization’s services and programs?

Through my experiences teaching youth from challenging backgrounds and spending time at community centres in rural areas in Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, I have gotten a taste of the harsh conditions that many people in this world live in day-in day-out. I know how it feels to sleep on the floor of an overcrowded dormitory, or to have to pump water out of the ground to take a shower, or to eat plain rice with green leaves for many days.

It was tough and it made me realise the limitations of my comfort zone, but it was a fantastic experience that opened my eyes and made more determined to succeed in bringing the best possible services and programs to the poor. 

I now have a much better understanding of what works and what does not work. Together with the team, we design and develop education and social empowerment programs that are relevant to the communities and catered towards their needs. By offering practical, hands-on programs that are easily replicated, we are able to provide our students with vital skills that enhance their education and employability, so they will be able to find a job to support their family and break the cycle of poverty.

You consider yourself a social entrepreneur and you are beyond dedicated to helping communities in need in Southeast Asia. How do you ensure each SOLS 24/7 is creating real, sustainable change in local communities?

The skills that we identified as most crucial for those from challenging backgrounds and underserved communities are English, computing, and personal development. This is being implemented through our Science of Language (English), Science of Technology (computing) and Science of Life (personal development) programs. We believe that when a person has a solid foundation in these skills, he or she will be very likely to get successfully employed.

English enables students to communicate in the international business language and to travel to any place in the world. Computing skills enable students to have unlimited access to information, and they are considered the literacy standard of the 21st century. Our holistic personal development program helps students to build their character and personality. A good character and attitude helps students not only to get a job but also to keep it.

SOLS 24/7 and StoryTellers staff members

Together with my colleagues from the office (from left to right): SOLS 24/7 CEO Teacher Raj, COO Tim Spijker, Director Syed Idros, and two of our partners from StoryTellers Vikram and Thanen

Our trainers are called Community Development Officers (CDOs) and they go through an intensive one month training before being sent to the community for a one-year placement. During this one month, they do not only learn how to use our methodology, but also how to do community development, networking, project accounts, reporting, and administration. Our CDOs are fantastic as they do so much more than only teaching. They fully immerse themselves within the community under the principle of “if you truly want to educate people, you have to be one with them.” Same goes for the program managers of our other programs, where they are being trained intensively before taking fully charge. 

Consistency and high-quality delivery is vital to ensure that we meet our overall goal of creating real, sustainable change in local communities through education and social empowerment. The monitoring and evaluation of the service delivery happen through our Project Management Office (PMO), which is responsible for the impact analysis assessment of all our programs. Through continuously gathering of data and information about the service delivery, we are able to closely monitor and analyse the progress of each of our programs. The findings and suggestions for improvement are presented in internal reports to the management team who then need to decide whether any action is required to ensure program objectives are being met. 

However, all of the above would be useless if the community is not receptive towards receiving support. From our side we can only do so much, but the real change has to come from the communities and students themselves. To reduce this risk to a minimum, we do conduct feasibility studies and meet with the key stakeholders in the communities that are being nominated before anything kicks off.

One of your goals as COO at SOLS 24/7 is “to synergise best business practices with the need for human-centred approaches in the non-profit industry.” How does SOLS 24/7 do this and what makes the organization’s approach different from other nonprofits?

Although we are an NGO, we work very professionally and have high quality standards. We want to be fair to our beneficiaries and provide them with the best services and to our partners and donors to use their funds as effectively and efficiently as possible. We have implemented various business practices in order to achieve this consistent and high service quality. For example, we are one of the few NGOs that use impact analysis reporting to assess whether program objectives are being met and to measure the impact of our programs. In the next few months, we are also going to implement a performance management system which should help us to further enhance the performance of our teams and provide more personal coaching and feedback mechanisms to our team members. At the same time, we aim to blend these business practices with a human-centred approach in everything we do.

We are a humanitarian organisation and we exist to help our fellow human beings.

Unlike traditional businesses, we cannot treat our beneficiaries as normal customers, as they are not, and it is therefore important that our approach towards them is different and serves their interest. For example, many of our students have dropped out of the regular school system because of disciplinary issues or they couldn’t cope. We are giving these youth a second chance, but if we would use the same approach that failed before then these youths are likely to drop out again and remain deprived from education. Therefore, our personal development module and social empowerment programs are one of the secrets to our success; with motivation and empowerment these youth can unleash their potential and achieve things that they have never imagined they could.

What does a typical day of work look like for the COO of SOLS 24/7?

Although every day is unique and there is not a day the same, I usually use the first two to three hours to review work or documents that require high concentration. Then I meet up with our managers and team that I work closely with to discuss any of the daily operational matters. I also have almost daily meetings with our CEO to discuss more strategic or financial matters, and I usually have meetings with external parties at least a few times per week. I usually end my day going through my continuous influx of emails and drafting a to-do list for the next day, which gives me a kickstart the following morning.

Besides the role of COO, I also wear several other hats, such as Head of our Project Management Office (PMO), assisting the business development team with fundraising and proposal writing, and I have recently also become a centre exam manager for our SOLS 24/7 English Exam Centre in partnership with Cambridge English.

Wedding guests in Malaysia

Celebrating the wedding of me and my wife Echa together with the colorful and awesome team of SOLS 24/7 Malaysia

What do you love most about your job?

What I love most about my job is that I’m being part of a bigger cause to serve humanity. This might sound very abstract, but the point is that through my work I can at least play my part of contributing to a bigger cause.

It is a very powerful thought to know that through my efforts I contribute to transforming the lives of the poor and underserved. This is what drives me to push myself every day and why I came to SOLS 24/7 in the first place.

I work in a place where I can develop my own skills while at the same time contribute to developing other people’s lives. It is also very motivating to work with team members who are as equally dedicated and passionate about changing the world as I am. By joining the efforts and brilliance of enough people, I truly believe we can create real change one step at time.

As an alumni volunteer, experienced NGO manager, and philanthropist, what is your best piece of advices?

I would highly encourage everyone to spend at least some time of their lives volunteering, to give some of your time to something that you believe in. The satisfaction and fulfillment that you will get in return is very enriching. I have experienced this myself so many times; the more you give, the more you get.

Volunteering doesn’t mean that you have to travel half the world to do something you care about. Charity starts at home, by making a difference to the people and environment around you. Each country has its own challenges and governments are not able to solve all the problems by themselves. An active and engaging social sector is needed to help out from the ground, fill up the gaps, and work on those issues that are not being addressed.

If you would decide to come to Malaysia, then of course I would highly recommend to join us in our cause. At SOLS 24/7 we offer people a platform to contribute as a volunteer. We welcome people from all over the world who want to utilise their skills for a noble cause, while at the same time get a life-changing experience themselves, develop new skills, or build their CVs. In the end, volunteering should be a win-win situation for all parties.