Edited by Dr KK Tse

Early this year, I published an article in Chinese in the Hong Kong Economic Journal summarizing what I consider to be “黑暗中對話的十個第一”. It was an effort to summarize the key insights of the first eight years of the Hong Kong operation of Dialogue in the Dark. The article has not been published in English before. I am reproducing it below in English.

Dialogue in the Dark’s 10 ‘Firsts’

Co-founded by Patrick Cheung and KK Tse in 2008, Dialogue in the Dark (DiD) is one of the most successful social enterprises in Hong Kong. In this article, I will highlight what I consider to be the 10 ‘Firsts’ of DiD. Saying that they are the ‘firsts’ in Hong Kong might sound self-congratulating. Suffice it to point out that a) all these ‘firsts’ are objective and verifiable facts; and b) they are the firsts in terms of time sequence, and do not necessarily mean the best.

No. 1   Enabling ‘People of Differences’ to showcase their talents

Perhaps by far the most important FIRST of DiD is its success in creating opportunities for people of differences to showcase their talents.

In the Experiential Exhibition as well as the Executive Workshops, blind people serve as guides and trainers respectively to provide valuable learning experience for sighted persons.

In most other social enterprises, disabled persons are treated as recipients of service or assistance; at DiD, however, sighted persons pay for, and benefit from, the innovative service provided by the blind people. DiD also pioneered the use of the term ‘people of differences’ in place of ‘people with disabilities’, which is still being widely used in the welfare sector.

DiD HK’s mission statement is “Engaging people of differences to create social impact.”

No. 2   Funded by a pool of private capital

19 shareholders collectively raised HK$5.6 million of equity to start the company, with no government or philanthropic funding whatsoever. In Hong Kong, most people have the misconception that government funding is a prerequisite for social enterprise startup. DiD’ s experience has proved that it is possible to launch and develop a social enterprise without government funding support.

No. 3   Self-sustaining ability

DiD had been able to breakeven in the seventh month of its operation. It became profitable at the end of the second financial year. Up to 2016, it has already paid over HK$1 million in tax – something unheard of among social enterprises in Hong Kong. (As a limited company, DiD’s tax rate is the same as other businesses.)

No. 4   Dividends for shareholders 

DiD pioneered the use of the ‘three-thirds system’ in profit distribution for social enterprises. One third of the profits is retained in the company for development; another third is donated to Dialogue in the Dark Foundation (which supports people of differences to realize their dreams); and the remaining third is distributed to shareholders.

DiD started to pay dividends to the shareholders from the third year onwards, which is unprecedented in Hong Kong.

No. 5   Concert in the Dark – first in the world

In the first year of DiD’s operation, it created the first-ever Concert in the Dark in Hong Kong (and the world). Supported by a corporate sponsor (1010), the Concert featured well known local singers. Up to 2016, six Concerts in the Dark have been held. The expenses of the operation and promotion of the Concerts have been covered by the sponsor while the proceeds of concert admission tickets are donated to the Dialogue in the Dark Foundation.

A particularly encouraging development is that the planning and management of the concert is now being taken over by a team of people of differences, thus enabling them to interact and work collaboratively with talents in the performance sector.

No. 6  Dialogue in Silence

Apart from the various dialogue in the dark experiences, DiD has in recent years ventured into creating brand new Dialogue in Silence activities, including Executive Workshop in Silence, Dinner in Silence, etc. This enables DiD to engage people with hearing impairment to showcase their talents in a variety of ‘edutainments’.

Inspired by the success of Dialogue in Silence, DiD is exploring the possibilities of engaging other people of differences, such as those with physical disabilities.

No. 7   The Power of Social Franchise

Dialogue in the Dark was created by Andreas Heinecke in Germany some 30 years ago. Dialogue in the Dark HK Ltd. has been a franchise of Dialogue Social Enterprise (DSE) based in Hamburg since 2008. But DiD HK has been adapting the original format to suit local conditions, continuously modifying and refining the core model as well as introducing brand new elements to the basic offerings.

This demonstrates that social innovation does not necessarily involve ‘reinventing the wheel’. It is possible to adapt solutions developed in other places of the world to address some local social issues. The creative use of social franchise is a subject that deserves more attention by local social innovators.

No. 8   Publishing a book to share experience

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Scarcely two years after DiD was established in HK, one of the co-founders, Patrick Cheung, took the trouble of writing a book (in Chinese) to share in great detail the process of launching DiD HK. The purpose was to inspire more people to appreciate the power of social entrepreneurship and to launch their own social ventures.

Patrick’s effort in writing this book is a testimony of his passion in leveraging DiD to promote social entrepreneurship. He studied engineering in university and has never written even an article in Chinese in his life. But he wrote this book in Chinese, against all odds, proving that nothing is impossible if you put your mind on it.

No. 9    Reaching the top spot in TripAdvisor on HK

DiD’s flagship Experiential Exhibition at Mei Foo has attracted a large number of overseas visitors and has been receiving highly favorable feedback.  About four years ago, DiD became the No. 1 tourist attraction in HK according to TripAdvisor – something unimaginable for a city like HK with its large number of tourist spots. (Unfortunately, owing to a reorganizing of the TripAdvisor site, DiD has been placed under a specialist category and lost its overall leadership position.)

No. 10   DE Empower – creating employment opportunities for people of differences

DiD’s ultimate vision is to realize social inclusion. Over the past ten years, HK has witnessed increasing awareness of infrastructure building for social inclusion, such as the development of barrier-free access and special educations services. But there is one area in which social inclusion has made very limited progress: employment inclusion. Most people of differences have great difficulty in finding employment in the mainstream labor market. Even for those  with university education, there are still many insurmountable barriers for employment.

With the support of Lee Hysan Foundation, DiD has launched an innovative program called DE Empower to provide assistance to people of differences with tertiary education to gain employment opportunities in the mainstream market. It is a 6-month program through which the participants receive training and coaching support as well as an internship with a prospective employer.  The program aims at greatly enhancing the employability of the participants on the one hand, and enabling their prospective employers to adapt their employment policy and to change their corporate culture on the other.

While everyone at DiD HK is proud of the accomplishments of the company to date, there is also the acute awareness that much remains to be done to realize our dream of creating a truly inclusive society. Your continued support will be greatly appreciated.