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  • Writer's pictureBeatrice Schulter

What NGOs can learn from the Covid-19 situation for shaping the future

Over the past two to three months, non-profit organisations, like almost everyone else, have been confronted with the need to make rapid and drastic changes in the way they operate as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For NGOs relying on donor funds – which requires a demanding double management process even in normal times, this was and remains a particularly challenging situation. During this time, Roots to Rise has been supporting various NGOs in Europe and Africa in the framework of its free emergency support. In the following you will find a summary of the main points and priorities we worked on with our partners. These are valuable lessons learnt for risk and crisis management in NGOs that remain relevant throughout the coming weeks and months, during which we will all have to continue operating with a bucketful of unknowns. And they are also generally valid not only for better managing change, but to be one step ahead in a fast-changing environment.

The immediates: protecting staff and programme participants[1], changing immediate plans, communicating

In view of the sudden lockdown due to the health threat, all NGOs we worked with quickly took decisions on immediate issues, such as safeguarding measures for reducing health-related risks for staff and programme participants, and shifting and adapting all activities online, wherever it was possible. Project and events needed to be cancelled or adapted to respond to the new reality. Organisations providing direct services in their communities had to organise large-scale protection measures to continue serving their communities safely. Many of them put in place humanitarian aid to respond to immediate needs, such as access to nutrition and hygiene kits.

Immediate financial effects on the organisation needed to be assessed, measures taken with regard to projects, operations and staff, and all relevant stakeholders needed to be informed of the changes.

For all organisations, this posed an immediate increase in work – and less time available for other ongoing work. It is no surprise, that those, who already had agile, participatory and empowering leadership and management culture nurturing ongoing innovation in place, had less disruption and were quicker to respond. A decisive advantage could be seen with organisations with strong shared leadership and clear governance in place and those working with systematic risk management: In these organisations the communication and decision taking between the boards and the executive directors were functioning well, so that everyone was able to contribute to solving the numerous occurring issues, rather than posing an additional problem by interfering on the wrong level or leaving executive management alone with decisions they needed consultation on or that are legally in the responsibility of the board.

After first response – moving towards stabilising operations and programmes

After basic operations were secured and work could be continued, reflections on medium-term planning were initiated: What are the implications on the planned work for the rest of the year? Are there any foreseeable changes in funding? Are there any changes in staffing? What are the different scenarios that can be projected – all with continued many variables of uncertainty?

Even if these short -term scenarios are based on some “out of the blue” assumptions due to the prevailing uncertainties on a macro level, this exercise proved to be very helpful for NGO leaders to develop a palette of considerations, ideas and strategies they can draw from for managing ongoing adaptations in the coming months.

One of the key measures was to develop an outreach plan for donors and the elaboration for adapted cases for support for continued or increased funding. Institutional and private donors were contacted referring to the exceptional situation and explaining the specific needs. Grant-giving foundations were invited to exchange on needs to re-assign already approved funds to different projects and activities emerging from the Covid-19 situation. There were discussions, whether and how to make proposals, reporting and use of funds more flexible, in order to use the funds for emergency projects, but also for stabilising the organisation and/or use the funds for investing in organisational development and innovation. This is an opportunity to underline, that implementing partners are crucial for grant-giving foundations: they both need each other to be able to deliver on their mission, and flexible giving is more important than ever.

The response of grant-giving foundations has been varied – while many have signalled openness to consider more flexibility, mostly those that already had a strategic partnership approach with their grantees, many foundations remain largely top-down in their funding, leaving their grantees alone to deal with the aggravated challenges. Roots to Rise is currently conducting research among grant-giving foundations mainly in Switzerland, but also neighbouring countries in Europe and the US, to capture the considerations, restraints and trends that the Covid-19 situation might have triggered among them. The results will be published in this blog soon.

5 secrets for emergency preparedness of NGOs:

1. Leadership: Shared leadership between board and executive management with clear roles and responsibilities

2. Good governance: A board that functions as a team, cultivates the areas of board responsibilities[2] consciously and is able to focus on the right level in crisis situation and adapt all of these areas to the ever-changing situation.

3. Participatory and agile management and leadership culture with staff that is empowered to manage their areas of responsibility

4. A practise of scenario planning and risk management on strategic and operational levels and iterative approach to planning, implementation and reporting as tool for agile management

5. Shared responsibility and understanding of fundraising within the team, understanding that everyone within the organisation (staff, board members) are contributing to fundraising success (or potentially failure, if they are not aware of this), which enables quick translation of the emergency situation into effective communication to donors.

Outlook to a time after Covid-19 and shaping the future

Gradually, NGOs are moving towards assessing the potential impact of the Covid 19 situation on their programmes and organisations in the mid- and long-term. Now is the time to develop larger-scale scenarios with considerations on potential developments in funding, programme approaches and the organisation itself.

On the funding side, scenarios need to be developed considering potential decrease in funding from state funders, grant-giving foundations, as well as small donors. State revenue is likely to go down, after services/the whole economy has been shut down, and lower budgets will be available for NGO funding from governments. Also, state funding priorities may change. NGOs are advised to follow the situation closely, and to jointly advocate and continue raising awareness about the crucial role they are playing for society to be able to re-establish functioning after the crisis.

Many grant-giving foundations are conscious about the needs of their grant-receiving partners, as well as of the fact that they need their partners strong and sound, in order to be able to achieve their own goals. But they are also concerned about the long-term condition of their assets. If they distribute more money than usual, their assets will shrink and produce less revenue, reducing the capacity to have impact in the future. So, they are balancing their measures with these two competing considerations. Here, NGOs have an important role to play: They can raise awareness among grant-giving foundations, with their own donors directly and in conjunction with others, about the importance of stable NGO partners for achieving the purposes of foundations. Suggestions to grant-giving foundations in how they can strengthen their giving strategies, how they can reduce time and resources needed at their end, as well as for their recipients, by giving more strategically, more flexible and with less bureaucracy can be helpful for this dialogue. It is important that NGOs honestly disclose their challenges and also failures - the current crisis situation could be a valuable training ground for this, as everyone is affected by an external situation and it may be easier to disclose weaknesses to donors.

It is estimated that small-donor funding could also decrease drastically, due to many people having less revenue (unemployment, partial unemployment) or the funding priorities of small donors could shift dramatically due to this global event. On this level, it is important for NGOs to reiterate their case for support, but also to show, how continuation of their work – even if it is not directly related to health issues – is crucial for society to be able to find its new normal.

In spite of these actions that can be taken to prevent drastic decrease in funding, the different mid- to long-term scenarios should consider various levels of decrease, and balance them to potential increase in programmatic needs: how are you going to deliver strategically on your mission, even if there might be fewer funds available? How can you leverage impact by focusing your strategy? And what innovative approaches prove to be key for you to succeed in this?

Now is also an important opportunity for NGOs to benefit from the experiences and lessons learned in recent weeks. Due to the situation, many organizations have been forced to adapt their working methods considerably and become more agile. This is the time to scrutinise and further develop governance and leadership in order to establish an agile and participatory management. This is a way of working together that not only allows, but also enables board members, all employees, as well as program participants and partners to contribute their ideas for change and innovation. Now is a moment in time when everyone is facing the challenges of sudden change, and offering them to become active and make their own contribution to shaping the future promises to fall on very fertile ground. Moreover, this is a great opportunity for organisations to tap into the rich knowledge, ideas and resources that may have been dormant in the past due to entrenched processes. These resources are the spark for real innovation, and if the opportunity is taken to move further towards a culture of innovation, it will ensure that the organisation is able to use them continuously in the future.

5 opportunities for NGOs as they go forward to shaping the future

1. Capitalise on the experience and lessons learnt from the past months and drive innovation that helps shaping the future.

2. Influence grant-giving foundations: advocate partnership on an equal footing with funding foundations. Discuss challenges and weaknesses transparently and invite grant-making foundations to consider more sustainable funding programs, flexible donations, core funding, and grants that focus on the needs of the organisation so that it can fulfil its mission.

3. Scrutinise your governance and leadership and move towards agile and participatory management.

4. Mobilise staff and board members to contribute to shaping the future of your organisation and to drive innovation.

5. Listen to the ones you serve (programme participants, partners) to ensure you respond to their needs and invite them to be part for shaping their future and the one of your organisation.

[1] We use the term «programme participants» for groups, individuals or organisations that are otherwise often called «beneficiaries», in order to imply that organisations are taking a participatory approach: Programme participants are decisive in identifying the needs and approaches for the programmes. Many of our partners are already working with such a participatory human rights-based approach. [2] 1) Lead strategically 2) ensure financial stability 3) be an ambassador 4) support and supervise executive management 5) ensure good governance

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