How are NGOs coping with the impacts of COVID-19

June 16, 2020

Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 

COVID-19 has impacted billions of lives around the globe. Governments, individuals, businesses, and civil society organizations are battling to save lives, support families, and keep businesses, and organisations afloat. During these unprecedented times, the role of NGOs has become paramount in combating the coronavirus and its impact on society’s most vulnerable populations, especially in countries and regions where government services are struggling.

From TolaData’s conversations with clients and other NGOs, we are hearing many reflections on how organisations are coping with the impacts of the novel coronavirus, its implications on the economy and their aid efforts.

The organisations we have spoken with all agreed that the strain from the novel coronavirus has been immense. The pandemic has impacted all aspects of their work – from running programs, planning finances, coordinating staff to how they collaborate with partners and stakeholders situated across the globe. However, many NGOs also said the challenges were paving the way for new opportunities and innovative ways of working in the sector – a chance to renew how we tackle global problems together as a community.

Innovative management approaches and project adaptation

Many NGOs have been compelled to redesign or pivot their projects to respond to the rapidly changing landscape caused by COVID-19. Assessments on the challenges faced by communities in light of the pandemic inform how organisations are adjusting objectives and implementation strategies for 2020 and possibly beyond. Fortunately, many donors are easing their protocols to allow implementing partners to redirect their funding and program activities to the COVID-19 response.

We are seeing donors offering greater flexibility to partner organisations. USAID, for example, is permitting organisations (on a case-by-case basis) the ability to do no-cost extensions on existing projects and introducing new emergency measures like online reporting mechanisms to simplify administration during the pandemic. Anja Schermer, Managing Director at the Sarah Wiener Stiftung agrees that this kind of adaptation and flexibility is critical in these difficult times.

“We had intense discussions with our major donor whether delivering training online (instead of face-to-face) would be considered as having fulfilled our pre-agreed activities. In the end, they agreed, which was a great relief for us.”

- Anja Schermer, Managing Director of Sarah Wiener Stiftung

It is likely however that project work not related to COVID-19 may be put on hold or scaled back due to implementation constraints and financial limitations. This could lead to some major setbacks in our collective ambitions under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many people anticipate huge ripple effects from this crisis in the medium to long term that we can only begin to grasp at the moment.

To rise to these challenges, we need to be creative and perhaps, question some of the traditional approaches and take risks in order to find the right solutions. We have heard many organisations are leveraging technology to continue the implementation of their project activities. With this in mind, we can see the many opportunities at hand for the development sector to advance in the digital sphere.

Remote working has become the new norm

Many organisations are embracing new styles of working, communicating and collaborating. Remote working and home-office have swiftly become the new norm with a growing reliance on the web, cloud-based platforms and new technologies to support projects, staff and communities across the world. With this new trend, many are questioning whether offices are even needed anymore.

“We’re very happy that we transferred the majority of our processes to the cloud already last year - I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for organisations at the moment that have to change both their processes and the content of their programs at the same time”.

- Anja Schermer, Managing Director of Sarah Wiener Stiftung​​

Changes to Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) approaches

According to the World Bank, M&E has a critical role to play during COVID in assessing the continued appropriateness of an organisation’s response to the pandemic. However, with travel restrictions, lockdown, and health concerns, M&E cannot be carried out the same way as before. Many organisations have acknowledged the need for a restructured and adaptive M&E, safe data gathering practices, and methods of verification and evidence that can be submitted and stored virtually.

Reliance on digital technology and innovative approaches is increasing, from digital data collection devices and applications, including mobile phone-based feedback mechanisms, to remote sensing with satellites, to software and platforms that allow for remote monitoring of data flows and sources. We are also seeing remote reporting and verification replacing in-person monitoring visits and assessments across the sector.

Will localization finally take the lead?

The limitations on the movement of aid workers means that international organisations and research institutions have to find ways to transfer more responsibilities, and decision-making into the hands of local staff and partners. Leveraging the power of the internet to implement programs remotely, the current circumstances are an opportunity to create a more flexible, collective and collaborative leadership and management.

Shifting to more locally led delivery which harnesses the in-country expertise has great potential to enhance the long term effectiveness of responses and contribute to the sustainability of programs. This can also create more inclusive and participatory forms of governance. Many hope that this will encourage open dialogue and reinforce local and national action wherever possible.

Rethinking financial models

The financial ramifications of COVID-19 for the sector are huge, with global economic uncertainty, cancellations of fundraising events and delays or loss of new grants. Big organisations are downsizing and smaller organisations face an even bleaker future without new financial support to ensure the continuation of their work. There is a challenge ahead that might ask us to re-evaluate traditional business models and diversify income streams, and perhaps this offers opportunities to build new alliances between NGOs and between sectors.

Having said this, new funding opportunities are being made available for the not-for-profit sector. According to the New Humanitarian, many public and private donors have pledged billions in international aid to support NGOs and the focus is now on ensuring that these resources reach those in need as quickly as possible.

This is just a slice of the bigger conversations that are happening across the globe on how the development sector is adapting during these unprecedented times. Hope you found it helpful. If you or your organization have any ideas, lessons, or insights to add, do write to us and we would be happy to keep this discussion going.

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