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What we have learned about how NGOs are managing during COVID-19

June 22, 2020

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Chris Proulx

Chief Growth Officer, US

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the nonprofit sector in new and unprecedented ways. As a regular convener of NGO leaders and operations professionals across the globe, I have learned what is keeping global development professionals up at night. For the last three months, we have held nearly 40 roundtables with our members around COVID-19. Twelve of these roundtables were specifically with senior leaders. Through conversations with various organizations, I’ve figured out many are facing the same issues, and some were surprising to hear.

The good news is, working together, we have the tools and collective knowledge to not only survive but thrive post-pandemic. I’m sharing what I’ve heard and observed –and suggested solutions shared by members in these peer-to-peer exchanges –so that we can all bounce forward together.

1. This one is no surprise – many organizations are struggling with financial sustainability because of decreased revenue. So, how are they responding? In the US, based on results from our roundtable discussions, the most common cost-cutting measure includes freezing recruitment (80%), with 15% implementing layoffs/furloughs but increasingly organizations are considering reducing employee pay. In the UK, Bond reports that over 60% of NGOs have already reduced their staffing levels as the sector is more vulnerable to immediate drops in income from charitable giving and enterprise revenue.

Resources: We recently ran a webinar on financial management challenges in the COVID-19 environment, focused on the East Africa region. We are also working with clients to strengthen their sustainability plans with training and consultancy.

2. NGOs struggled with adapting their programmatic and financial plans within the structure of their donor agreements—which in many cases were too restrictive for the context of the pandemic response. Together with Bond and Interaction, we advocated jointly with USAID and DFID to help them adapt their policies to provide implementing partners with more flexibility. This has led to an increased ability of NGOs to re-program funds, keep key country staff employed, and meet where possible their original programmatic commitments.

3. Moving to an all-virtual work environment for organizations with an office-based culture was difficult—with policy, process, and technology all lagging behind the need. By mid-March, over 60% of organizations polled were implementing mandatory work from home measures, with the majority of others recommending voluntary work from home. Only 5% of those polled had made no changes to their operating environment. Our recent surveys indicate that NGOs in the US will be slow to embrace a return to the office. Over 50% have plans to return to the office between September and December and another 25% still do not have firm dates for the return of staff to the workplace.

Resources: Humentum members, staff and partners have put together a broad set of resources and support for organizations in this area. Members, check out our virtual library on Humentum Connect around remote work and this boot camp on HLS Explore. Members and HLS subscribers, explore HLS recordings featuring remote work, remote culture, and virtual meeting icebreakers. Members and non-members, check out our COVID-themed blogs many of which address remote work best practices.

4. Fundraising and business development approaches are responding to a rapidly changing funding environment. As noted already, our UK members are experiencing immediate and steep declines in their incomes, as reported by Bond. In the US, our spot poll of business development leads paint a different story. Over 2/3 are reporting that they submitted the same or more proposals in the past three months compared with last year. And despite the fact that increased uncertainty about the future was reported, only 25% of the respondents expect to make significant changes to their business development strategies.

Resource: Looking for revenue ideas, Mighty Ally has some great idea starters. We also led a webinar around resource mobilization in the African context with ideas relevant globally.

5. Projects need to be re-planned and re-scoped either address to COVID-19 needs or respond to constraints and changes to projects. Organizations are re-programming for numerous reasons—at the request (and sometimes demand) of a host country or donor, as a voluntary organizational decision, or often a combination of both. In addition, we are hearing from members that COVID-19 left NGOs unprepared to move a significant amount of program delivery or program management to digital approaches.

Resources: Humentum has hosted a webinar on program management challenges. We have specific support and approaches designed for project adaptation and project rescue. Furthermore, we have been meeting a surge in demand for our online Project DPro training in response to organizations adapting to the needs. This recent opinion piece in Devex on accelerating digital transformation is an important read.

6. We have all been learning to lead through a crisis, where the level of uncertainty has outpaced our regular business continuity plans. It has been amazing to watch our community come together each week, in online roundtables and in our discussion forums, to support each other with data, their approaches to new challenges, and the sharing of resources. At the start of COVID-19, in mid-March, 53% of organizations polled indicated that their business continuity plans (BCP) were fit for purpose, while 47% said they were not fit for purpose or they didn’t have a BCP at all. You can find support for business continuity planning here.

7. Many organizations are assessing the longer-term implications, these include:

  • – Operating models – do we need large HQ offices?
  • – Funding streams – how does COVID-19 affect institutional funding and individual giving?
  • – Localization – the crisis has highlighted that relying on expats and third-country nationals is unsustainable.

There is also the question of how COVID-19 will accelerate digital transformation. All of the above are poised to accelerate disruption in our sector.

Yet at the same time, organizations are challenged with planning well into the future. In fact, one of our spot-polls indicated that only 9% of NGOs were planning for beyond 12 months from now. We are also examining the need for greater diversity and inclusion in international development to ensure power is put in the hands of communities as opposed to traditional INGOs and donors.

We are thinking deeply and writing about these issues, and continue to pay close attention to what others are doing in this space as well. Please reach out to discuss your concerns and plans.

Resource: how to get started with virtual strategic planning and interview with OpEx Africa Online keynote speaker, Pape Gaye on why the sector can’t go on like this. For more on re-imagining the power dynamics in our sector, we recommend Healing Solidarity and Pop Works Africa.

We encourage you to review our curated library of links to survey results, webinar recordings and member blog posts related to COVID-19.

Humentum is here to assist organizations working for social good any way we can. Learn more about specific COVID-19 solutions we can offer here or contact us today. We are here to help!