At a time when they are most needed, many social impact organizations must close or limit their operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They are doing what is best to keep the most vulnerable communities safe. But at what cost? Communities that rely on them will go without essential nutrients, medicine, education and basic supplies to sustain their families.

As a social impact organization ourselves, we are focused on increasing the capacity of other under-resourced, impact-oriented teams. In light of this new crisis, we spoke with and surveyed over 500 social impact leaders across the world to understand how the pandemic has affected their operations; this is what they said: 

  • They are shifting focus to respond to COVID-19. Organizations that normally provide medical services, medicine, daily supplies and food are now shifting to educate communities about public health. Hand washing stations, public health flyers, masks, sanitizers and other personal protection equipment (PPE) are now their main focus. However, supplies, funds and communication channels are more limited than ever before.
  • Lack of PPE & delivery alternatives are leading to closures. Social distancing does not allow for business as usual, especially when services and supplies are delivered in-person and in large groups. Most organizations do not have the training or PPE to transition to safe delivery methods, so they have closed. Organizations that do have the know-how are limited in PPE supplies and funding, and may soon close as well.
  • Communication and delivery strategies are limited. Most organizations are no longer able to communicate with their beneficiaries because they serve communities where personal internet access is very expensive. Internet cafes are closed, and delivery services do not exist. Organizations are also struggling to navigate the new world of remote work. Some have started using social media.
  • Funding is more severely constrained than ever before. Primary fundraising events are cancelled and potential partnerships are at a standstill.
  • It is unclear if beneficiaries are receiving accurate information about COVID-19. Organizations rely on information from social media, WHO and the government; yet inaccurate posters are leading to false information and are perpetuating misinformation. Reflecting on Ebola, leaders expressed that “many people died during the Ebola crisis because of rumors and because they did not take [precautions] seriously.”
  • They are operating in the dark. Organizations are unsure how long this will last, so they do not know how to prepare or continue doing work. They also have no idea as to how other organizations are responding, preparing or adapting to this crisis.  Funders have not provided guidance or assurance of their support. 

The survey collected responses from individuals, dedicated to social impact, in 67 countries —with the largest percentage coming from Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

Despite the frustration and confusion, organizations also expressed many opportunities:

  • They are learning how to operate in a digital world. Organizations are thinking about how this environment can be used as a way to automate and streamline some of their original offline processes. For example, some have begun to transition costly in-person training to an online format. Others seek mentorship from experts to provide knowledge and services to their beneficiaries. Teachers now take training to lead their classrooms online.
  • More volunteers are needed and many are eager to get involved. Organizations are facing a decrease in number of volunteers and an increased demand. At the same time, over 70% of  PhilU users expressed interest in volunteering for a social impact organization. Globally, many students and professionals who have been forced out of school and their offices find themselves with more time and interest in supporting their local community.
  • They want to connect with other organizations. Organizations want to learn how others are preparing, reacting and strategizing during COVID-19. They also know that there are opportunities to support each other by sharing supplies and knowledge and consolidating efforts to serve more beneficiaries.

We also looked into the market to understand how other organizations are providing support during this crisis:

  • Free MOOCs for all ages: Coursera, EdX, Scholastic and many other MOOCs opened all courses and specializations to all users. They’ve also teamed up with Johns Hopkins to publish a free course on COVID-19 and Epidemiology. Scholastic published a children’s series on COVID-19 courses as well.
  • Funded global idea challenges and hackathons: The Gates Foundation, Wellcome & Mastercard partnered to launch a $125 million accelerator to fund promising COVID-19 drug treatments. IDEO and MIT also launched global challenges for teams to pitch ideas and earn grants to bring them to reality. The World Health Organization, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and other leading startups partnered to launch a global COVID-19 Hackathon.
  • Public data on COVID-19: Johns Hopkins & Tableau partnered to publish live dashboards and data visualizations for any organization to access and disseminate to their communities.
  • Crowdsource funding platforms: GoFundMe & Yelp partnered to create community fund platforms for ALL business on Yelp.
  • Corporate funds: Candid published a list of new funds created to fight COVID-19. Facebook, Netflix and Tencent are among many corporations to commit $100mm+.

As a team, we reviewed our research and decided to focus on 3 challenges areas:

    • How might we empower organizations to shift their operational strategies to work and deliver services virtually?
    • How might we enable organizations to more easily access with funding and resources?
    • How might we foster meaningful connections among social impact organizations to foster knowledge and resource sharing? 

Our brainstorm resulted in the following ideas we have already begun building:

  • Job board: Connecting trained volunteers with organizations
  • New COVID-19 mini-courses:
  • COVID-19 Slack community: Mobile-friendly community forum for discussion related to COVID-19
  • COVID-19 resource page: Resources aggregated by the Philanthropy U team
  • COVID-19 community challenge: Social impact leaders sharing and discussing ideas and strategies they have employed to transition to offering services remotely or more safely during COVID-19
  • COVID-19 marketplace: Empowering local organizations to request and offer support to one another

We will continue to update our own COVID-19 page as new content and resources become available. If you are interested in financially supporting PhilU’s response efforts, please contact us.

April 2, 2020

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