Published on:

May 14, 2020

With over five million cases and no indication of a global slow-down, COVID-19 is a wrecking ball that is tearing through society and showing no signs of slowing down. Civil society has not been spared.

Many nonprofit organisations have sent out notices informing partners that key events, services or practices are suspended until further notice. The message is that the work will mostly continue in some form and that measures have been taken to protect core teams, but for the most part organisations have been forced to suspend several major activities altogether. To prevent the complete collapse of key civil society programmes at a time when they are needed most, donors and philanthropists must remain creative and flexible during this upheaval.

The COVID-19 crisis is likely causing donors a great deal of anxiety, casting doubt on their grantees’ current and future plans. So much of the systemic response to COVID-19 has focused on saving business and industry on tax breaks and business support but much less talk about keeping Africa’s day-to-day workers alive. It is unclear how the developing world will survive a crisis that has brought rich countries to their knees, so instead of contracting support for African civil societies, partners and donors must expand their work. A robust and supported civic society that speaks for the most vulnerable in society is more crucial than ever.

Precisely because these are unprecedented events, there is no clear path for measuring impact while programmes and projects are being so fundamentally disrupted. As the CEO of are granting organization that provides funding for smaller community organisations in Southern Africa, I am witnessing this operational disruption. We raise funds for smaller organisations, and they depend on our activities to sustain theirs. But we have had to cancel many flagship events that not only help us raise funds to sustain, but acknowledge the work of our community partners. So how can we we fulfill our mission of strengthening the voice and agency of poor people in the policy process aimed at reducing poverty and inequality? The elite consensus that has sustained our social and economic system is fraying and showing us how inequality creates major vulnerabilities in moments like this. How can organisations like ours plan for life during and after COVID-19?

The simple answer is to find creative ways to keep civil society going in the countries that need them the most. Local civil society groups will be integral in keeping governments accountable and communities afloat. Donors must support the work, even if it is different from what was planned in the grant application.

In South Africa, civil society is already pushing for accountability, where for instance, before lockdown, OXFAM South Africa led a campaign and petition asking the government to use the South African Unemployment Investment Fund to compensate precarious workers during the corona virus outbreak.

Furthermore, when South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, first responded to market concerns and to concerns of the more affluent, a public outcry led by community groups pushed him to change tact. The progressive statement that  Ramaphosa finally delivered came from pressure by social movements, civil society and the public. Donors should pay attention to these efforts and seek out creative ways to sustain these partnerships, even when these may not be what the organisation had planned to do at the beginning of the year. Flexibility and ability to pivot plans is crucial.

It is worth noting that COVID-19 is another challenge for a civil society space that was already shrinking. Civil society groups in Africa were already struggling for funding as over the last several years donors  scaled back considerably. We already had minimal resources, reduced the number of staff, were no longer able to attract the best talent in the region, nor do the work of building robust civic engagement. The OECD noted that funding from philanthropic organisations stood at $24 billion in 2017, and out of that 28% went to Africa.However, the data doesn’t show that only 25% of this funding goes to organisations based in Africa. In fact, most of this funding comes from one organisation - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  

Philanthropy organisations must, therefore, be creative and flexible to protect the current gains and continue the work through these uncertain times. Donors should consider general support grants as these allow the different groups and social formations to use the grants flexibly. They must also provide additional resources for those working with marginalised and vulnerable communities. Precisely because these are uncertain times, they must be flexible, especially with existing grants and should consider re-purposing these grants. Delays will happen, so funders should consider cost extensions to allow CSOs the ability to respond to emergencies.

Governments have been clear on support that will go to business in these difficult times, and that is laudable, but there is not much clarity on assisting low-wage and informal workers. We need community-based responses to the skyrocketing unemployment, and support for resilience. Philanthropic organisations can play a big part by granting more resources to organisations that support the causes of precarious workers, informal traders and communities living in poorer areas.

COVID-19 has reminded us just how much inequality aggravates crises. Without comprehensive community programmes for the working class, the battle to ‘flatten the curve’ will be lost. Considering that community responses were already in peril due to the funding environment, funders must, in addition to being flexible increase support to front line organisations to enhance our global capacity to respond. Now is a time for flexibility, understanding and generosity to help our communities survive.


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