Philanthropic organisations, companies and individuals have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to Covid-19 relief efforts since the pandemic struck. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy in the United States, together with non-profit organisation Candid, tracked $12.4 billion of global spent on coronavirus relief up to mid-July. Direct corporate giving accounted for 65%of the tracked contributions.

In South Africa, by mid-July, the Solidarity Fund had raised R2.9 billion, with 94% (R2.8 billion) coming from companies and foundations, 3% from individuals (R77.9 million) and the balance from payroll giving and other contributors.

On 23 July 2020, responsible business consultancy Trialogue hosted a webinar on what corporate South Africa could learn from philanthropy’s response to Covid-19, with panellists Sarah Rennie (Chairperson: Independent Philanthropy Association of South Africa (IPASA))Noxolo Hlongwane (Head: Philanthropy: Nedbank Private Wealth) and Vuyiswa Sidzumo (Senior Program Officer, Ford Foundation) sharing experiences and insights. 


Faster, more responsive giving

As government did not announce a Covid-19 relief package for the more than 230 000 non-profit organisations (NPOs) working in the sector, philanthropists stepped in to ensure their sustainability at this crucial time. Rennie drew attention to emergency funds launched to support NPOs by the Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa (CAFSA), The Mergon Foundation, and the Oppenheimer Generations Foundation. However, she pointed out that all forms of philanthropy have responded “in a bold and immediate way” to the crisis, despite constraints.

While the initial response focused on the medical emergency, subsequent responses have included rolling out food parcels and vouchers, topping up emergency grants relating to data and cleaning, and seeing foundations shift to their particular focus areas (like gender-based violence for the Ford Foundation) to support existing partners in new ways. A key challenge for foundations has been how to make difficult decisions with limited resources, given numerous requests to support non-profits, SMMEs, entrepreneurs, schools, communications campaigns and more.

Nedbank Private Wealth, which invests in education, chose to remain within its core focus area, although the Nedbank Group has assisted in terms of healthcare and food security. “We had the opportunity to support one of our existing partners, the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), who needed to pivot to provide support for educators and learners at home,” said Hlongwane. “The risk of doing nothing during the pandemic was always going to have greater consequences than taking a risk, being pushed out of our comfort zone, and strengthening our support to our partner as they curated content for distribution via alternative channels like TV, radio and WhatsApp.” She added that this adjustment involved “trusting our partner a lot more, shifting more power to them, and letting them take the lead”.

Greater flexibility and unrestricted funding

Sidzumo shared that the Ford Foundation had spearheaded the Philanthropy Pledge, in partnership with other foundations and the Council of Foundations, in terms of which almost 800 organisations all over the world committed to providing more flexible funding and quicker administration during the pandemic. General funding already made up over 70% of the Ford Foundation’s giving, and this has been expanded during the pandemic, enabling it to deepen its response to grantees. It was most concerned about cushioning organisations that were likely to struggle, particularly those working in human rights, advocacy, and at community level where women were on the frontline of the response. It also made once-off grants as part of a broader humanitarian response.

“Our turnaround time improved greatly – in some instances, we were able to support our partners with up to $250 000 in grant increases within a week, enabling them to respond to various needs like food security, health, and so on,” Sidzumo said. She added that the Ford Foundation also relaxed its reporting requirements: “We were conscious of not being a nuisance to partners – we were flexible if they could not report by a particular date.”

Building resilience in the non-profit sector >

The pandemic appears to have accelerated a trend towards less restrictive funding and helping organisations to build capacity. “We need to be more deliberate about building internal resilience within organisations,” said Hlongwane. “We shouldn’t just focus on programmes without helping organisations to build the systems and processes that will enable them to respond better to disasters. I hope that the practices we have been pushed towards will stay with us and we will continue to advocate for those that empower organisations and communities.” Part of this process is reflecting on how to strategically redeploy funding to allow NPOs and communities to strengthen themselves.

Sidzumo said that the Ford Foundation has been advocating for more general support pursuant to its BUILD programme, which advocates for greater organisational resiliency. This typically takes the form of larger grants of longer duration (typically five years) and enables, among other things, organisational mapping and institutional strengthening.

Listening, collaborating, and advocating

“The responsibility I have given myself as someone who works for a grantmaking organisation is listening more, which is something I’ve been doing for the past few months, and I want to continue to do that, because we can’t afford to get it wrong,” Sidzumo explained. She suggested that allowing oneself to be vulnerable, and admitting one does not have all the answers, makes it easier to reach out to and work with others. “This is an opportunity to reframe the world as we know it,” she pointed out.

Hlongwane said that the crisis has provided an opportunity for donors to “come together with an advocacy voice when tackling big, audacious goals like making digital learning widely accessible”, adding that NECT was obliged to reach out to learners through those platforms that were most accessible. She asserted that it is necessary to rethink and redesign programmes to make them future-fit: “Organisations need to lead conversations about investing in systems and processes – donors are open to this.”

Rennie said that engaging with partners to better understand context and particularities will allow one to build greater trust – a vital component of long-term relationships. However, to continue to remain relevant, all organisations should consider a strategy refresh, even if only through a ‘quick and dirty’ process that will allow them to refocus more effectively. This will help companies to better understand what their funding flows will look like – something one should communicate to one’s partner NPOs early on. “Your reputation will take a knock if you over-commit and under-deliver to NPOs,” Rennie warned. “Also, encourage your partners to cost-save, as budgets will be under pressure for some time to come.”

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