As countries around the world begin preparing for the long-term consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic recession, local grassroots organisations are stepping in to fill gaps where government response has fallen short. Often the only trusted source of support in their communities, grassroots leaders have taken on the role of emergency responders and coordinators, shouldering the immediate responsibilities of many, even as they pivot their own work to address new challenges and future needs.
In this rapidly evolving pandemic and its response, philanthropy must reimagine their existing systems and evolve them just as quickly as grassroots needs are shifting. We already know that life will not be the same in the wake of COVID 19 – and neither should the systems that were in place. This is a critical time for philanthropic institutions to recognise and support community-led social-change efforts through the lens of trust-based philanthropy, whether those are providing access to safe livelihood opportunities, access to hygiene and healthcare, or education.
Now, more than ever, here are three places we as funders need to start:
1. Cut out red tape. Funders need to re-examine what they are asking of their grantee partners, in light of restrictive environments and new challenges posed by the pandemic.
Expecting grassroots organisations to follow through on unrealistic – and often unnecessary – requirements not only creates an added level of bureaucracy in their rapidly changing work, but also places them at great risk for contracting the virus in their efforts to meet donor demands.
COVID-19 movement restrictions have placed an extra burden on grassroots organisations as they strive to address health, hygiene, and livelihoods concerns in their communities. Donor expectations for grassroots organisations to continue business as usual are unrealistic and set in mindsets of the past: reporting along the same timelines, participating in organisational audits, or supplying documentation from government entities that have effectively paused their work. These are real issues grassroots organisations are facing right now, forcing them to make difficult decisions about providing critical support to their communities, taking care of their staff’s health and wellbeing, and ensuring their sustainability.
Instead, we need to consider informal or creative forms of information sharing and reporting, ask grantees what works best for them, and look at how peer funders are rethinking old practices for new ones that are empathy-based and constituent-driven.
2. Give flexibly and generously. This is not the time to re-strategise or pause philanthropic giving. This is the time to renew existing commitments and increase the flexible support that grassroots organisations need now more than ever.
We know there will be an increase in early marriage, trafficking, and child labor worldwide as livelihoods are affected and household incomes decimated. In Bangladesh, one of the biggest suppliers to the global apparel industry, which employs over 4 million people, an estimated 1 million garment factory workers have already lost their jobs, putting a large population already living below the poverty line out of safe employment. Across the border, in India, over 100 million people have lost their livelihoods since the country entered a state of lockdown in late March. As families consider alternative sources of livelihoods, grassroots organisations are preparing to tackle increasing dropout rates for children in schools, particularly among girls, as parents begin to prioritise work over education.
Philanthropic entities need to recognise that their actions right now have a very real and rapid effect on how the world shapes up. This is the time to stand by grantee partners, committing to providing long-term flexible funds – to be used wherever they are needed most – and recognising that a new reality is emerging in which grassroots work will be even more critical.
3. Imagine new futures together. It is critical for funders to support grantee partners in creating realistic contingency plans that imagine a new future instead of advocating for a return to the past.
Donor-driven practices over many decades have led to a power imbalance between donors and grantees, oftentimes also leading to an unhealthy hierarchy between the grantees and their constituents. This is an opportunity to co-create and reimagine a new, more equitable, human-centred, collaborative future that transforms the way communities function, and, in turn, unleash new ideas and build new systems. By seizing this opportunity to shift the power now, we can create more equal relationships among every participant in the social-change process for the future. We can use this moment to better support local organisations in the long term, as they promote human rights and strengthen democracies.
We at Global Fund for Children are using this time to reflect on our work, and to listen carefully to our grassroots partners through intentionally convened groups and conversations. We are committed to evolving with them, even as we continue to support them in their current efforts to provide much-needed care to their communities, their families, and their teams. We recognise that trust-based relationships – between donors and grantees, among peer organisations, between government and non-government entities, among community members – will be the foundation of any effective collaborative effort, now and in the future, as we all seek to create a healthy and safe world for children and youth.
Kulsoom Khan is the Regional Director for Asia at Global Fund for Children.