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How non-government organizations (NGOs) can manage the impacts of COVID-19

By: Alex Gooding

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As the world responds to COVID-19’s terrible toll, millions of people’s lives have been upended. As countries try to contain the virus, businesses and other organizations have closed, suspended or radically altered their activities.

Almost all community, social and cultural activities have also come to an abrupt halt as social distancing and isolation kicks in. While it’s the cancellations of the big events which have attracted the most attention, thousands of local fetes, markets, concerts, sporting events, performances, exhibitions and other activities put on by small non-government organizations (NGOs) have suffered the same fate.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working with several local groups as they have gone through the difficult task of shuttering projects or postponing events which have taken months or even years to develop. While this can never be a pleasant process it can be made a little smoother with some planning, so I’ve turned what I’ve learnt into a COVID-19 NGO Pause Strategy which may be helpful to other organizations. I’ve also included some ideas on how to continue some activities online.

This article is broken down into the following sections:

  1. Taking stock
  2. Implementing online services
  3. Closing or postponing activities
  4. Planning for the future

I’ll be using some MindManager mind maps to help outline the steps involved. MindManager is a great tool for supporting this process, but you can develop your own strategy without using mind mapping software.

Before we start there are a just a few points I want to make. The first is that it’s fine to feel a bit scared both by the virus and also by the uncertain situation we’ve all been plunged into. You should also not feel any guilt for being unprepared, most organizations large and small are in the same boat and there is no script for this situation.

Second, nobody can predict the future course of the virus but the current crisis will end eventually. As well as planning for the day your organization can resume operations, you could also use this period of enforced downtime to achieve some positive outcomes, for example, by reviewing your organization’s direction and priorities, or supporting your staff to take online courses.

Finally, if you have maintained some activities online perhaps you might look at whether you want to make these changes permanent. We’re all looking forward to the world after Coronavirus, and we need to plan for it too.

1. Taking stock

Alex Gooding - Taking Stock

Ensure basic administrative capacity (even if you decide to cease operations)

The first step is ensuring your organization has at least minimal administrative capability throughout the crisis. Even if you decide to postpone or cancel all your activities, you will need some ability to deal with emergencies and urgent inquiries. You may also need to brief the media about your closure and alternative arrangements (if any) for your users, clients or audiences, and to maintain some social media presence.

There may also be other legal and administrative requirements during this period such as Board elections, or audits for funding or tax authorities. Your organization’s buildings or equipment may require regular maintenance even if they aren’t being used.
Ensure you have updated contact details for all staff, volunteers and board members and implement one of the many free or low-cost applications for online meetings, bearing in mind that you may have to provide some basic training. You should also be aware of the security issues involved in using these programs.

Check whether your organization’s constitution and the laws and regulations in your jurisdiction say anything about online meetings and develop a set of guidelines for conducting such meetings.

Review all activities

Once you have secured your organization’s basic administrative capacity, you should take stock of all your current and planned activities at least to the end of 2020, and then make a decision on how to proceed with each of them.

This time frame might sound pessimistic, but at this stage we have no real idea how long the crisis will last. Even if they are scheduled well into the future, preparation for larger projects is likely to be affected by an extended period of restrictions.

You then need to prioritize the list of activities. In doing so you need to consider these key questions:

  1. Is this an essential service involving face-to-face contact which you need to continue providing through the crisis?
  2. If so, how will you ensure the safety of staff, volunteers and participants?
  3. If the activity isn’t essential (and you want to continue providing it) can in be provided online or remotely in some other way?
  4. If you can’t provide the activity do you want to postpone it until after the crisis or cancel it altogether?

The first two questions are the most critical. What is considered essential will vary by country, region and city and will be different for each organization, but it’s likely to be most applicable to larger NGOs that provide key health or welfare services.

Given the range of policies and issues involved, it’s not possible to provide any further advice on the provision of essential services here except to say that any NGOs in this position should work in close consultation with the relevant government and health authorities and follow all relevant laws and regulations. For the rest of this article I’ll concentrate mainly on the responses to the last two questions which are most likely to concern smaller organizations.

2. Implementing online services

If you would like to maintain your activity online, you need to explore the different service models available. Whatever approach you take is likely to involve setting up working from home arrangements.

Alex Gooding - Implementing Online Services

Develop or review your Working from Home (WFH) policy

Working from home is a good deal easier if your organization currently provides staff and volunteers with laptops or tablets. If not, you should consider supplying personnel with at least a basic level of equipment or support them to use their own devices.

Whatever approach you adopt you will have to ensure that the relevant software and apps installed, as well as adequate security and virus protection.

These are some of the issues that should be addressed in your organization’s WFH policy – and if you don’t have one, now is the time to develop it. This should also cover aspects such as working hours, reporting protocols and minimum standards for home work spaces.

Many WFH policies also mandate inspections of these spaces before approval. In the current crisis that may not be possible, but one alternative is to request that people working from home supply a photo of their workspace.

Don’t forget the little things in this process. Ensure that your staff’s office phones are diverted to their mobile phones and, likewise, that they can send and receive work-related emails and messages at home. You will also need to set up a robust and secure online meeting facility.

Your staff and volunteers will require adequate training and support, especially if they are new to online working. And, if your location is already in some form of lock down, this will have to be provided online. Are there documents and other files on your office server that they will need when working from home? If so you will need to provide access to the server, or place these materials in a secure location online.

More broadly, you need to consider the health and welfare of your staff and volunteers. Some will relish working from home, while others may find the experience strange and stressful. Many will have little choice but to work around distractions such as the presence of children who are unable to attend school or childcare, or partners who are also working from home. You will also need to take into account the requirements of industrial pay awards, union agreements and staff contracts.

Explore service models

It’s difficult to provide advice on the types of online service you should consider as these will vary greatly depending on the activity you want to provide. But, these are a few ideas to consider in the selection process.

As well as looking for the feature set best suited to your audience and the wider community, you also need to consider cost and ease of use, as well as security and confidentiality provisions. If there are different price levels, you should look not only at what each offers, but also how easy it is to scale up (or down).

Develop an implementation strategy

Once you have selected a suitable model, your organization’s staff or volunteers will have to be selected and trained to operate the new service, which may have to be done online. Even if you are not hosting the new service directly, you should integrate it into your website and develop a social media marketing strategy to promote it.

When the service is up and running you should monitor the delivery process and the outcomes. This information will help to inform your decisions about the future direction of the project after the end of the crisis.

3. Closing or postponing activities

Alex Gooding - Closing and Postponing Activities

Issues to consider

While some activities can be provided online, many NGOs will have to pause their activities at least for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. This applies particularly to any major events that your organization may have been planning right up until the end of the year.

Just as creating a new project works best with a strategic approach, so does the hard task of closing one down. As with all of the responses I’m discussing, MindManager can be useful in developing such a strategy.

The first step is to analyze the impacts on the users, clients or audience, depending on the activity type. While postponing or cancelling the event will hardly be a surprise in the current circumstances, they will naturally be disappointed.

Just as important is the impact on the staff and volunteers involved, many of whom will have worked extremely hard to on developing the project. You are likely to face the difficult task of standing down some employees, at least until the deferred activity can take place. In some countries and regions there may be special funding support either directly payable to them or to you as an employer to retain their services.

Regardless, affected employees are likely to need emotional support. While you may not have a financial commitment to affected volunteers, you do have a moral obligation to them.

You also need to list all the contractual arrangements you have already committed to and funds you may have already expended for performers, other contractors, leases, equipment hire and materials purchase. Then you should list all of your sources of funding – grants, loans, donations and ticket sales – and the conditions attached to these.

Next to each item you should list the nature and extent of the commitment and whether it can be refunded or deferred. Talk to the people responsible for each item. Bear in mind that everyone is now in the same boat and items that were normally considered non-refundable or unable to be deferred may now be seen in a different light.

Alternatively, you might be able to work out a deal. For example, if your graphics designer has already completed the artwork for a now cancelled event, they might agree to alter the design at no extra cost for a postponed date next year. Other contractors may also be happy to defer completing their work until a future date.

If you were planning to hold a live performance or an exhibition, there are special considerations. While most performers and artists would prefer a postponement rather than a cancellation, some may already have commitments up to a year out. If you were planning on featuring performers from overseas, the situation is particularly problematic as travel restrictions are likely to remain long after other social distancing rules are eased. This may make it difficult to reschedule your event with exactly the same line up.

In relation to funding, it’s likely, given the circumstances, that most grant bodies and donors will vary the requirements for project completion. In fact, your organization may be eligible for special grants and other financial assistance being provided by some governments in response to the crisis.

The situation with ticket holders is more complex. One option is to advise them that refunds are available, but as an alternative, they can simply transfer their tickets to the postponed event date, or even provide the ticket price as a donation.

Budgetary impacts

Sadly, there will be a hit on the budget for almost every project as a result of COVID-19. Small NGOs are particularly vulnerable as, by their nature, they often plan for a break-even result rather than a profit, and they often have only a small amount set aside for contingencies.

There is a further complication for event-based activities. Budget-setting will have involved modelling a range of assumptions regarding ticket sales and other income against anticipated costs. In a post-COVID world these assumptions will have to be reassessed as increased unemployment levels are likely to linger. On the other hand, there will probably be a hunger for live performance after weeks or months of social distancing rules.

All NGOs will have to re-evaluate the budget for each activity and the impacts of either postponing the activity or cancelling it completely. This process will have to take into account all the contractual and other financial obligations that you have just identified. Difficult as this task is likely to be, the revised budget will be a critical factor in determining the future of each activity.

Timing options

After evaluating these issues, NGOs have to determine the fate of each of their activities. As noted under Taking Stock, the main choice is obviously whether to postpone the activity (either as originally planned or with modifications) or to cancel it entirely. If the decision is to delay the activity, the NGO needs to consider carefully whether it wishes to nominate a specific date or opt for an indefinite postponement. The former will appear more attractive but faces the uncertainty of how long the crisis will last.

There is another, less tangible factor which all NGOs should think about – the contribution their activities could make in healing post-COVID communities. On the one hand, this could sway some organizations to postpone rather cancel, even if there are concerns about project viability, because they believe that their project will play an important role in this process. On the other, some NGOs may decide to cancel their activities entirely because they wish to start afresh with projects which may be more relevant “on the other side”.

Developing a strategy to postpone/cancel activities

The organization now has to develop a strategy to implement the decision it has made about cancellation or postponement. Using the mind map or list that was developed in assessing the issues, the first step is to inform all stakeholders, starting with the NGO’s own staff and volunteers, and fulfilling all the contractual, support and other obligations you identified.

Working through this list will take time, especially as you may have to negotiate terms with some of the parties. If there is any financial assistance available that your organization may qualify for, you should apply for that as soon as possible. You should also keep adjusting the project budget throughout this process.

Regardless of the decision you have made, you will need to make a public announcement as soon as possible about the future of all your activities (excluding any that you were yet to launch publicly). You should provide a simple factual statement on your website page, via social media and, if relevant, to local news outlets.

If you are postponing rather than cancelling activities, you will need to establish a process to restart the activity. In effect, this will become the new strategic plan for the delayed project. While ideally it should be based on the original strategic plan, the revised one will have to take into account the changes you have already made and those which you are likely to make in future as a result of COVID-19’s impact.

4. Planning for the future

While there is never a bright side to a tragedy as immense in its impact as COVID-19, this time of social distancing, self-isolation and quarantine can provide your organization with an opportunity to look at its role in a different light.

The board and staff could use the pause from everyday activity to reflect on the organization’s philosophies, values and priorities via a series of online meetings. You could build on this by bringing forward the development of a new strategic plan for the organization, perhaps completing this as a team exercise online using tools like MindManager.

You could also use this time to brainstorm new ideas or to tackle some long-standing issues which have been stuck in the too-hard basket. Alternatively, you could research that long-term project you’ve been thinking about. Your organization’s documentation and protocols may need updating, or you could complete an inventory of your organization’s reference material and online resources.

Alex Gooding - Planning for the Future

Support staff and volunteers

You can also support your staff and volunteers by encouraging them to undertake online training in areas related to their work activities – and perhaps some that aren’t. Maintain team cohesion by setting up virtual social gatherings of staff, board members and volunteers. You could hold online one-on-one debriefing sessions with individual staff members. Above all, provide opportunities for your staff and volunteers to seek assistance if they need it.

Monitor WFH and online service delivery models used in the crisis

The COVID-19 shutdown has forced many organizations into what effectively is an experiment in fast-tracking the development and implementation of working from home and online service delivery strategies.

NGOs have a great opportunity to learn from this experiment. As well, monitoring the data generated by these systems relating to service usage and sending simple online surveys that can be distributed to users will help you gain additional feedback. Organizations can experiment by providing similar activities – say live music streaming – through different platforms and formats to see what works and what doesn’t. This data can be used to evaluate whether and how you should continue online delivery once the crisis is over.

Similarly, isolation is forcing many NGOs to initiate or massively increase the participation of their staff and volunteers in working from home arrangements. For many organizations this is turning out to be the most interesting aspect of all, reducing staff travel time, transforming meetings and providing a more transparent electronic record of processes and decisions. Whatever our world will look like after the COVID-19 crisis is over, many organizations won’t be going back to their old ways.


Note from the author: I would like to thank Rosemary Bishop, the CEO of 3Bridges Community Limited (located in Southern Sydney, Australia) for her insights.

About the Author: Alex Gooding is a governance and planning consultant based in the Blue Mountains 90 kilometres west of Sydney, Australia. He has been involved with various community and cultural NGOs for nearly 40 years.

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