Alexey Kozlov

Executive Director at Solidarus; Freies Russland, Berlin

Apr 13, 2020
NGOs Responses to Coronavirus Pandemic Spell Lasting Changes for the Sector

Alexey Kozlov is a veteran of the non-profit sector with over 25 years of experience focused on civil society, human rights and democratic development projects. He has been involved in establishing and developing NGOs in Russia, Lithuania and Germany. In Russia he worked at the Moscow Helsinki Group; participated in creation and coordinating the work of the Russia-EU Civil Society Forum, coordinated an international network of over 20 organizations from throughout the EU, Ukraine and Belarus. In this article, he shares his preliminary insight and some forecasts, based on an informal survey of ways NGOs in his sector have responded to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. 

Quarantine measures and other limitations imposed or suggested to various degrees all around the globe have pushed NGOs to adjust their modes of operations. The forced adjustments, however, are likely to be sustained even after the quarantine is lifted.

For some NGOs who had regularly used teleworking and online meeting tools prior to the pandemic, the transition has been fairly seamless.  For others, whose work mainly consisted of public events, partner facility visits, workshops and lectures – the pandemic turned out to be if not a catastrophe, then a serious challenge structurally, financially, as well as in tactical and strategic senses.

What are some of the key shifts that will characterize the NGO sector post-Coronavirus?

Notionally, we can divide most NGOs into three groups:

  1. NGOs with preexisting experience of doing the majority of their work remotely (with over 50% of its work meetings done by teleconference and other online tools, as well as relying on webinars for most of their outreach). This group is the smallest of all three. Out of the 50 partner organizations surveyed, only 2 belong to this group.
  2. NGOs with limited previous experience working remotely, but those who did so ad hoc, not in a systematic manner; however, this group has a general idea of how to organize and conduct this type of work.
  3. NGOs with no previous experience of telework.

Clearly, it is the NGOs from the second and third group that are facing the steepest learning curves and now have to quickly make a number of important calls on approaches, tools, their ability to work effectively in the new mode, as well as about the readiness of their workforce to transition to telework.

Employees and volunteers who are able to teach teleworking tools, offer technology troubleshooting assistance will take the spotlight and be high demand. For all NGOs the transition to working remotely has become a great stress-test of the quality of their IT support and computer literacy.

Trends with the Staying Potential:

  1. Higher proportion of employees and volunteers who mostly work remotely

Even after the quarantine measures are lifted, we should expect that a higher proportion of employees will continue to work remotely either some of the time or full-time. These are the employees and volunteers whose effectiveness has increased due to ability to telework, who find telework more convenient, but had been simply too afraid to try it before. Of course, there is still a risk that the work ethics, effectiveness and productivity of employees will decrease; the motivation of volunteers will drop; and organizational team cohesion will be affected negatively. Telework introduces new challenges related to the process of assuring quality of work and other management functions.  The coronavirus pandemic has offered an opportunity to test a new format, and for many it has been a reassuring experience that has dispelled the worst fears.

  1. Ability to Optimize Organizational Budgets through Cuts to Office and Travel Expenses

If all employees, or a larger portion of them, chose to continue working remotely after the pandemic, many organizations will be able to reduce their needs for physical office space. They would have an opportunity to lower their expenses related to renting office space, electrical and utility bills, cleaning and maintenance costs.  We are also likely to see a decline in the number of in-person meetings, both internal to organizations as well as among organizational partners, again allowing NGOs to optimize their business trip budgets and cut travel expenses.

  1. Selection Processes Transition Online

Many NGOs had moved the bulk of their selection processes online prior to the pandemic. This includes interviews of prospective employees, fellows, training workshop participants.  However, there has been a deep-seated distrust of virtual interviews and a perception that they do not offer the same ability to evaluate a candidate thoroughly.

Today, there is simply no other option. Even final interviews now are taking place remotely. It is likely that having tried it once, many managers will appreciate the convenience of teleconference interview and will be more trusting of this method moving forward. This, in turn, will allow to shorten the decision-making cycle for HR purposes, since a remote interview is much easier to set up than an in-person meeting.  Moreover, interviews conducted remotely significantly cut costs. Of course, further research is required to determine the impact on the quality of decisions, and some in-person meetings on sensitive and critically important issues will be reinstated. Nevertheless, the proportion of interviews done remotely will undoubtedly increase for the long-term.

  1. Better Regional Representation and Improved Participation for Activists from Rural and Remote Areas

As the telecommuting becomes more prevalent, activists’ ability to make a contribution or participate in important NGO processes will increase. Candidates from rural and remote areas who are unable or unwilling to relocate will see a palpable improvement in their options for employment or participating in term-projects. For the budget-sensitive NGO sector that rarely pays for relocation expenses, this is an especially poignant shift. Clearly, this does not apply to all NGOs, and there are exceptions.

  1. Growth in Importance of IT Support to Key NGO Functions

The development of IT support, its reliability and quality, will grow in importance for most NGOs. It is already possible to state with confidence that many NGOs will not be able to execute this transition independently, and we will see an increase in demand for outsourced support for digital transformation of non-profits. Likewise, the demand for expertise in digital transformation for NGOs will also grow.

  1. Growing Importance of Social Media and Online Branding

Most NGOs had been aware of the importance of their online positioning, branding and engagement throughout various social media platforms. In the post-pandemic world, 100% of organizations who work with external audiences will understand that a placeholder website is simply insufficient. It is likely that we will also see growth in the importance of online presence and engagement by NGO heads, leadership and project managers.

  1. Educational Projects and Training Moves Online

Within a year, a significant portion of training processes and educational programs will move online. The quarantine has already severely restricted in-person gatherings and forced institutions to aggressively pursue development of platforms and programs for distance education. It is likely that online schools will outgrow their current marginal status and emerge as a new prominent vector within the NGO sector.

  1. Emergence of New Remote Communication Systems and Methods, Remote Teambuilding

In the pre-Coronavirus world, colleagues connected over lunch, coffee, networked at events, attended exhibits and presentations.  Organizations held regular teambuilding exercises and socials. Now is the time to review many of these activities. In the near term, we are likely to witness the emergence of innovative, original approaches to organizing interaction among employees. NGO leaders will have to get very creative. Today, we already see the proliferation of channels in Telegram, groups in WhatsApp, Facebook – to gather colleagues, volunteers, and provide them with socialization platforms. Zoom meetings evolve into Zoom parties. Everyone is forced to learn and adopt new digital tools.

Recommendations

There are some obvious steps that NGOs can take now to mitigate the organizational risks posed by the pandemic and its aftermath:

  • Evaluate the shift in its processes and activities to an online mode. Which ones have transitioned successfully, and which have floundered, and why?
  • Assess losses – financial, reputational, operational. Which losses are related to an inability to transition to remote and online operations?
  • Assess work tools and instruments (new ones, as well as those used pre-pandemic). Identify gaps in functions and unmet requirements. Come up with a list of possible solutions.
  • Prepare for a comprehensive restructuring of online assets.
  • Prepare a plan for work after the end of the quarantine regime.
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