COVID-19 has triggered global public health and economic emergencies. The effect of this crisis in developing nations is disproportionate and is worsened by weak health infrastructure, struggling economies, and fragile political systems in many nations. And, as with most emergency situations, women and girls are suffering the greatest.
For over 40 years, Counterpart International’s WomenLead Institute (WLI) has strengthened the leadership and management skills of women leaders around the world through unique women-centered programs, including its flagship program, Global Women in Management (GWIM). Since 2005, GWIM has been funded by the ExxonMobil Foundation’s Women’s Economic Opportunity Initiative, enabling WLI to reach more than 900 women leaders in 77 countries with training, coaching, and networking support. Most of these women lead local non-profit organizations and social enterprises that provide economic empowerment, health, education, gender-based violence prevention, and other critical services to women, youth, and other marginalized groups in their communities.
The emergence and global spread of COVID-19 has challenged these leaders to sustain their institutions and deliver their programs. Early in the pandemic, WLI heard firsthand about the struggles they were facing—how shutdowns, travel restrictions, and shifts in donor funding were impacting their organizations’ abilities to deliver services and programs. They expressed frustration and dismay at not being able to respond to the emerging and urgent needs facing their communities.
To better understand the extent to which local women-led organizations were being impacted and how, WLI conducted a survey to gauge the effect of COVID-19 on alumnae organizations across the GWIM network.
The survey captured the insights of 184 respondents across 38 countries. The organizations represented included community-based organizations, locally registered non-profits, international non-governmental organizations, and social enterprises, among others.
The survey results confirmed that COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the day-to-day operations of organizations within GWIM’s global network:
- Nearly 75% of respondents stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to either significant changes or a complete disruption of services.
- While the type of disruption varied from organization to organization, 61% of respondents cited a temporary interruption in services, 57% reported a change in the type of programming implemented, and 42% reported changes in funding sources.
- The onset of COVID-19 has led to a decrease in available funding for 35% of the respondents, while only 15% report new external funding available exclusively for COVID-19 responses.
COVID-19 has also affected the operational footprint of organizations within the GWIM network. Nearly all the organizations surveyed are now operating with fewer paid employees and volunteers.
Organizations within the GWIM network have had to adapt. Thirty-four percent of the organizations have added new program areas to their existing portfolio, 17% are no longer able to work in their core programmatic areas, and 13% have shifted to new programmatic areas.
Importantly, many respondents noted that COVID-19 spotlighted the need to put organizational plans and measures in place to withstand future emergencies and shocks. Maintaining minimum cash reserves was cited as one example of a practice needed for organizational resilience and responsiveness to local community needs during times of crisis.
Compared to challenges facing their communities pre-pandemic, all of the organizations surveyed reported alarming increases (significantly greater and much greater concern) in: general health (78%), food security (68%), gender-based violence and women’s economic security (63% respectively), water and sanitation (58%), and gender equity (52%).
Yet, despite the financial and programmatic difficulties facing their organizations since the start of the pandemic, many respondents shared inspiring examples of how they have adapted their strategies and approaches and developed plans for incorporating innovations into their future operations.
Over one-third of respondents have successfully incorporated new technologies into their programs and internal operations, creating virtual platforms and using social media and video conferencing apps to collect information and data on local needs, deliver training and educational activities to beneficiaries, connect women’s or farmers’ groups, meet with staff and volunteers, sell products, and provide information on palliative care, food distribution points, etc. Several of these organizations also reintroduced local radio and text messaging to stay connected and provide training to those without internet access, equipment, or skills.
With respect to how programs have been adapted, most reported integrating COVID-19 specific activities into their portfolios. These activities ranged from distribution and/or sales of masks and soap, to providing free food packets, holding in-person meetings/trainings that adhere to local restrictions, and carrying out sensitization campaigns on COVID-19 in the community. Several respondents have also increased the number and types of products sold online as an alternative to selling in markets and fairs, and plan to continue this approach post-pandemic.
Despite the recent sudden and dramatic changes, it is encouraging to know that many local non-profits remained committed to their communities and were able to quickly adapt their outreach to respond to the crisis. Even more inspiring is how the lessons they have learned—both positive and negative—are informing their future strategies and plans, ensuring their work will continue in the face of future crises and disasters.
However, more is needed to create resilient organizations. Development partners should take note of the types of skills and knowledge identified by respondents as foundational to organizational resiliency and address these needs when supporting local organizations on their journey to self-reliance. The five areas identified as capacity development priorities in the survey were: crisis management (78%), use of technology for telework (74%), strategic planning (63%), partnerships with other organizations (61%), and business continuity planning (53%).
Let us all listen to what our local partners want and need to build strong, sustainable organizations and businesses.