Strategic Investing in Emergencies: Learnings from the TPW Community

Committing to collaboration, community and core principles of strategic philanthropy is more important than ever.

“If there is ever a time to expend philanthropic resources, that time is now.” 

With these words, Indigo Trust Board Member & TPW Board Member Will Perrin captures a sentiment shared across the TPW community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has whipped up a perfect storm. Civil society organisations are stretching to meet increased demand, while at the same time facing huge cuts in funding. Government bailouts are necessary but not sufficient for many organisations to survive.

The time has come for social investors to step up and unlock resources, quickly and strategically.

Strategic vs. Unstrategic

What does “strategic” look like in an emergency? We at The Philanthropy Workshop are hearing a number of themes and ideas emerge from our community of changemakers. 

Two dilemmas are particularly salient. The first is whether it is more strategic to fund locally, where the need is more proximate, or abroad, where the need might be greater. The second is whether to fund an immediate response, or to take a longer term-strategy.

These are, to some extent, false dichotomies. As the COVID-19 virus so plainly demonstrates, global and local spaces are more closely connected than ever before.

“The global health of the world is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain… it can’t be either (funding locally)/or (funding internationally)—there is no return to anything like normal for any of us without a return to normal for all of us.”

David Miliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee (IRC)
COVID-19 in Crisis-Affected Countries: A Double Emergency

In the case of short- vs. long-term interventions, the pandemic has caused systems to collapse, creating an opportunity to rebuild something better. This window of opportunity will pass, meaning that even if rebuilding efforts have a long-term vision, the impetus to start now is urgent.

“People often respond to fear with comfort—going back to what they know. That is a danger—seeking comfort in what we know rather than leaping all the way into what we’ve seen is possible.”

Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO, Nonprofit Finance Fund
Steps for Funders to Take Now to Ensure Nonprofit Resiliency and Recovery

This, too, is not an either/or question.

“If I step back from my philanthropic model, I think what can I do now—immediately? What’s more focussed on the medium-term, and what will bring long-term change?”

Jeff Walker, Vice Chair in the United Nations Envoy’s Office for Health Finance and Malaria & TPW Member
Spotlight on COVID-19 Response

Committing to Collaboration

Taking a strategic approach is therefore less a question of choosing between local and global,  immediate or longer-term, and more of ensuring any interventions are coordinated and complementary. As is clear from the history of funding natural disaster responses, this is a challenge in emergencies. But when both time and funding are in short supply, avoiding duplication is crucial.

“There is a temptation for everyone to set up their own funds, but this makes it harder to coordinate civil society. Don’t set up a new fund to do X or Y, unless you’re sure an organisation that does this work doesn’t already exist.”

Fran Perrin, Founder of the Indigo Trust & TPW Member
The Urgency of Strategic Philanthropy in a Global Emergency

Philanthropists have to communicate not just with themselves but with all key stakeholders, including government, who are often best-placed to coordinate the response. It is crucial for funders to understand how their efforts complement their government, as we were reminded by the President of Liberia during the Ebola crisis, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

“The Government has to take responsibility immediately and organise the troops—the Ministry of Health Officials, the leaders of the country. They set up committees to get the right data, so everyone knows what we’re dealing with, and they communicate this to the people. Not only do they have to manage fear and anxiety, but they
also have to organise a system where everyone feels a responsibility to cooperate.”

Former Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Lessons to Take Forward: Liberia’s response to Ebola

When funding in collaboration, some funders may also take a different attitude to risk. Given the volatility of global political and socioeconomic systems during a crisis, the ability of social investors to innovate and take risks is essential:

“Being part of the collaboration gives me the courage to invest in what we can’t imagine yet—to invest in the unknown and the unseen—and that’s what we have to do at this time. The state of the world right now is something that none of us imagined, and we can’t fix the problems using the same systems and the same thinking that caused them in the first place.”

English Sall, Co-Founder of Impact Thread and TPW Member
Spotlight on COVID-19 Response

The Opportunity for Philanthropy

Increased collaboration and appetite for risk are just two of many examples of where the pandemic is obliging social investors to pivot to an approach that would be considered more strategic, even in a non-emergency context.

“Do principles of strategic philanthropy still apply in an emergency situation? Yes—and maybe even more so.”

Ian David Moss, Strategic Advisor
Roadmap Workshop: Smart Decisions in a Global Health Crisis

For example, due diligence processes are being made less cumbersome to grantees. When charities spend billions every year on writing proposals for grants they never receive, this is a positive step.

“Some potential grantees are being asked to apply through normal channels—those are long and painful processes at the best of times. Charities don’t have the resources at the moment to write those applications. They are firefighting.”

Fran Perrin, Founder of the Indigo Trust & TPW Member
The Urgency of Strategic Philanthropy in a Global Emergency

Reforming due diligence practices is just one way funders can rethink how they share power with key partners. A simple step is to provide unrestricted funding or de-restrict existing grants, acknowledging that grantees closest to the ground know best where the money is needed, and that unrestricted funding is essential to help organisations to respond rapidly.

“The philanthropic community is so critical… the flexible funding support that we’ve been able to raise so far really enables us to respond immediately, and ultimately to help governors get ahead of this crisis and prepare them for where things are going.”

Tim Blute, Director of National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
A Case of Subnational Coordination in Crisis

Social investors are also encouraging transparency and thought leadership, including by clearly communicating how they intend to respond. This is not for publicity, but to ensure the response is coordinated. Speaking out in this way has the added benefit of scaling impact by sharing best practice and encouraging peers to unlock resources.

“All of our other giving has been very quiet, anonymous. For the first time we agreed to use our names publicly and put out a big press release. Every aspect of that made us uncomfortable! But at the same time we thought, let’s do it, because it’s in service of trying to encourage other potential funders to step up.”

Andrew Morris-Singer, Founder and Chair of Primary Care Progress and TPW Member
Spotlight on COVID-19 Response

All of these efforts are part of a commitment to systems thinking and equity, diversity and inclusion. The crisis serves as a reminder that these disciplines are more than just sector jargon: they are mindset essential to seeing connectedness and maximising impact in dynamic and complex environments—including in an emergency response. If we fail to think systemically, or build the system in an inequitable way, we will not break the cycle of crisis, fragility, and collapse.

“Conversations about good giving have taken on a new urgency. It’s no longer just that ‘things would be better if we were working in this way.’ People are dying because we failed to work in this way before.”

Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO, Nonprofit Finance Fund
Steps for Funders to Take Now to Ensure Nonprofit Resiliency and Recovery

Beyond Coronavirus

Coronavirus has forced the philanthropy sector to recognise that the traditional modus operandi is no longer workable. Social investors have an opportunity, not just to play a vital role in helping communities across the world to survive and thrive, but also to commit to more strategic practices that will increase impact long after the pandemic is finally declared to be over.

For that opportunity to be taken, social change leaders need to stay connected, communicate with each other and consider their role in a wider systemic response. This is core to our mission at TPW to mobilise strategic investors committed to unlocking resources, entrepreneurial approaches and lifelong learning.

The challenge is significant and urgent. But, in the words of Former Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “one cannot address a crisis without leaders willing to lead.”

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