Top lessons learnt for social investors’ COVID-19 response

At the best of times, South Africa has massive need for impactful social investment and NPO delivery. The critical role they play in resolving the challenges and inequalities within society has been exponentially amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As such, Tshikululu Social Investments, South Africa’s leading social investment fund management and advisory firm, has undertaken a survey of over 170 NPOs around the country to assess the effect that COVID-19 has had on the sector since the beginning of lockdown. These have resulted in a number of valuable lessons and recommendations for social investors, bolstered by Tshikululu’s experience and expertise built up over the past 22 years.

True partnership in action

Everyone is feeling the pressure, but the organisations working on-the-ground in vulnerable communities are feeling it more than the social investors making funding decisions. As an investor, approach everything you’re doing with a sense of true partnership and support: don’t make unrealistic demands, remain flexible and always be willing to listen as things evolve. Partner organisations will undoubtedly be in need of funding, but if this isn’t possible find alternative ways to be of assistance, such as eliminating grant restrictions, accelerating payment schedules and postponing reporting requirements. For NPOs, it is essential to prioritise the retention of existing donors and keep communication channels with investors open.

Seize the opportunity

Given the severity and intensity of the challenges COVID-19 has created, it is easy to make quick decisions to ‘try and help’ in any way possible. Although the instinct is noble, make sure to think through what you want to do, reach out to other social investors and utilise your resources as effectively as possible. Currently, the areas of food security, health and education require priority assistance. Here, some ideas include providing food vouchers instead of food parcels, assisting with the mental health of NPO staff, or investing in other health areas that are difficult to access due to COVID-19. In education, the pandemic has highlighted the inequality in access to learning resources. Social investors and NPOs alike could consider lending support to interventions that provide access to educational resources to learners in both innovative and traditional ways.

Engage with government

Make every effort to engage with government stakeholders, particularly at local level. Government is doing a huge amount across the country, and seeking ways to share resources will smooth delivery and improve co-ordination. NPOs should also consider applying for the relief funding that has been made available to them. Help is out there, and might just provide the wiggle-room your organisation needs at the moment.

Regulatory compliance

Don’t forget governance and compliance. All of your decisions must still tick all the right boxes so that your audits – once all is said and done – come back clean.

Finally, the need will always be far greater than whatever you as a social investor or NPO can do, but every effort is an important part of our national response. Perserverence pays – keep at it!

Although the pandemic will eventually pass, its impact will be felt for years to come. Social investors should be thinking about how their work must change going forward. Here are 10 tips to help guide your discussions.

  1. Scenario planning
    Start a financial scenario-planning review on your funding availability, programme expenditure and resourcing requirements (low, medium and high road) over the next 12, 24 and 36 months. If you are a corporate foundation, this scenario planning should be done in direct partnership with the business.
  2. Remain flexible
    No one knows what the future holds. Build flexibility into your partner agreements to allow for repurposing of funding and the changing  of tactics as the pandemic – and its consequences – play out.
  3. Look at the broader view
    Take time to do some deep thinking about how Covid-19 will impact on your entire sector so that you are better prepared to respond. Debate issues as they arise, and tease out the moral dilemmas inherent in each. Learn from these conversations and share your learnings with other social investors and NPOs alike.
  4. Foster resilience
    The pandemic has required all of us to be resilient in different ways. How can you support your partners and find creative ways to be even more resilient and agile in our new world, whether through technology support, capacity-building activities or other strategies?
  5. Make smart decisions
    The pandemic’s consequences are going to be with us all for a long time, so be patient. Don’t throw all your funding into emergency responses now, but keep some reserves as things evolve in the coming months and years.
  6. Get the basics right
    Assess your founding document to ensure it allows for sufficient flexibility to respond to extraordinary circumstances as and when necessary.
  7. The data imperative
    The pandemic has made it even more undeniable that access to data is both the present and the future.Without it, inequality only worsens. How can you strengthen data access for low-income communities and individuals through your social investment initiatives?
  8. Drive inclusion
    The most excluded population groups are usually hardest hit by crises like COVID, and they are often the first to be forgotten when social investment decisions need to made quickly. Always remember to emphasise inclusion throughout your strategies.
  9. Innovative M&E
    Lockdown restrictions on movement and interaction are an opportunity to explore, test, accelerate and embed innovative evaluation and data collection techniques. Proactively consider low to no-cost options such as social media, apps and community radio to strengthen your impact.
  10. Document all learnings
    Ensure that your organisation is documenting lessons learnt during this time – for your own records but also for the benefit of your beneficiaries, partners and others in the broader social investment sector.