/ 3 May 2020

Covid-19: A new order for civil society organisations

Zimbabwe’s Civic Services On The Edge
Fair pay: Disgruntled Zimbabwean civil servants have demanded that their salaries be paid in United States dollars so that they can meet their basic cost of living. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)


One thing we know for sure is that the world has entered a new order. For civil society organisations, the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic are monumental. The sector will have to redefine missions and find new ways of engagement to stay relevant. Against this background, how should these organisations adapt?

First, the pandemic has necessitated the sector to be innovative and creative in its work. The time has come for the sector to upgrade its work. As the adage goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”. New inventions emerge in times of difficulty and Covid-19 has become a driving force towards meeting needs. One shift by civil society organisations will be the use of technology to connect with their constituencies.

Second, it is time for organisations to revisit their mission and objectives. The reality is that Covid-19 has disrupted conventional approaches. New strategies must be mooted to ensure that organisations remain relevant and are adapting to the new rules of the game. Organisations will need to take stock, reflect deeply on their reason for existence and develop new approaches while re-calibrating their strategies accordingly. These processes take quite a lot of time; they do not happen overnight. So then, patience and resilience are two virtues that the leaders of organisations and their teams need to embrace.

Third, organisational structures need to be adapted to the new situation. Covid-19 has exposed significant infrastructural challenges in the sector. Seeing that most of the employees will continue working remotely, organisations must mitigate against any hindrances that might hamper their staff from working optimally. In this case, the necessary infrastructure is needed. For instance, one of the worrying challenges is the digital divide facing most people in South Africa. To mitigate against this, organisations will need to, for instance, provide data and dongles to their employees so they can still deliver on their tasks and overcome the difficulty of data shortages and poor wi-fi connections.

Fourth, budgets will need to be re-prioritised to meet new and emerging organisational challenges such as infrastructural gaps. This implies that every unnecessary operational expenditure must be cut so that available resources are reallocated to areas of need. This financial prudence is inevitable if organisations are to remain in business and continue serving their constituency.

Fifth, amid uncertainty, economic losses and social disruption, another problem emerges. How do organisations retain their funders’ trust? Will funders’ priorities change and leave the organisations to die? This is an opportune time for organisations and their funders to jointly explore possibilities of re-positioning their activities in response to the new challenges. Decision-making needs to be done in a consultative manner so that all parties are heard, and possibilities explored jointly so that both the donor and the grantee have a shared understanding of the new trajectory that organisations may be pursuing.

Sixth, the sector needs to stand with each other. No more working in isolation or in silos. This is the time for strengthening cooperation among organisations, conducting activities jointly and pooling resources towards a common mission. They can also share expertise with each other thereby deepening their collaboration and amplifying the effect of their interventions.

It is without a doubt that Covid-19 has disrupted the economic and social order of the world. Like all other sectors, civil society has not been spared. But it is in such times that the sector must prove its mettle. It has faced difficult circumstances for decades, weathered storms and won achievements. Perhaps, the civil society needs to tap into those victories and re-assert itself as a resilient sector with capacity and strength to bounce back from problems posed by the pandemic. As a sector, we possess resources and expertise that is needed in society. Aside from shared vision, the sector is committed to co-create a new just society that is fairer and more equitable. This is its mission and, certainly, the sector is committed to guarding it even in desperate times.

Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. He writes in his personal capacity