Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Facing disruption together: what can be learned from COVID's impact

Facing disruption together: what can be learned from COVID's impact

We had just finalized our global Vision 2025 strategy at Publish What You Pay — an organization dedicated to holding extractive industries to account — when COVID-19 shifted the ground under our feet. Would our carefully drawn-up strategy still be fit for purpose in a world remade by the coronavirus?

As an international movement with members ranging from small grassroots organizations to large international NGOs, we knew that our strongest response would be a collective one. That way we could all benefit from the rich, diverse expertise in our network. We knew many of our members, partners, and donors were being forced to rethink their strategy and opening up this process meant they could all gain insight from it.

In late October 2020, as a second wave of COVID swept across the Northern Hemisphere — making it clear that the disruption from the pandemic would be long-lived — the PWYP Secretariat hosted a global conversation guided by one of Africa's leading futurists, Dr. Katindi Sivi, to stress-test our movement's global strategy.

Involving funders

Funders were critical to these conversations. Publish What You Pay is lucky to have an ecosystem of donors — including the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Luminate, Open Society Foundations, and Sigrid Rausing Trust — that understands the importance of building strong, agile, and diverse movements to counter corruption, secrecy, and recklessness in the extractives industries. Many of these funders contributed substantively to our stress-testing exercise and integrated insights from it in their own grantmaking. We believe that the experience contains a broader lesson and that funders generally should help movements stress-test their strategies, especially in times of crises, to ensure they remain sustainable and effective over the long term. Here are some tips on how they can help:

Fund for strategic reflection, curiosity, and learning. It's smart to invest in strategic conversations that create a shared understanding for coordinated action. But it can be hard for nonprofits to step back and have challenging discussions about the effectiveness of their strategies and draw lessons that can inform a meaningful strategic refresh. Many already face huge challenges, including a shrinking of the civic space, a difficult funding landscape, and the impacts of a global pandemic. Providing flexible, unrestricted funding makes it easier for nonprofits to respond rapidly to disruption by taking a moment to reflect on the shifting landscape in which they operate and what it all means for their work. Because there is no better teacher than failure, some donors go a step further and give their grantees explicit permission to fail. For instance, the Hewlett Foundation often starts conversations about potential new grants by asking, "What are the learning questions we are hoping to answer through this project?". At the onset of the pandemic, many funders were quick to recognize the need to loosen or limit restrictions on their grants so as to provide grantees with the flaxibility they needed to respond to the crisis. Continuing to support such flexibility will only help grantees further develop their resilience.

Connect organizations and encourage them to reflect on the pandemic together. The outcome of our participatory scenario planning approach was much stronger because it included diversity in terms of regions, expertise, and background. These different perspectives fostered in-depth consideration of the risks and opportunities we faced, and encouraged more creativity in thinking about our response. For instance, geopolitical shifts in power, including the rise of China, were seen by some as threatening while others thought they could present new opportunities to advance our agenda. Organizations also may benefit by bringing unlikely allies such as government officials and business leaders into these conversations. Funders should be asked to contribute as well, as they often bring a valuable perspective to the table, particularly when they work across multiple movements for change (e.g., the feminist movement, the workers' rights movement, the climate justice movement). Ultimately, we all want to deliver change, so why not plan together how to do it?

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Companies and governments are paying big money to consulting firms to look at how the impacts of COVID will reshape the future. Why shouldn't nonprofits benefit as well? Publish What You Pay used a report developed by Deloitte that presented four possible post-COVID scenarios. Each considered the impact on society, technology, the economy, the environment, and politics. The report was by no means comprehensive, but it provided a solid framework for our discussions and the relevance of each scenario to our strategy. In cases where these sorts of materials are not available in the public domain, funders should consider commissioning and/or opening them up to the movements they support.

At the same time, we used the opportunity to stress-test an existing strategy, not create a new one. The combination of a well-developed strategy and pre-existing scenarios to test our ideas against allowed us to move the conversation forward much more quickly.

The pandemic continues to fuel uncertainty, and its economic impacts will continue to squeeze already-underresourced NGOs. Scenario planning as a movement is a really efficient way to direct limited philanthropic resources to organizations and initiatives creating real impact and ensure that the work they are doing is more than the sum of its parts.

The next decade is going to be hugely challenging for civil society movements, but with funders supporting the efforts of grantees to coordinate their actions and respond collectively to disruptions, we stand a much better chance of being effective.

Elisa Peter (@ElisaPeter) is executive director of Publish What You Pay.