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Coronavirus strategy for NGOs

By Associate for Change – Jo Dufay

As the bad news about the new coronavirus (that causes COVID-19) continues to roll out,  NGOs – and all organisations – should be considering what they need to do to adapt to the situation.  While the consistent and sensible advice is ‘don’t panic’  most us have wondered what it might mean for us and our organisations.

The implications for NGOs are multi-faceted and evolving, and it can seem too complex to plan for.  However, a basic strategy and some practical measures can go a long way to providing more certainty for your organisation and protection for staff.

I worked for an international NGO in Toronto during the SARS outbreak there, and as I have a background in health care I was involved in developing plans for that situation.  Here’s a suggested 4-point strategy you may want to consider for the current outbreak.


Protect your people

We all know about hand-washing and sneezing into tissues, but maintaining a clean workplace is really important at this time.  Other coronaviruses are known to survive for at least 9 days on some surfaces.   More frequent cleaning, giving people materials to clean their own workstation, setting up hand wash/sanitising points… can help.  Pay particular attention to locations where people share facilities – like  toilets (coronavirus can spread via faeces) and kitchens (dishwashers are safer than hand-washing).   Budget-strapped NGOs sometimes cut corners on office cleaning – but this is a time to reverse that trend.

It’s also a good time to look at your sick leave policies and see if you want to adapt them.  People  who work for NGOs are famously dedicated – but this isn’t the time to slog into the office if you ‘may be coming down with something’.

Insisting that people who show COVID-19 related signs (fever, dry cough, shortness of breath) stay home is a good signal from employers. Consider also anyone who is at particular risk of complications of the disease – those with compromised immune systems, heart or lung problems.  What can help them avoid picking up the bug?

You have to have the conditions to support this — paid sick leave, no fear of job loss, health plans.  Don’t forget about family members too – how should your staff respond if their child or partner is suspected of infection? And how about ‘voluntary’ self isolation, or what if schools are closed?  Be clear in your expectations and what assistance you will provide.

The NGO world is famous for its meetings.  As someone who frequently facilitates large international gatherings, I can attest to the power of these – when they are done right.  However at this time, concerns about infection and travel bans are causing many people to reconsider.  I should know – I just cancelled a meeting I was organising in Italy!

The current international coronavirus ‘Containment’ strategy with international travel restrictions may have almost run its course, as more and more countries report COVID-19 cases.  The next phase of the health strategy would be more localised containment, better detection and supportive medical care.  Travel bans may still remain in place, though the point becomes more about politics than science.  In short, the travel situation is likely to remain complex for quite a while.

In this shifting environment, some NGOs are telling staff not to make new travel bookings – at least for the next 4 weeks.  Some meetings are cancelled, and others are uncertain.  A sensible approach is to have a good plan B for meetings.

Some can be skipped altogether in favour of discussion online — I have a favourite note-book emblazoned with the motto  “I survived another meeting that should have been an email”.  Others may be postponed, to give time for more clarity on the external situation.

Consider the possibility of a virtual meeting.  While it may not give you the same warm fuzzy feeling of meeting in-person, and acknowledging that it makes creative co-development of ideas more challenging,  there is a lot that can be achieved through a well-run video-conference call.   The key phrase there is ‘well run’ – there are definite do’s and don’ts for meeting virtually.

And a middle ground steered by some organisations is that staff who have attended large meetings are required to work from home for 14 days upon return (even if not from an area with known Covid-19 cases).


Maintain operations

There is a range of scenarios that could affect ‘business as usual’. Having a plan to deal with them offers a better chance of keeping your organisation going through challenging times. Don’t wait until the problem arises – at the very least it will make things more stressful, and at the worst it will be too late. For each of these scenarios develop a communication plan including your own staff, partners, supporters and the public.

  • If COVID-19 affects your community

You may have higher than usual absentee rates, as people are ill, looking after loved ones or in isolation. You can prepare  for this by identifying core aspects of your operations – do you need to focus on fundraising, or program, for instance, or are there priority projects within these areas? Cross-train staff so they can cover for each other to ensure the vital tasks get done.  You may also want to designate some key staff to work from home, starting now, as a back-up in case of work-place infection.

  • If COVID-19 surfaces in your workplace

You may have to partially or entirely close your workplace-based operations for a while, it is essential to get advice from medical authorities. You can prepare by having contingency plans in place for working-from-home arrangements, this could be as simple as asking staff to make sure they have laptops at home and can access cloud-based information needed to carry out their normal jobs.

  • If COVID-19 means you need to pause operations

This could, for instance, happen if a very large number of staff are unwell,  or the situation in your community means you cannot actually operate for practical reasons.  You can prepare by having a financial and communications plan, and in some cases outsourcing business functions.

What are the essential financial processes that need to happen if you cease operations? Processing donations?  Paying the bills?  Paying the staff? Who needs to know about any of these changes?  What can be done by staff working from home — remember you have a few people already doing that!  And could any of it (eg payroll) be handled by an external organisation with more resilience?

Last but not least, if you are a service organisation – have a back-up plan to assist your clients. For instance you could consider partnering with a similar organisation in another part of town for reciprocal assistance, or a list of alternative referral locations.


Minimise long-term impacts

As well as the potential for interruption to normal operations,  many NGOs will be worried about the impact of the broader economic problems arising from the coronavirus. The most obvious potential is that donations decrease as the economy falters,  but for many organisations there could be mission-based implications too.

Looking into the future is particularly difficult in such a fluid situation, but tools like Scenario Planning can help envision potential situations that are either particularly likely or particularly significant. This is not just about fundraising or even the economy directly, it’s about the knock on effects that can impact the field in which you work.

The  Scenario Planning methodology unpicks multi-factoral change to reveal potential events and trends that are highly likely (and therefore definitely should be factored into your thinking). It also identifies those that are less-likely but with potential high impact — positive or negative. You can develop basic strategy and preparation to make the most out of (or to mitigate the harm from) a selected number of these.

Here again communication is key, particularly with your partners and your supporters.  Does the emergence of this disease relate in some way to your issue? Why should they continue to support you in the face of this disruption?  What can you offer them now to respond to the situation or can you make a strong case that their support for your work is needed now more than ever,  precisely because so much attention is focused elsewhere?


Be informed

This situation is fluid and worrying. I’m probably not the only person frequently tuning into the news or checking Google for more information.  Here are a few things to look out for:

  • Community transmission: this means that people are catching the virus from others in their environment and not, say, from a holiday in another country.   This is not to be confused with human-to-human transmission, which simply means catching it from someone else, anywhere. At this point, if you haven’t got a coronavirus strategy – you definitely should. Don’t ask staff to travel from a non-community spread location to an area where this is happening (and if anyone travels vice-versa, 14 days self-isolation is in order).
  • Rate of infection: many graphs show you the increase in the NUMBER of cases,  but what is more important is the RATE of infection. To see this, you need a graph with a logarithmic scale.  Geeky, I know, but important.
  • Number of cases and number of deaths in countries you are considering traveling to: some countries seem to be reporting a significantly higher death rate than was seen in China. This could mean that cases are undetected or under-reported, so the disease is more widespread than officially indicated.
  • Travel bans and advisories: national governments post these on their websites.  It is worth checking out the advice from your own government,  that of any country you plan to travel to and also any country you plan to travel to within 14 days after that.

It may be reassuring to staff to have someone internally designated to stay on top of trends and events, and report back regularly on anything that could affect the organisation.  If nothing else, it could reduce the amount of work time spent consulting with Google!

To repeat the official advice – this is not a time to panic.  However it is a time to prepare sensibly.  And if, at the end, all you have achieved is staff who can fill in for each other’s jobs, a better policy for sick leave, and a cleaner workplace — well, that’s not so bad, is it?

Jo Dufay is an Amsterdam-based consultant working with NGOs on strategy, campaigns, organisational development, human resources issues and more.  She facilitates in-person and virtual meetings, workshops and trainings.  Before becoming a campaigner with NGOs, she worked for 20 years in the field of cancer treatment and health care management. 

Do you have questions, or is your organisation doing something that you’d like to share?  Email info@assosciatesforchange.net