Responding to a pandemic: Funders, intermediaries and community based organizations


This piece originally appeared on the website of the Independent Philanthropy Association South Africa (IPASA).

Two weeks before President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa was about to go into full lockdown, the Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT) staff discussed protocols for working in the face of a pandemic. While we were discussing social distancing and sanitizers for the office, epidemiologists and mathematicians were trying to work out the trajectory of this virus for South Africa. Since then our world has changed completely and we only see each other on screens, while working from home we try and coordinate our response to COVID-19, and continue to provide our usual support to our grantees.


SCAT’s approach

SCAT is an intermediary grantmaker which means that we straddle the world between being a fundraiser and a funder. We have a small endowment allowing us to cover some core costs, be creative and innovative, but mostly we raise funds to support and strengthen the capacity of 30 rural community organizations across the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape provinces. Our primary aim is to ensure access to justice, gender equality and food security. The people served by our grantees are the most vulnerable, mostly women and often pensioners and the disabled. People in rural areas are 40% more likely to be unemployed and households are more likely to be headed by women. Employment is mostly in sectors hard hit during COVID-19 including agriculture, tourism and work in households.

On the night that President Ramaphosa told us that we would be going into full lockdown I sent a message to our trustee group and asked them to approve funds from our reserves to distribute to grantees. We realized we had to act quickly to get food and sanitation products out to the most vulnerable. Within 20 hours, 30 grantees had received communication about the additional grant, had acknowledged this and the funds were in their bank accounts. Our grantees had three days to respond before we stepped into the unknown. We set up a WhatsApp group to distribute accurate information, and quickly the pictures started coming in of how our grantees were responding to ensure people had some protection during this time. The relationship of trust that we have built up with our grantees over years of working together allowed us to give additional funds without hesitation.


Funder support

Immediately after the announcement of the lockdown we received communication from funders asking how they could be of support and where we needed flexibility. We had “gone into lockdown without a safety net” said David Harrison of the DG Murray Trust in an email where he made an offer of a grant for food to SCAT grantees. This statement has resonated often in my mind as I consider what our grantees face daily. Most of our funders recognized that this would also be a difficult time for SCAT and that fundraising for the future would be a challenge. Ford Foundation increased our grant and extended our contract by a year giving us greater security. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation increased our grant so that we could pass on more funds to our grantees to cushion them, and the Social Justice Initiative allowed us flexibility with reporting and spending time frames.

“We had ‘gone into lockdown without a safety net’ said David Harrison of the DG Murray Trust in an email where he made an offer of a grant for food to SCAT grantees. This statement has resonated often in my mind as I consider what our grantees face daily.”

Flagstaff Advice Office, a CBO partner of SCAT

The Irish Embassy and Dutch Embassy allowed SCAT to repurpose workshop and travel funds towards food. With additional donations from the Donald Gordon Foundation, DG Murray Trust and the GFCF, we will distribute a total of R 2.4 million of funds (just under $150,000 USD) toward food security grants to our grantees over the lockdown period. SCAT similarly increased core grants to our partners. Early on RAITH Foundation asked if we would assist with the distribution of food parcels on behalf of the Solidarity Fund. The RAITH Foundation allowed us to repurpose some of their funds to cover distribution costs of our grantees. Working with ten rural community based organizations (CBOs) in the most remote areas of the Eastern Cape, we reached close to 200 villages and distributed 10,500 food parcels over three weeks. Our grantees faced issues of security for the people distributing food, accessing permits, storage, flooding, treacherous roads, distances and ensuring records were kept and every food parcel was accounted for. They were impressive in their willingness to step up to the challenge, negotiating with police, traditional leaders and local councilors to ensure the fairest processes were followed and the food reached the most vulnerable.

SCAT also decided that the digital divide with our rural partners had to be addressed with urgency and we bought and distributed computers, cell phones and data to all our partners who are now able to meet with us online, attend webinars and be connected with up to date information. Many had some technology, but mostly it was outdated and did not ensure accessibility. This was partly funded from SCAT’s reserve fund’s dividends and with repurposed funds from the Irish Embassy. Responding to a request from some of our grantees we included thermometers so they can check their clients before consulting them and provided masks as a result of a donation from a founder trustees. A number of our grantees are partnering with DG Murray Trust to distribute PPE to care workers in their communities.


New roles

It was important that we also adjust our programmes to be relevant to the current crisis. Along with our grantees, we became an accredited monitor for the Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and are providing information to the SAHRC on human rights abuses and police repression. We have also assisted with monitoring the reopening of schools. We have partnered with the Black Sash to monitor the implementation of the Social Relief of Distress grant, and with the International Budget Partnership to facilitate the monitoring of water in rural informal settlements. The data generated by our grantees is used for advocacy to improve systems and ensure the most vulnerable are protected.


Gender Based Violence (GBV) and food insecurity

GBV is the “other pandemic” which has been waged on women and children for centuries, but intensified in the last decade, and particularly during this lockdown. GBV affecting women, girls and boys and the LGBTQIA community must be addressed with urgency. In response to GBV and as part of our GBV programming, we will be running online workshops with our grantees on the National Strategic Plan; advocacy for better GBV responses in communities; and a counselling skills programme for frontline responders which is accompanied by mentorship for those working with GBV cases. We have continued research on GBV with our partners which is being conducted by Adjunct Professor Melanie Judge. This study is looking at strategic issues for SCAT and our grantees in responding to this pandemic. The report should be launched later in 2020.


Coping with lockdown and planning for the future

Navigating this pandemic has not been easy and without our funders being flexible, our grantee partners responsive, our trustees adaptable, and our staff creative and steadfast, we would not have been able to respond appropriately. Compounding the situation, we have also had staff and trustees who have been affected by the virus, both personally and in their extended families. Some of our staff live in areas with little or no cell phone reception, making working from home, communication and cohesion difficult.

“Navigating this pandemic has not been easy and without our funders being flexible, our grantee partners responsive, our trustees adaptable, and our staff creative and steadfast, we would not have been able to respond appropriately.”

Compounding this is the fear of the future. It is hard to plan for the unknown. We don’t know if we should plan workshops or online training, visits to our grantees or virtual meetings, raise more funds for food security or continue with our normal programming. Many NGOs who have been providing essential services to the most vulnerable will face closure or contraction in the near future if government doesn’t address a shrinking resource base, as funds from private donors and the corporate sector are diverted to food security and PPE. Now is the time for us as funders to reflect on our response to this unknown, unanticipated crisis and what we have learnt about ourselves, in order that we better navigate the future crises that climate change and other health disasters will force us to navigate. COVID-19 has shown us how important it is to be flexible and respond in a way that both addresses the injustices in our society while providing a safety net for the most vulnerable. We must support NGOs and particularly grassroots organizations, who are on the frontlines, often working with the least resources but have enabled us to work with dexterity, breadth and depth responding to this crisis which is more than about a pandemic it is about social justice.

By: Joanne Harding, Director, Social Change Assistance Trust (SCAT)

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