Combatting the passivity of the ‘new normal’ – Keystone’s COVID-19 Survey

Source: (2020)

The COVID-19 pandemic has developed a culture of language and habits of its own that the whole world has come to know. In five months, we now find ourselves checking our country R rates, grabbing wallet, keys, phone, mask, and rather passively resigning to levels of lockdown or threat of resurgence as ‘the new normal.’ However, these changes are the more privileged experience, while still others risk exposure in health care and essential work, others have lost jobs, and many have suffered from the illness itself or known loved ones who have. As individuals, we have likely watched the news more than ever to find some clarity or comfort in its resolution and may have experienced moments of hopelessness as we realised the full gravity of this disease’s long tenancy. For those working in the charity, development, non-profit sector, we know first-hand the hit this has taken to program activities, funding, and the ways in which it has exacerbated the challenges of often already fragile contexts.

At Keystone Accountability, rather than resignedly assigning this condition as the ‘new normal,’ we wanted our working partners and their constituents to get clarity on what COVID-19 really means for them and their future.

Our Response
We offered a free, anonymous and confidential micro-survey to regular users of the Keystone Performance Survey to help collect crisis-related anonymous and confidential feedback from their working partners, intended to help organisations understand what program partners and grantees are going through, individually as well as collectively, in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Why listen now? Why not simply hunker down and push on?

Over the years Keystone has surveyed thousands of partners from over a hundred INGOs, and we know that implementing partners already struggle with core cost allocation and flexibility over how they can spend funds. During a crisis these issues were bound to deepen. Reaching out to see how to better support in a time of crisis is critical, not just to short-term survival, but to maintaining the trusting relationships for the rebuilding ahead.

Our Enquiry
Not only did we want to help organisations understand how individuals and communities are coping through the crisis, but also to gain insight into the positive and negative consequences of the pandemic and possible implications for the future of the development sector. This meant addressing issues such as connectivity, resilience, partner relationships, social cohesion and sustaining livelihoods. Questions included:

  • To what extent are funders and partners diverting resources from planned activities to pay staff salaries?
  • What pressures are on partners to carry out new unplanned activities in response to urgent local needs?
  • Have partners been forced to suspend activities, and how will this affect their cash flow?
  • How can funders adapt to help their partners at this difficult time?

Our Learning
306 local partners of 8 international organisations completed our survey.

Below captures some of the initial key themes we have found in our early analysis of the survey responses, as we continue to disseminate the data. If you are interested in receiving the final report, please sign up here.

We most assuredly anticipated challenges and greatly appreciated the breadth of honesty from survey participants.

Most resoundingly, people have been confronted with income problems as a result of job loss and have found difficulty in accessing funding with limits on access to liquid cash from banks.

Project initiatives have suffered with cancelation of contracts, trainings, and activities. Partners have felt a burden to transition from in-person to remote communication and have found it difficult to communicate and closely collaborate with travel limitations and a lack of mobility. For activities that might not have lost funding, their work was still discontinued because of a lack of PPE.

Respondents noted mental health challenges with an increase in stress, anxiety and fear for families, many noting that the closure of schools, churches and other spiritual places added to the complexity of grief as they were likely needed more than ever. The pandemic also incited worsening vulnerability in already vulnerable people groups with an increase in threat of domestic violence against women and children, with more limited access to protection and justice entities.

With challenges, come opportunities. Below are some positive themes also identified from participant responses:

Respondents noted how essential it was for a rapid response from organisations to redirect program funds and the opening of finance agencies to minimise financial strain on families.

Respondents feel they have acquired new skills in virtual networks and technology and have utilised online professional development and stress management course offerings.

In many locations there has been limited access to water and sanitation products, however respondents expressed a rise of innovative solutions as artisans developed hygiene products, and communities developed rainwater harvesting structures. In addition, the pandemic has incited community awareness and mobilisation of hygiene products and increased sanitation practice.

Projects have also developed methodological innovations to achieve progress in the objectives of services to intended target populations and are re-evaluating implementation strategies, including new job opportunities in Covid-19 related response services.

Respondents also have found a more grounding work-life balance to spend more time with family and many note an increase in faith.

Our Why
COVID-19 has rattled our previous notions of communication and connectivity, and we have to be more creative and agile in our actionable response to the needs of our working partners and constituents. It is essential to solicit feedback about participants’ experiences and challenges spurned from this pandemic and for funding organisations to better understand priority needs and contextually relevant opportunities for innovation. Yet, it is with even greater importance as to what organisations do with this feedback and how they respond. In order to ensure trust and meaningful relationships between partners, organisations must respond to survey participants through dialogue, course correction, flexible new strategies that overcome or accommodate new challenges, and offer less restricted funding.

Feedback support organisations like Keystone Accountability are primely situated in a time where dialogue, connection, and understanding are essential to move forward. This ‘new normal’ we all speak of cannot be faced lying down, although many of us are spending more time on our couches. As a sector, the development world has experienced tremendous loss, both financially but also in regards to momentum towards progress. For many programs working in fragile or burdened contexts, the halting or defunding of a program means a threat to livelihood or life itself.

This time has shown us we took naïve comfort that infrastructures in place would inherently protect us from something so extreme as a global pandemic requiring quarantine and world-wide lockdowns. So, what are the infrastructures we have set within our own organisations and work and how have we considered our own unassuming comfort in them always carrying on? The intensity to which constituents might place that same deep trust in them? Are the structures in place adaptive enough? Knowledgeable enough of the needs of those impacted? Responsive enough?

The best way to answer these questions is to ask those living the problem and to be open and ready to evolve to meet the shifting demands of this ‘new normal.’

Find Keystone Accountability’s founder and CEO, David Bonbright’s blog on philanthropic compassion and giving here and the importance of trust and deep ties to sustain us through a pandemic here.

We are still in the early analysis phase of reviewing our survey responses and look forward to offering a more detailed sharing of the findings that will help shape our understanding of life for constituents in this ‘new normal’ and how we can best deepen support and commitment to on-going social change efforts.