These are unprecedented and challenging times around the globe for all countries, sectors, and communities. In Singapore, the non-profit sector has stepped up to respond and stand united, strong, and ‘sayang’ their communities. Many are doing this while facing significant challenges such as loss of funding from cancelled fundraisers and withdrawn donor pledges, suspension of in-person programmes and services, and a decrease in volunteering.
Since the onset of COVID-19, we’ve been speaking to non-profit leaders in Singapore to better understand the impact of the pandemic on their organisations. Here are the key messages that we have heard so far:
1. “We have refocused our work on vital efforts to keep our communities safe and connected”
Although many programmes have been suspended, non-profit leaders have reported being “busier than ever”. Many are redeploying their existing resources and reserves to meet vital community needs - from communicating safe practices and combating fake news to meeting basic needs such as delivering PPE
and food to their communities. Most of those we spoke to have not received any additional funding or grants to cover expenses for these efforts, but persist with them anyway: “These families have zero income and need our support now, we’ll think about the costs later”.
Non-profits are not only playing an important role in community engagement and assistance, but are also giving communities a voice in national policy-making and relief efforts. For example, Beyond Social Services started calling their members early on to understand how they were being impacted. As well as surfacing and meeting immediate relief needs through a Family Assistance Fund, Beyond’s research also stressed the importance of wider structural change to social policies including job security, improving wage protection in the service sector, and strengthening alternative retirement income sources.
2. “We’re finding new ways of working with our communities and peers”
Facing an ever evolving situation, many non-profits in Singapore have adapted quickly - in particular, ensuring relationships with their communities are maintained and working closely with peers to meet needs on the ground.
Building trust and rapport forms the foundation of the work that many non-profits do, so with social distancing measures in place, most non-profit leaders highlighted that finding ways to maintain connections during this time is critical. Many organisations have experimented with delivering programmes through digital and remote platforms. For example, socially isolated seniors can join and interact on Facebook live streams for arts and crafts group sessions, or learn about traditional Chinese medicine.
Non-profits are also coming together to pool resources and coordinate efforts, most notably nimble ground-up initiatives embedded within their communities. The Collective for Migrant Efforts (COME) - a cross-sectoral partnership across NGOs, government agencies and citizens - was formed as an urgent response to rapidly growing COVID-19 cases amongst migrant workers. COME launched a campaign #HomeForAll and have raised more than SGD800,000 to provide 20,000 migrant workers under quarantine with food, hygiene and Internet connectivity.
3. “Flexible government and funder support has been critical during this time”
With deep uncertainty surrounding the economic implications of the pandemic, many non-profit leaders have said that the reassurance and flexibility they have received, from government agencies and major private funders, has lessened or at least delayed some of this financial concern: “We were assured by the government that our funding agreements will still continue for the rest of the year - that’s a huge relief for us.”
Non-profit leaders shared strong positive feedback that the government’s comprehensive job support scheme has helped them to retain their staff in the immediate term: “The wage support scheme is certainly helpful since 85% of our costs are payroll and we promised our staff we will not lay any of them off.” This stands in contrast to many other countries where non-profits are lobbying for inclusion in government wage relief programmes, such as in Hong Kong. The government has also rolled out financial relief to support business continuity, including the Commissioner of Charities (COC) and National Art Council (NAC). Additional funding is available for non-profits to upskill and grow organisational capabilities through online courses and diversified ways to sustain operations, such as info-communications tech.
However, those that do not typically receive strong government or mainstream funding support (e.g. organisations who do not have registered charity status or work with highly marginalised groups), the financial implications of the pandemic are threatening their existence: “Every other week we receive notices of donation cancellation from regular donors due to retrenchment and salary cuts… Our vital work truly is in jeopardy”.
To organisations without access to government support, ongoing partnerships with private funders have been critical, with flexibility being key. Asia-based funders, including Firetree Trust, Manan Trust and Macquarie Group Foundation, are joining counterparts in the US, UK and Australia in making pledges to give grantees this much needed flexibility to loosen restrictions, support core operations and redeploy funds to COVID-19-related efforts.
4. “It’s not clear what’s round the corner, but we’re already investing in building our resilience”
With regular programmes suspended, many leaders have seized this as an opportunity to invest in strengthening their organisation’s ability to prepare for what’s next. A strong theme that emerged in these discussions was building longer term digital capabilities. Many non-profit leaders noted that while online channels have been crucial to continue delivering programs during the pandemic, making this shift wholesale is not a viable, effective or even safe long-term strategy: “It’s not just about moving our programmes online, it’s about spending time to test and see which of our services can and should be delivered online safely and effectively and how”.
Public and private funders are coming forward to support these efforts too. The Sayang Sayang Fund by the Community Foundation Singapore (CFS) is raising additional funds for non-profits looking to provide innovative solutions and strategic research to better combat COVID-19, as well as to build long term capabilities in operational and business continuity processes. The Singtel Group has set forth a grant for promising start-ups with innovative technological solutions that help the social sector tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Meeting non-profit needs during and after COVID-19
As the pandemic and the needs of communities continue to evolve, non-profits are not only playing a pivotal role in meeting immediate needs, but are also building long-term resilience in their communities and organisations.
At Just Cause, we are also committed to doing our part. On the back of this initial sensing, we are working with non-profits and funders to:
Conduct research on the impact of COVID-19 on non-profits in Singapore to inform how the sector can emerge from this crisis stronger
Support non-profits in building sustainable digital strategies and capabilities to deliver programmes effectively
If you’re interested in being a part of these efforts, we would love to hear from you!