The future of nonprofits in COVID times

The impact of COVID-19 is felt to a greater extent in rural areas, as these communities do not have access to the most basic needs such as clean potable water, food, and vital information about government relief programs.

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The nonprofit sector in India faces an unprecedented future amidst COVID-19. With the besieged economy at the forefront and unparalleled demands from the community, the nonprofit sector is struggling to create a new identity and a way to sustain itself for the duration of these grappling times. While we gear up for a new normal, exceptional leadership is required in organizations to meet the challenges and continue endeavors efficiently but with a new perspective.

Sehgal Foundation work continues to focus on rural areas in 980 villages, in thirty-one districts, and eight states of India to help create food security and water security, transform the lives of schoolchildren, and promote access to government programs and services as part of good rural governance. As we address the changing community requirements and shift gears accordingly, we have clearly seen that our vision, mission, and program activities are now more relevant than ever to provide support to distressed communities.

The impact of COVID-19 is felt to a greater extent in rural areas, as these communities do not have access to the most basic needs such as clean potable water, food, and vital information about government relief programs. We have aligned our close relationships with the communities and our current programs to continue to introduce need-based initiatives and, at the same time, effectively use multiple platforms to address the COVID-19 predicament.

At the beginning of the lockdown, our teams invested considerable time to be “future-ready” by conducting virtual training for the grassroots team to build and enhance the capacities of our functional areas and activities related to COVID-19. Subsequently, we began coordinating our existing activities along with the COVID-19 issue initiatives in our project areas. Foundation teams are conducting COVID-19 awareness sessions, preparing and distributing protective masks, disseminating IEC materials, and engaging with panchayats on village sanitation activities. With the significant migration of daily wagers returning back to rural India, our work has extended to providing dry ration to migrants, organizing digital thermometers, procuring and distributing sanitizers, liquid handwash, and machine sprayers to the community and health functionaries.

When the community was left with no other reliable source of information during the lockdown, Sehgal Foundation’s community radio station, Alfaz-e-Mewat, took on the key role of spreading messages from the Health Department and became the platform for connecting communities with government departments and the all-important announcements related to people’s entitlements.

In the Transform Lives program within government schools information relating to COVID-19 is included in the online digital literacy training and awareness sessions. We are also planning for pictorial presentation of do’s and don’ts on COVID-19 depicted in wall paintings in the schools and undertake live training on hand washing. Farmers are being trained in health and hygiene practices when working in the fields. The Citizen Information and Support Center (CISC), a toll-free information line, disseminates information about COVID-19 and assists community members in accessing and registering for health programs such as PM Health Insurance Scheme Ayushman Bharat. Though e-panchayat is an excellent asset for any village, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, its success has been noted only in those states where it has been given priority, so it has not been as reliable in rural areas.

The change in the functioning of Sehgal Foundation’s long-term activities has been seen most vividly in the community mobilization aspect, as community meetings for capacity building cannot be held due to social-distancing requirements. More meetings are being held with just a few villagers at a time, which requires much more time and human resources, and the absence of larger group discussions is strongly missed.

Sehgal Foundation’s positive experience with obtaining funds from CSR partners has by and large continued. Existing donors are extending their partnerships as well as requiring the inclusion of COVID-19-related activities. However, some new donors have diverted their CSR funds substantially to other COVID-19 relief work. In general, an overall reduction in CSR budget of 2 percent is expected for nonprofit organizations, since their profits are affected by the COVID-19 phenomena.

Under current circumstances, organizational leadership in all nonprofits must strive to boost the morale of the employees, avoid becoming overwhelmed, demonstrate a calm attitude, be in constant touch with team members, engage with them in dialogue and enroll them ongoing in the organizational goals. Decentralization and delegation of activities are critical for developing an affirmative leadership culture within an organization at all levels.

At Sehgal Foundation, we endorse a “loose and tight” policy—the organization is tight on principles but loose in operations. This allows for flexibility as well as personal ownership of leadership responsibilities at all levels. We have found this to be a strength during tough times that has assisted in supporting ongoing resilience.

As the country opens from the lockdown, concerted initiatives are needed to build greater resilience. Working together with CSR partners and government is essential in order to gain strength from each other. The organizations that will recover most strongly will be those with good organizational health, strong partnerships, and methods and structures to address and adapt to community needs. Innovation and change are required to provide a new perspective to the functioning of organizations and re-strategize when needed.

Collaborative decisions need to give a voice to all individuals in the organization. Coaching team members to cope with ambiguity is essential, and we must also be able and ready to redefine priorities and address what is critical on an immediate basis. We must continue to explore ways to expand the portfolio of activities within the overall mission of the organization.

Maintaining a positive leadership culture within an organization at all levels is critical for continuing to demonstrate open and transparent leadership, reduce costs, and optimize resources. Such efforts will bring tremendous goodwill to any organization and create a path for sustainability. With collective strength, reflection, and correctional strategies, the myriad threats will more likely be converted into opportunities, and organizations will rise out of the current crisis even if they have had to engage in what may have felt like a temporary form of hibernation.

(Anjali Makhija is Chief Operating Officer at S M Sehgal Foundation, a rural development organization, registered in India since 1999).

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