Last year, a group of SMU students and alumni started a ground-up initiative, the COVID-19 Taskforce for Non-Profits (now known as Thrive Social Consulting), to help future-proof non-profit organisations (NPOs) in Singapore.
Recognising a gap in the market, Thrive Social Consulting seeks to empower NPOs to succeed amidst the vast challenges in a pandemic by reimagining how they can continue to fulfil their mission during these unprecedented times. In less than six months, the initiative has already worked with 10 different NPOs across various sectors in Singapore, providing pro bono consulting services to help them remain resilient and agile in the current and future economic landscape.
Thrive Social Consulting has also analysed a selection of global NPOs and identified four critical needs which NPOs have to address during COVID-19 in order to continue to serve their beneficiaries effectively. In doing so, the group is better able to support the social services sector with capacity-building programmes aimed at overcoming the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Understanding the impact of the pandemic on the social services sector
The partial lockdown imposed during the Circuit Breaker period in 2020 was a huge disruptor for the social service sector. It also exacerbated some challenges that the sector faced even before the pandemic, such as the availability of funding, ensuring long-term sustainability and optimising the allocation of human resources.
During the pandemic, NPOs had to implement short-term strategies to pivot their operating models. These included mitigating steps like implementing work-from-home schemes and shifting priorities towards the fight against COVID-19. For example, many organisations began procuring essential safety equipment like face masks and offering additional support to frontline healthcare workers.
Today, as Singapore continues to move towards the gradual reopening of businesses, we are beginning to see NPOs return to normal operations. Yet the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic emphasised the need for the orgnisations to prioritise resilience, especially if they want to be able to continue to deliver core services during unexpected emergencies like the current global health crisis.
Four priorities to thrive in the new normal
Having worked closely with NPOs during the pandemic, Thrive Social Consulting has identified four key areas of opportunity for NPOs that will facilitate better service delivery in the new normal. Their findings are based on a global assessment of more than 15 NPOs, and provide insight into the types of support which the social services sector requires most to transition towards a digital future.
The four key needs they identified are:
1. Sustainable fundraising
COVID-19 caused severe disruptions in fundraising programmes and in-person fundraising events. This has, in turn, impeded funding for social purpose projects.
In a survey of 20 social enterprises, Singapore’s National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) found that NPOs reported as much as a 50 to 80 per cent drop in funding due to donation cancellations or the organisation’s inability to carry out any physical engagements with their clients social work. Without active projects, NPOs struggle to collect donor pledges.
At the same time, many industries within the private sector have felt the financial strain of the pandemic, resulting in CSR programmes that may have been temporarily halted as companies shift their budget priorities in the short term.
These challenges highlight the need for NPOs to seek out new funding sources, as well as new or alternative approaches to traditional fundraising activities. Doing so will help support their activities during times of economic downturns.
2. Human resources
The pandemic brought all but the most needy in-person social service programmes to a halt. This has been a major concern for NPOs, given that the inability to deploy staff or conduct programmes directly with clients impacts an organisation’s ability to raise funding from donors.
This begs the question of how NPOs can continue delivering on their mission at a time when most, if not all, physical operations have to be kept to a bare minimum.
3. Information technology
Thankfully, as with other industries tackling disruption to in-person operations, the answer to some problems faced by NPOs lies in technology. Many NPOs have already transitioned to a work-from-home setting and have even found ways to run short-term, lower-impact initiatives remotely. These types of programmes cannot permanently replace the in-person efforts of NPO staff and volunteers, but they can provide continuity for organisations in times of local lockdowns or travel restrictions.
For example, social media and other types of online engagement platforms can help bridge the gap, and enable NPOs to continue stakeholder engagement and communications remotely, despite stay-at-home or social distancing measures.
However, assessing how to migrate real-life interactions to an online environment—without losing the essence of the service—is very much a trial-and-error process, and NPOs need to be flexible and open to various ways of using digital technologies.
With many in-person programmes temporarily or indefinitely suspended, NPOs also need to explore innovative ways to serve their beneficiaries.
In addition to leveraging existing technologies, Thrive’s research suggests that NPOs should invest in other innovations that can also help them deliver the same pre-pandemic levels of impact to their target audience. Home-based educational kits that support e-learning for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the gamification of fundraising efforts are just some ways in which NPOs have innovated to remain impactful during the pandemic.
Self-directed innovation strategies may pose organisational challenges, such as the need for significant resources, and come up against some external barriers like a lack of motivation from beneficiaries. If executed well, however, these initiatives can help future-proof NPOs and open up vast new possibilities for service delivery and fundraising.
Towards a future-proof and resilient social service sector
The pandemic has challenged many NPOs to ensure service continuity and stakeholder engagement, even with reduced funds and manpower.
If amidst difficulty lies opportunity, then Thrive Social Consulting’s work with the non-profit sector has highlighted the importance of reinventing and adapting existing ways of thinking of and delivering social services. By understanding the leverage points and opportunities offered in the “new normal”, NPOs can rise to meet these challenges head-on, and emerge from the pandemic as a stronger, more agile, and more tech-enabled sector.
An essential part of meeting this goal is communicating and working out these issues with stakeholders, as consistently engaging with both benefactors and industry partners is key in ensuring support for IT and innovation initiatives. By gaining the support of external stakeholders in both industry and government, NPOs can address these critical needs and move with confidence into the new normal.