Fit for the Future: Can we emerge stronger from the COVID-19 crisis? – Full Piece

Perspectives on investing in civil society, philanthropic and technical infrastructure.  

Civil society – both in its more and less institutionalized forms – has organised extensively to respond to the health, humanitarian, and governance challenges unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our space to do so varies hugely thanks to the diverse regulatory, reputational, philanthropic, and technical infrastructures available to those who seek to support their communities through this challenging time. 

It is vital that the global recovery effort includes measures to protect, strengthen, and sustain civil society itself – and, importantly, investments into the infrastructure upon which we stand. Civil society was not ready for COVID-19. Benjamin Bellegy (WINGS), Chris Worman (TechSoup), and Lysa John (CIVICUS) speak to the actions we must take to emerge wiser and stronger from the current crisis and to be prepared for the crises to come. This collection of viewpoints is the first of a series aiming to assess changes needed to ensure a stronger supporting environment and enabling infrastructure for civil society.


Lysa John (CIVICUS) 

How do you see the role of civil society in this crisis and how do you assess its global response so far? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock to the system for civil society the world over. It seems ironic that only a few months ago we were seeing a wave of civic activism around the world. 2019 was being celebrated as the ‘Year of People Power’. A  mass, global uprising against autocratic regimes across the world seemed very real and very achievable. In one fell stroke, we have experienced the abrupt removal of fundamental freedoms that human rights defenders have fought to protect at great cost. 

And yet, even as we cope with the severance of a collective struggle, it seems apparent that civil society across the world has not stopped finding new ways to respond. As often happens in crises, organisations around the world have come forward – providing food, health care and other essential services to those in need. They have organised extensively to share information, undertake analyses and organise the actions needed to reinforce accountability and pursue responsive policy outcomes; all of this designed to connect issues and transcend borders at a scale that we haven’t seen in years. 

What could have been different and what would it take?

The pandemic is forcing us to tackle some glaring distortions in the way we operate as a sector. These are not new challenges – but the effort needed to require us to have immersed ourselves in an uncomfortable course of reflection and reform. One such distortion that is painfully visible as a result of the pandemic is the extreme fragility of our support systems. The CIVICUS Monitor points to several alarming trends that have accompanied the measures that are being taken to contain the pandemic. This includes unjustified restrictions on access to information and censorship; detentions of activists for disseminating critical information; crackdowns on human rights defenders and media outlets; and, violations of the right to privacy and overly broad emergency powers.

As outlined in this Open Letter to Donors, the availability of flexible funding to sustain core operational costs will determine which organisations will survive the adverse economic effects of the crises. We are inspired to see a wide range of philanthropic organisations embrace these principles. This emergency, however, must ensure that we remain committed to sustaining civil society through diverse and flexible forms of resourcing.

What is needed to strengthen this infrastructure? 

There is an urgent need for us to act together to stop governments from using the pandemic as a pretext to restrict civic space, as this statement to world leaders supported by over 600 organisations underscores . Even where an official proclamation of emergency has been made, fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from torture and inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment must remain uninfringed.  These compliances must be accompanied by a systematic effort to design and effect a comprehensive global recovery effort. Fundamental shifts are needed to make the world fit for future generations. 

For civil society more specifically, the change we need to see is greater levels of direct investment in organisations of the global south. While much has been said about the ‘localisation agenda’ in past years, little has changed by way of resourcing trends. Four years after the international community committed to increase investments in local organisations, the percentage of official development assistance (ODA) reaching them remains at the same level: less than 1 percent. This means that while community organisations are best placed to respond to a complex crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, the infrastructure required to ensure their sustained intervention remains pitifully inadequate. Resource flows to southern civil society can no longer be an afterthought for the international donor community.

How can the current crisis help change this status quo?

Soon after the pandemic was declared, close to 200 civil society organisations signed up to a ‘Social Security Protocol’ developed in line with the ILO’s COVID-19 policy framework. The Protocol requires organisations to deliberate a 6-point framework for social protection and ensure a transparent and time-bound communication on measures that will be adopted. The fact that this list includes only one major international organisation is deeply disturbing. Large, global NGOs must be bolder and adopt the social security measures that we are demanding from governments and businesses. Without this, frontline civil society workers – a majority of whom are women – will be disproportionately affected by the loss of jobs and incomes as a result of cost-cutting measures. 

Six years ago a group of leaders put out an open letter to civil society exhorting us to ensure that our primary accountability is ‘to everyone that is or has been on the losing end of globalisation and inequality and to the generation that will inherit a catastrophic future’. Sharing power and strengthening accountability cannot be left to chance. Coming out of this pandemic, we must agree that correcting inequity of access within civil society is a challenge we can no longer ignore. 


Benjamin Bellegy (WINGS): 

How do you see the role of civil society in such a crisis and how do you assess its global response so far? 

Civil society’s role is critical not only because it can help fill gaps, reach communities that governments are not able or willing to support, generate huge and often under noticed amounts of services to alleviate adverse effects and to rebuild economies, and hope. Perhaps above all the third sector might be the only one still able to generate a vision of, and new models for, our societies. Where political parties and governments are no longer expected to provide vision and hope, and business corporations reveal its structural limitations in producing equity, civil society remains a messy space and creative chaos, in which citizens feel motivated to engage in forward-thinking and acts. 

The voluntary engagement in response to the Covid-19 crisis is spectacular. At a time when we face fundamental questioning of our civilisational models built on individualism, consumerism, disconnection of the economy and democratic processes from territories, rationalism, and an outdated idea of progress… beyond much-needed services, civil society can provide hope, vision and concrete experiences for a future we need to reimagine. 

Speaking from the perspective of philanthropy and giving, the response has been impressive. In terms of volume: a country like Brazil has seen a surge in donations to nearly 700 million USD. In China, Yishan has tracked over 4 billion USD in donations. This is unprecedented, especially in countries where people tend to rely on the state to address social issues. We have observed a number of pledges and calls to encourage foundations to support their partners in new ways, providing unrestricted funding, listening to their needs, spending down more, thinking long-term, etc. 

However, I see two downsides to this positive assessment: first, there is much more that could be done with the adequate support system for giving. In countries like India, civil society and philanthropic actors are struggling to be part of the government’s response plan because they lack infrastructure to raise their voices. A lack of infrastructure and understanding of the role of an independent philanthropic sector (including a lack of norms, trust and capacity) leads to private philanthropic support flowing towards non-transparent government funds. This could instead go to grassroots organizations that face severe lack of funding just when they could be making the most difference in their communities.  

Second, we need to go beyond lauding ourselves for increased volumes and flexibility in the moment. We need to be bolder and engage in a more radical reflection on both the society we want to rebuild after Covid-19, and on the sector we need to achieve that vision. We need a new narrative, and a “new normal” for philanthropy: how to put trust at the center, how to listen, how to address root causes and engage in systems change, how to stop shying away from policy and advocacy, how to become more accountable, how to leverage investments and non-financial assets, how to influence core business, etc.

What could have been different and what would it take?

A strong ecosystem of support able to build trust and transparency, advocate for enabling policies (domestic and cross-border) and build bridges with other sectors, the philanthropic response would not only be multiplied financially but in terms of impact as well.  

For such ecosystems to be in place we need a shift of mindset amongst funders, from that of an independent institution/person trying to achieve a specific mission – and therefore limited to investments only directly related to specific priorities –  to understanding ourselves as but one element in a broader ecosystem whose real impact can only be unleashed as a collective, through connection and collaboration. Once this mindset is in place we might see more thoughtful reflections on the need for a strong, shared, infrastructure, and more investments, both on the supply and demand side of civil society. Going back to our India example, if advocacy efforts had been made over the past decade, today  we might have seen the inclusion of civil society in the response plans that could lead to tremendous financial return on investment for the sector. 

The WINGS global network is engaged in the #LiftUpPhilanthropy campaign to raise awareness on this question. The business sector perfectly understands the need to invest in cooperation and collective bodies (universities, research, lobbying, etc.). Why can’t philanthropy do the same? Is it because we have no market pressure that we rarely leave our comfort zones? Our own pressure to make the biggest possible collective impact on society, beyond our specific cause, can be stronger than any market pressure. Increasingly we see funders engaging in such reflections. This is evolving in positive ways and the current crisis could be a turning point. 

What is needed to strengthen this infrastructure?

I have covered this in the previous question. I would only add that it will take a coordinated effort and a shared vision of the potential of philanthropy in a specific place. Our coming research at WINGS will propose a methodology to map the support ecosystem and engage funders and stakeholders in building a roadmap to strengthen it. We hope it will encourage many players to engage in this type of reflection and that it will lead to coordinated investments. Support organizations also have a role to play by reinventing themselves and working through a collaboration paradigm and field thinking, so that the infrastructure becomes a proper ecosystem which gets its resilience from diversity and interconnections.

How can the current crisis help change this status quo?

The current crisis has made the interdependence of philanthropic actors and the need and potential for a strong infrastructure obvious. In such an unprecedented moment, people need data, they need a safe space to talk to each other, they need a voice to advocate, and they need a collective space to reflect on their role and on the society they want to help rebuild. Perhaps this crisis, which is a crisis of distance, forcing us towards our individualism, will, by contrast, reaffirm how interconnected we are and how much more we can achieve as a field than as individual elements.


Chris Worman (TechSoup) 

How do you see the role of civil society in such a crisis and how do you assess its global response so far? 

I think the role of civil society in crisis is pretty much the same as at any other time – supporting and enabling the community to achieve their goals. What is obviously different is the stress and nature of challenges on our communities; and the challenge for those who seek to enable civil society and ensure operational space. From that perspective I would say civil society in the broadest sense – people taking care of people whether or not they are institutionalized as an NGO, whether or not they are paid to do it – is performing admirably and to their best ability. 

Meanwhile, it is clear that organized civil society is struggling. There are dire predictions that many NGOs will disappear. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, this is not horribly surprising. COVID-19 has accelerated the inevitable – organizations who were, at the best of times, struggling to make ends meet for various reasons will disappear. I mourn the disappearance of their aggregated knowledge and community-level trust. 

Yet others, rooted in this moment will arise to replace those lost and we may see a more community-based generation of civil society leaders emerge from this crisis. Pure, grassroots, social action seems to be responding admirably well. Most community-based organizations seem to be making do. 

Many institutionalized ‘NGOs,’ on the other hand, seem to be responding to the crisis and associated struggles by pointing at philanthropy’s failure to give them more money. But is that fair? Surely some philanthropic actors could be doing more but there was never enough philanthropy to cover all costs for all NGOs all the time; and there never will be. Foundation and government aid represents less than 1% of the total economic value of civil society – whether or not they should be able to save everyone, they cannot. 

As we come through the crisis, I believe responding admirably (as Lysa, Benjamin and others have addressed in their own way) includes calling out the underperformance and weaknesses of a system that many like to call civil society – but by which they really mean philanthropically and governmentally supported institutionalized NGOs. The breakdown of that system, the power, institutional and infrastructure disparities within it are all on perfect display right now. 

While we all work in the moment to take care of our communities, as exhausting as it is, we need to have discussions about the infrastructure we lack and need, rally around building it so that each in civil society – formal or not – is best able to help humanity recover and prepare for the next crisis. If we manage to do so we will have done so much more than respond, we will have grown.  

What could have been different and what would it take?

From the technology capacity building and infrastructure standpoint it is probably not surprising that I would start by pointing out that COVID-19 is – amongst other things – a uniquely digital crisis. 

Social distancing forced all who could, to work from home and pivot to remote services. As noted above, many will not be able to and some will disappear – taking their knowledge and social capital with them. Those who were able to make the shift are at risk of increased surveillance and data insecurity. What could have been different would have been a digitally mature civil society. While that sounds like (and is) an enormous concept, it is not unfeasible. There are organizations like TechSoup providing digital tools, training and services globally. There are many more with whom we could partner. There are others working on digital policy, building new tools and types of infrastructure with the sector. Yet others, like Candid, work to make sense of the data we create. 

Imagine, for instance, if the world’s millions of health workers had tools like WorkerConnect, with its combination of notification and reporting functions. When COVID-19 burst into our reality, from the first identified case to the last, healthcare providers would have known what to look for and how to prepare based on what others were learning. If they saw symptoms, had specific challenges or needs, they could have gotten answers and raised their voices to crisis response coordinators (anonymously if needed). Media could have had more accurate information. Governments could have had community level data on spread, nature and needs. You and your family would have been safer. 

We are not unimaginably far from such an example. Building the digital infrastructure we need to enable such will take a clear vision of the combined policy, infrastructure, skills and learning capacities we need – matched with appropriate financial models and support – for us to take off our fundraising hats and work together on the digital we need (vs the one we will otherwise get); lining up behind who is best at solving which problems and advocating to get them the support they need to solve their piece of the equation. We can ensure access, skills, and support. We have brilliant people who can lead policy with the community. We need a shared vision and the will to work together. 

How can the current crisis help change this status quo?

By taking the moment to have the conversations we need to have, the courage to admit we could all do better, and the will to deliver with and for our communities. When I was starting the Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation, I ran into a sociologist researching the intersection of individual philanthropy and natural disaster. He pointed out that during a disaster and shortly after, people exhibit their altruistic best selves for reasons they have a hard time articulating. His research, centering on sociological imagination, indicated if you can get people to recognize their changed behavior you can get them to label it, value it, compare it to where they had been and if they wanted to go back to the way they were. 

If so, this is our moment to change. We are in crisis. Many have labeled new behaviors, committing to change. We have all questioned the efficacy of our work and known we could do better in our complex work leading grantmaking and social change initiatives. The crisis has shone a light on behaviors we probably should have been practicing anyway. If we do not talk about and evaluate the new versus the old we will not be able to value the difference and we will return to the way things were. That would be a loss. While there are parts of how we operated that were well and good, there is much in committed new behaviors to maintain. We need to identify the difference, have the conversation and establish some new norms.

We should not easily slip back to the way we were. We owe it to ourselves to do better. And we owe it to our communities. As environmental, economic, political and demographic (mega)trends converge, we will face increasingly challenging crises and we will need civil society in its most holistic sense – our formal and informal selves, our resiliency and deliberative capacities – to maintain space and build a voice for our most vulnerable as we navigate through. This crisis has shown us how much we lack and what we need to build. We must take heed and build it.  



What if we had been ready for COVID-19? What if we had the infrastructure we needed, each to their best effect, to respond? If we take a moment to break through our own silos and think of ourselves as one small part of civil society, one part of its sustainability and potential to contribute to a healthy and just future, we see emerging a world of possibilities for partnership, collaboration and growth. We know achieving it will require more and more sustainable resources available for civil society actors, more trust along the chain and increased capacity of local groups to respond, more bridges and tools to coordinate and collaborate with governments and other actors, more enablement, more diversity and support for social change actors, more effective use of resources, more ability to find and leverage synergy to drive greater and deeper collective impact.

We call each – civil society and funders alike – to consider the support ecosystem for civil society and philanthropy as a fundamental issue going forward; one we can all positively influence and one we all need to best leverage and unlock our individual and collective potential.

There are models (Unlocking Philanthropy’s potential; What makes a strong ecosystem of support to philanthropy?), there is evidence that infrastructure organizations are making a big difference (Promoting an enabling environment for philanthropy and civil society). There are gaps to be addressed – according to WINGS research, 80% of investments in philanthropic infrastructure are in North America, the rest of the world lags. 

We know what needs to be done and we can do it. This is not aside from our social mission or mandate, this is central to it, whatever our cause. In the face of this unprecedented crisis let us engage in new ways of achieving a better world, by investing thoughtfully in the foundations of change, by thinking long term and collective impact, by working with the ‘guardians’ of civil society and social impact to ensure each of us has the infrastructure we need to build toward our respective visions of a more equitable world. 


(An abridged version of this reflection, going by the same title, has also been published at Alliance Magazine: Fit for the Future: Can we emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis?)

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