• Funders play a key role in supporting social entrepreneurs struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • But the needs today aren't the same as at the beginning of the crisis. The focus is shifting from immediate survival to weathering the storm.
  • The most important thing for funders is adaptability.

A “crisis” is generally defined by an acute, time-bound period of disruption, hardship, or challenge. A crisis comes, and it goes. And when it does, calm and a return to normal typically follow. Yet, what happens when crises follow one another at an accelerating scale and pace? How do you respond when the crisis is the new normal?

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the world in March, there was a massive surge of organizations tumbling into immediate crisis, as the crisis caused an urgent and often existential need of the employees and customers of these entrepreneurs for basic goods - be it food, education or healthcare.

In response, Open Road Alliance, an emergency funder of social entrepreneurs across the world, doubled its grantmaking budget to rapidly support entrepreneurs operating on the front line of the crisis. However, within days, the number of grant requests far outnumbered the funds available, with no end in sight for the pandemic.

As time has gone on, it has become painfully clear that, with COVID-19 set to be around for the foreseeable future, a different set of responses is required as most organizations move from a focus on survival to longer-term resilience. The role of funders must therefore adapt too.

Jibu equips emerging market entrepreneurs to create affordable access to drinking water.
Jibu equips emerging market entrepreneurs to create affordable access to drinking water.
Image: Image: Jibu

For example, GHR Foundation, a funder of community-led impact initiatives, quickly recognized the threat of COVID-19 as not only a health crisis but also an economic, ecological and equity crisis that required an integrated response. In addition to establishing an agility fund to address partners’ operational needs beyond their usual programming, GHR also increased its support to a number of partners that were doing the hard work of preparing for a new future of society.

Examples include The Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission, The Great Reset at the World Economic Forum and Religions for Peace’s multi-religious humanitarian fund. Efforts like these respond to both the acute crisis and promote a necessary paradigm shift that allows social entrepreneurship - and the communities they serve - to flourish.

What is the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

The COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship is a coalition of 85 global leaders, hosted by the World Economic Forum. Its mission: Join hands in support of social entrepreneurs everywhere as vital first responders to the pandemic and as pioneers of a green, inclusive economic reality.

Its COVID Social Enterprise Action Agenda, outlines 25 concrete recommendations for key stakeholder groups, including funders and philanthropists, investors, government institutions, support organizations, and corporations. In January of 2021, its members launched its 2021 Roadmap through which its members will roll out an ambitious set of 21 action projects in 10 areas of work. Including corporate access and policy change in support of a social economy.

For more information see the Alliance website or its “impact story” here.

Reimagining funding

There is an opportunity to use this unprecedented moment in time to reimagine the systems that are failing us today. And it would be even more powerful if these solutions are informed by the impacts, innovative approaches and perspectives of social entrepreneurs, who are working at the front lines of the crises and are vital links to creative change-making at the global level.

That's why both GHR and Open Road are part of the World Economic Forum’s COVID-Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs. Launched in May, it is a group of 82 global leaders from all sectors that are working together to support social entrepreneurs during the pandemic. In September the Alliance published a COVID Social Enterprise Action Agenda that surfaces priority needs of social entrepreneurs.

Noora Health is online platform that offers training and information to caregivers and patients.
Noora Health is online platform that offers training and information to caregivers and patients.
Image: Image: Noora Health

Making it count in the long-term

The world we were responding to in March is not the same world we are in today. Not only is the need for financial and non-financial support increasing, but also the nature of such support needs fluctuates.

Rather than the "straight-up" liquidity needs in March, most of our applicants' problems are now more complex, with no one asking for "just three months" of bridge financing to get through. As social entrepreneurs increasingly realise that there is no return to "normal," they are forced to ask themselves how they can adapt their models so they can put their organization back on the path to growth - not just survival.

For example, Street Child, an education enterprise serving remote communities in rural Nepal had to pivot its entire delivery model to continue the education of girls with no in-person contact and no access to standard 'remote learning' tools such as a computer, internet, or even reliable electricity. As another example, Medical Teams International, a healthcare enterprise in Colombia serving the Venezuelan refugee population, had to redesign their entire approach moving from a door-to-door to a digital outreach strategy.

Pro Mujer provides financial inclusion, health and education programs to low-income women in Latin America.
Pro Mujer provides financial inclusion, health and education programs to low-income women in Latin America.
Image: Image: Pro Mujer

What's the implication for funders and philanthropies? We must maintain a flexible mindset, maintain a steady pace and mount a response that is not based on the time-bound ideas of solving a crisis but based on the adaptive and flexible ingredients of weathering change.

With two-thirds of the world in lockdown and 1.6 billion people experiencing the devastating effects on their livelihoods, it is clear that we need more funders to take action, both individually and in collaboration. We must use the tools we developed in the early days of response as an ongoing adaptable set of components. Rather than to seek a return to normal, funders must make adaptability and collaboration a permanent part of our organizational fabric.

Through the alliance as well as in our day-to-day work, we will do what is in our power to meet the moment, stand by our social entrepreneurs and grantees as they weather the crises of our day - be it, COVID-19, economic recessions, social injustice or climate change. We will reach deeper into our pockets where we can, adapt to the circumstances, and team up with fellow funders where we can - making it easy for those working on the ground to access the resources they so desperately need, faster.

In the year ahead, the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs will be bringing corporations, investors, funders, government institutions, media, academics and social enterprise support organisations together to strengthen, streamline and pool their support efforts. While we can’t tell the future, we do know that significant storms lie ahead. The time to gear up and get ready to navigate them as funders and philanthropists is now.