Social Innovation

The COVID-19 response has shown what we are capable of when we work together

Raj Kumar, 42, a driver of an auto rickshaw ambulance which is prepared to transfer people suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and their relatives for free, waits for passengers in New Delhi, India May 6, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - RC23AN94AM13

Social entrepreneurs and other groups India have responded rapidly to help the population cope with the ongoing crisis. Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Mary Beth Cote-Jenssen
Chief Partnerships Officer, Root Capital
Saskia Bruysten
Co-Founder and Executive Chair, Yunus Social Business
Yasmina Zaidman
Chief Partnerships Officer, Acumen
Rebecca Eastmond
Co-Founder and CEO, Greenwood Place
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  • Leaders in social entrepreneurship have had to rethink existing approaches during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Breakthrough collaboration has allowed sector leaders to channel support through social entrepreneurs to the frontlines of the crisis.
  • Lessons learned can form a blueprint for how the sector moves forward.

When India entered into lockdown early in 2020, lives and livelihoods were thrown into disarray. Among those hardest hit were informal waste pickers. Unable to continue working, most lost their income overnight.

But not all were left unprovided for. Thanks to the swift action of Indian social enterprise Waste Ventures – an organization that in normal times offers professional recycling services while supporting waste pickers with higher incomes – and an emergency grant from Yunus Social Business, incomes continued to be paid to 1,200 waste pickers and 1,600 food kits were provided to their families at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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It is a pattern that we, as funders, have observed over and over again during the past 18 months. At a time when governments across the globe have been overwhelmed and, in many cases, unable to support their most vulnerable populations, social entrepreneurs like Waste Ventures have shown up early and acted fast to support communities.

No choice but to rethink existing approaches

At Yunus Social Business, Root Capital and Acumen, we work with social entrepreneurs that are catalysts for social impact and poverty reduction, providing investment capital and non-financial support to help them to scale. In the face of the crisis, we were all grappling with uncertainty about how best to respond and knew that we had to rethink our existing approaches. We quickly realized that through the social businesses we work with we had an opportunity to get help to those who were being worst impacted by the pandemic, including informal workers like the waste pickers in India, but also smallholder farmers in Africa, artisans, collectives and others.

A fourth partner, Greenwood Place, a funder that acts on behalf of a small number of private foundations, stepped in to help catalyse our response. Having had a longstanding relationship with each of us, Greenwood understood the pivotal role we could play in listening to and supporting social entrepreneurs with flexible emergency funding through the lockdown. Through the generosity of one of its clients, a grant of €2 million was split between our three organizations and was ready for deployment by the beginning of May 2020.

These funds found their way to social enterprises working on the frontlines of the crisis in various ways. Through its COVID-19 Resilience Grants programme, Root Capital disbursed $1.5 million in flexible, one-time grants to 92 agricultural businesses, in addition to providing more than $100 million in working capital to struggling businesses. These grants financed efforts designed to keep their 200,000 farmer-members safe, provide employment protections, and address the pandemic’s uneven impacts on women.

Yunus Social Business’s COVID-19 Relief Grants programme committed €1.6 million to 20 social businesses. This emergency grant funding secured the incomes of over 14,000 people for the critical lockdown period of three to six months. Acumen raised an additional $4.8 million for the Acumen Emergency Facility (AEF) and has disbursed $4.3 million in 109 flexible grants and loans to entrepreneurs and Fellows to help them protect jobs, ensure business continuity and provide relief.


What is the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

Because of our shared commitment to double down on our support to social entrepreneurs during COVID-19, we have been able to ensure not just that help has reached those who need it, but that the social enterprises themselves could sustain operations and continue to provide critical services to vulnerable populations safely. For some, this meant pivoting to new ways of operating – including adopting remote-working models.

For example, Sehat Kahani, an all-female medical team that serves low-income communities in Pakistan and is led by Acumen Fellow Sara Khurram, started offering COVID-19 telemedicine services free of charge thanks to Acumen’s Emergency Facility funding. The enterprise partnered with the federal government during COVID-19 to test, track and quarantine COVID-19 suspected cases, and provide online care during lockdown to more than 189,700 patients.

Laying down a new path through breakthrough collaboration

At the beginning of the crisis, we could not have anticipated these successes. We knew we were in uncharted territory. There was no roadmap for our community on how to respond but, fortunately, it is not a path that we have had to walk alone.

Quite quickly, we all came to one table through the World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs – a collaboration of more than 80 leaders in social entrepreneurship. By sharing lessons learned in real-time, we were all able to adapt more quickly and avoid common pitfalls that would slow down our response to support social entrepreneurs during the crisis. By finding similarities with others in the community, we enhanced our collective impact and created opportunities to collaborate so that our work could achieve maximum impact for social entrepreneurs and the communities they serve.


What are the Alliance’s 21 Action Projects & who is in the lead?

Looking ahead, we are in a position of strength knowing the impact that we can each have individually, and having seen the ways we can amplify that impact by working together. The lessons we’ve learned around being agile and the power of breakthrough collaboration need to inform how we move forward as a sector. The vital work of social enterprises in building a more inclusive and resilient world that puts vulnerable communities first will depend on our ability to learn and grow together.

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