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The impact of COVID-19 on civil society

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Over the last four months, organizations around the globe have surveyed foundations, nonprofits, civil society organizations, and individuals to learn how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting them. The findings from these surveys provide data to help the sector best respond to the crisis, strengthen solidarity, and inform advocacy.

With so many surveys conducted across the globe, we at Candid were curious to understand what the common challenges, experiences, and needs might be across regions. So we aggregated the surveys into one list. So far, we’ve collected information on 51 surveys from 47 organizations, including member-based organizations, philanthropy-serving organizations, nonprofit support organizations, community foundations, donor-advised funds, academia, and corporate institutions. Representatives of nonprofit organizations, funders, and civil society organizations (CSOs) participated in the surveys. Some 28 surveys focused on the U.S. and 23 on regions outside the U.S. (9 of these with a global scope). Most of the surveys were administered between March and May.

Looking at the questions asked across the board, these surveys primarily aimed to 1) to assess the impact of the pandemic on organization operations, 2) understand how organizations are coping and responding to these challenges, and 3) identify opportunities and lessons learned.

We know the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated and exposed the many global challenges communities face, but it has also highlighted weaknesses, challenges, and opportunities within the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. The survey responses help us understand what those are. Our analysis below on the impact COVID-19 on civil society falls into five categories: financial constraints, challenges of working remotely, new ways of responding to the crisis, the importance of funder support for building resilience, and miscellaneous observations.

1. Financial constraints are top of mind

Organizations without significant cash reserves are worried about limited savings at a moment when in-person fundraising and revenue-generating program services have been reduced or halted altogether. A Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) America survey of global nonprofits conducted at the end of April found that 94 percent of organizations are being negatively affected, and 72 percent are experiencing revenue drops. A survey from LaPiana and Associates shows 90 percent of U.S.-based nonprofits had experienced a reduction in revenue by April 2020.

Some organizations have already experienced or are anticipating a loss in funding because of the crisis. To add to this concern, many anticipate a reduction in philanthropic giving as a result of economic disruption or redirected funds. As one respondent to La Piana’s survey shared:

I’m very concerned that the philanthropic community is pivoting towards only funding COVID-19 related organizations, and I am concerned about social service groups that aren’t directly working on this and therefore not eligible for grants and resources.

Findings from a survey conducted by the Zambian Governance Foundation also found that 67 percent of CSOs feel uncertainty over funders’ response to delays in implementation of funds, and 18 percent have had donors decrease or withdraw anticipated funding. Respondents to a LINC survey, which mostly represented grassroots organizations based in the Global South, are also worried that serious development challenges they have been working on for decades are being deprioritized. They are concerned about what deprioritization will mean in the long run.

There is also, however, evidence of greater faith in foundation giving over other sources of funding. A Center for Effective Philanthropy survey of U.S.-based nonprofits found that those that rely on foundation funding are experiencing fewer negative impacts and more stable funding than those that rely on earned revenue or gifts from individual donors. This conclusion aligns with findings from a CCS Fundraising survey of U.S.-based nonprofits that demonstrated respondents have the most confidence in foundation giving; 73 percent said they expect foundation giving to remain the same or increase through year end.

Although it’s hard to say exactly what the pandemic’s long-term impacts on funding will be, it’s clear that there is significant opportunity for philanthropy to counter unprecedented disruptions and losses felt across the sector. During a recent Candid webinar, “Global Civil Society in the COVID-19 Era,” LINC managing director Rich Fromer explained their survey findings suggest:

Unrestricted and flexible funding is really important for organizations to manage their own resilience especially at a time like this when funding overall is more uncertain. It also allows them to be quicker to respond to the core needs on the ground.

Further, we don’t know exactly how many organizations will have to shut their doors because of uncertain financial circumstances, but recent analysis suggests a range of possibilities, some more optimistic than others.

2. Organizations are finding it challenging to work remotely

Some organizations are grappling with increased stress and limited technological capacity as they strive to work remotely. Senior leaders of WINGS member organizations around the globe ranked “wellness and care for self and team” as their third topmost concern, after fundraising and financial scenario planning. More than 40 percent of organizations in Brazil reported their staffs were stressed and overworked in a survey coordinated by Mobiliza and Reos Partners. For many, there is more work to be done as a result of COVID-19, and organizations are finding it hard to support their staff. More than 70 percent of respondents to CAF America’s May survey identified staff salaries as an operational cost they need urgently funded. In some cases, staff employment, benefits, and salaries have been cut as cost-saving measures. One respondent to the CAF survey shared:

We already froze salaries, but we will have to add additional cuts if donations do not improve.

A majority of organizations have moved at least some of their work online or to other remote formats, but some are unable to transfer their activities online because of lack of needed technology, lack of technical capacity by staff and beneficiaries trained to use online platforms, or simply because their programs do not fit remote formats. A CAF Russia survey found only 26 percent of Russia-based NGOs had no difficulty conducting programs remotely, and a survey conducted by the University of San Diego Nonprofit Institute found more than half of San Diego-based nonprofits still need support in accessing technology to deliver remote services.

3. Organizations are finding new ways to help their communities and each other respond to the crisis

Organizations are using innovative ways to fund their responses, such as mobilizing in-kind or other donations from local communities, using savings from canceled events, and forming partnerships. They are also implementing health action plans, playing a key role in sharing information about the pandemic with local communities, and adapting their programs to become more resilient in the face of the crisis for the long term.

Almost half of all local CSOs surveyed around the world by LINC have added new services in order to respond directly to the pandemic. Examples include distributing accurate information on coronavirus, sending food and supplies to families in need, conducting trainings on self-sufficiency for water, food, housing, energy and waste management, and providing psychosocial support. When the Communications Network asked U.S.-based nonprofits and foundations, “Has your organization developed an internal working group to navigate the COVID-19 crisis?” 69 percent replied that they had. A majority of these working groups include leadership and senior executives, communication staff, and program and operations staff.

Organizations report they are exploring and forming partnerships because of the crisis, both to coordinate responses and help some organizations stay afloat. According to a survey from the Mexican Center for Philanthropy, almost 20 percent of CSOs in Mexico have already adopted collaborative practices. Nearly a quarter of respondents to La Piana’s survey are considering partnerships, including mergers, with other nonprofits.

There is also a sense of hope that positive change can be forged from the adaptations the crisis has forced. Some 45 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by @AfricanNGOs and EPIC-Africa believe organizations will emerge stronger and more agile after the pandemic, and over half are documenting their experiences now with intention to incorporate them into their monitoring and evaluation frameworks. They even believe the crisis will force funders to rethink the power dynamics between them and shift to strategies that strengthen the long-term resilience and independence of African CSOs. PeaceDirect’s survey of local peacebuilders found that they hope this moment is an opportunity to strengthen social cohesion and adopt more transformative and resilient practices. As one respondent shared:

This pandemic is propelling us to re-examine the way we work, to find creative ways to promote peaceful resolution of conflicts in the regions we operate, and to find additional means to engage and meet our commitments, whether to partners on the ground or our funders.

4. Resilience can only be built with funder support

Nonprofits aren’t the only organizations conducting and responding to surveys. Funders are also administering and taking them to detemine the impact of COVID-19 on civil society. Surveys targeting the funder community showed a majority anticipate increasing or maintaining funding in 2020. About half of U.S.-based Exponent Philanthropy members say they’ll give more this year because of the pandemic, and 57 percent of PEAK Grantmaking members have already converted existing project grants to operating grants. A European Foundation Centre survey found that 83 percent of member organizations had launched or are planning to launch new initiatives, including emergency funds, research projects, funding pledges, and long-term programs.

Although foundations have been helping, their assistance may not be enough, given the financial burdens nonprofits currently face as well as the uncertainty over the long term. Asked to evaluate conditions that would most enable their organizations’ sustainability, CSOs in Turkey identified the top factors as “donors to increase their core funding,” followed by “creating opportunities for an effective public-civil society cooperation” and “flexibility of donors.”

COVID-19 has brought many societal inequities to light, and the negative impacts have been magnified for organizations that serve historically disadvantaged communities. Some funders are addressing this situation by focusing their support on highly vulnerable communities and individuals. In the U.K., 13 of the 56 funders surveyed by the Association of Charitable Foundations are engaging in advocacy for specific vulnerable populations. Of the U.S.-based funders surveyed by Exponent Philanthropy, over half are shifting their work to support individuals economically affected by COVID-19.

Although these two examples show funder attention toward marginalized communities, most surveys did not provide information around vulnerable groups. It’s hard to know how civil society organizations are meeting the needs of groups and individuals most impacted by the pandemic and economic disruption, and to what extent funders, generally, are addressing inequities and targeting funds. Candid’s funding data reveals that, so far, more than $12.8 billion has been given and more than 860 funds have been created in response to the pandemic. Funds are primarily targeting geographic regions rather than specific population groups. It remains to be seen what the impact will be for these groups.

Some funders are seeing the ways in which historic funding structures have weakened the the social sector’s ability to respond to major crisis and inequities, and how funders themselves can in fact respond differently and build nonprofit resilience. Some have shifted away from their traditional approaches to better respond to immediate needs. They are launching new initiatives, pooling resources, providing funds outside normal grant cycles, making additional grants to existing grantees, increasing flexibility around application and reporting requirements, and creating conversation with both their peer and grantee communities to inform their decision making. But as Exponent Philanthropy so aptly named its survey findings, “COVID-19: How Have Funders Changed Their Approach & What Will Stick?” we have yet to see what practices will stick.

As funders continue to work to strengthen the agency of partners on the ground, organizations have noted a number of short- and long-term needs. Degan Ali, executive director of Adeso, shared during a recent Candid webinar:

We really need to start investing in institutions and not in projects. We need to start thinking about how we can strengthen an organization to be financially resilient and sustainable and diversify its funding streams.

Going forward, organizations are asking funders to continue providing financial assistance, transparently communicate their commitments, address structural change, help organizations plan as we shift into the next stages of the crisis and a new normal, and keep moving forward with the transformative ways they have been showing.

5. A few miscellaneous findings that might be of interest

  • A nonprofit leader’s gender matters when it comes to transparency about future funding from major donors. Major donors are significantly more likely to have talked with nonprofits led by men and are significantly less likely to have talked with those led by women about how they will support them in the future. (“Funder Support During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Center for Effective Philanthropy)
  • Younger generations plan to give more than others. Some 46 percent of Millennials say they will step up donations in response to the pandemic, compared to 14 percent of Baby Boomers and 25 percent of Gen X. Those who say they will decrease their donations to charity are primarily concerned about the economy and a recession. (“COVID-19 and philanthropy: How donor behaviors are shifting amid pandemic,” Fidelity Charitable)
  • Since this crisis began, fewer people are carrying and using cash. Previous research has shown that, despite technological advances, over 50 percent of donations are still made via cash. Some 63 percent of charities said that they could accept some form of digital donations whether via their websites, an online platform, or contactless donations. Another 23 percent, however, stated they cannot accept digital donations, which is of concern given the lower numbers of people carrying cash during the pandemic. (“CAF Charity Coronavirus Briefing: 3 months into lockdown, how are charities in the UK faring?” Charities Aid Foundation)
  • Not all governments have supported or recognized the efforts of CSOs, nor have all offered support to lessen the pandemic’s impact on CSOs’ operations and program activities. Some 72 percent of African CSOs surveyed feel that governments have failed to recognize and utilize local CSOs’ skills, experience, and networks and that this oversight has weakened the planning, coordination, and sustainability of national responses. (“The Impact of COVID-19 on African Civil Society Organizations,” @AfricanNGOs and EPIC-Africa)
  • Nonprofits are struggling with staff and volunteer availability specifically because of child or dependent care. Over half of staff are already experiencing this problem, and others expect to as we shift into a new normal and continued closures. (COVID-19 Survey Results,” Nonprofit Finance Fund)


We are still unsure about the full impact of COVID-19 on civil society and what it means for funders and grantees alike, both now and in the future. We hope, however, this type of analysis can support decision making so we can reduce the negative impacts of COVID-19 on civil society. We’ll continue adding to the list of surveys shared on Candid’s coronavirus pop-up web page, so please share your surveys and data with us if you don’t see them included.


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