Thinking About the Future of Civil Society after the Pandemic: Interview to Darren Ward

RACI had the opportunity to interview Darren Ward, co-founder and managing partner of Direct Impact Group, an independent international consultancy, specialized in creating and delivering the change needed to maximize social impact. We talked about his vision on the future of Civil Society facing the pandemic.

RACI: In order to reflect on the importance of long-term strategic planning for Civil Society Organizations… As we face these unexpected situations, such as a pandemic, we see that it is important to be prepared for different scenarios. In this context, how do we find the balance between the immediate and the strategic approach?

Darren Ward: The truth is that we don’t know how this pandemic is going to play out. What we do know is there’ll be ongoing economic and health issues, but how bad they’ll get we don’t know, and we don’t know if there’s going to be a second wave of it globally. So, the scenario planning around this likely case, it’s by starting to think about how your organization would respond if the worst happened. Organizations, when managing their finances, must look into where they are having the greatest impact and think about what effect a cut would have in the future. They also have to know which of the programs they are running have the greatest impact and keep those active, making cuts in those that do not have as much impact. I’ve seen organizations have drawbacks on their investment into donor relations, it may be a difficult time since the level of financing has dropped dramatically, but if they keep the relationships strong, then they’re going to be in a better position when things eventually turn around, which also remain top of mind with their donor as well.

RACI: We talked about how organizations can maximize their social impact. We work a lot with collaborative culture and try to articulate between our organizations, the government and the private sector. Do you think this enriches the impact that organizations can have in times of crisis?

DW: Having someone who is doing that is really important. Collaborations within NGOs working together have increased, but also within all sectors. I think that if organizations want to make some more impact, then they are going to need to look at the whole ecosystem they work in and where their piece of work fits within the community, as well as looking for other partners to work with and really create ongoing impact. Organizations are going to have to be a lot more open to partnership; this will be a key for coming out of this crisis.

RACI: What do you think about the role of donors during the crisis? Do you think they have acted properly?

DW: Many have, some haven’t. But, on the whole, what we hear internationally is that donors, whether it is government donors or philanthropic foundations, have allowed organizations to take the funding that was for a particular project and let them use it so as to keep the organization going and to continue having as much impact as they could. This freedom on funding has been really useful. The organizations need to be really clear on the impact they’re having and quite transparent communicating that to donors as well, so that the trust is sustained.

RACI: Nowadays, many philanthropic organizations and CSOs are covering some work traditionally done by governments. Do you think that, in the long term, some roles will be permanently modified?

DW: Possibly. A lot of that depends on perhaps where the economy is right going into. We see in a lot of countries that NGOs are playing the role of government and have been for a long time, and you don’t see it changing for a long time. This happens because there is no government infrastructure in place that enables them to earn the revenue to fund those programs. It’s building but it’s slow. In emerging markets, I think that there’ll be a real pressure on governments funding, and NGOs will need to step in and pick that up. In some countries you can point that the improved healthcare or education has come with NGOs in the private sector that got involved and actually built an infrastructure in order to provide low-cost services, accessible to the population. In more developed economies, I think that we’ll see a short-term replacement of services perhaps by NGOs, but it will be governments that pace it up on the longer term.

RACI: Thinking about the future and the lessons we have learned, what can organizations take from this situation?

DW: I think there’s a few lessons. We have learnt that organization continuity planning is important and that no financial stress can be taken for granted. We need to think on how to diversify revenue streams, how can we protect them from down terms as much as possible, and what we would do if we have one or all revenues streams reduced significantly. We’ve learned that we can work with a whole lot less infrastructure around us, from home or virtually, without the need to be jumping on a plane all of the time. So, I think we’ve learned that we can do things differently and I think that it’ll change how we work. The trend of program localization will accelerate, of people wanting to have programs that are developed in the community, for the community, to fulfil their needs and to fight for it. I think now we have to trust local organizations, because they are the ones that are on the ground, and partner with them as equals rather than imposing ideals on them.

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