Gardens for Health, Rwanda

Centering Decentralization

Segal Family Foundation


This is the second installment of our COVID learnings report — a much larger write-up that we are sharing with you in bite-sized pieces. There will be a third and final excerpt posted on our Medium in the coming weeks; stay tuned! (Better yet, follow us on Medium and social media so that you don’t miss it — or any other riveting updates from SFF.)

Read the previous installment here.

Like other parts of the world, COVID-19 brought long-existing socio-economic disparities in Africa into sharp focus. We realized early in the pandemic that the population segments disproportionately affected by lockdowns, nationwide school closures, bans on movement, and other restrictions were, often, the poorest and most vulnerable in society (e.g. the sick, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and students dependent on school feeding programs for daily sustenance). Fortunately, SFF’s long-term investments in supporting local grassroots and place-based organizations with deep ties to their communities paid off. These grantee partners found themselves well positioned to pivot quickly to identify and deliver thousands of dollars’ worth of food baskets, cash assistance, and other forms of relief to vulnerable individuals and households facing the threat of hunger, neglect, and evictions.

During this time of learning, we transitioned from the provision of rapid-response grants to a series of COVID adaptation grants. As more information on COVID-19 symptom progression and protocols for managing less severe cases at home was released, we witnessed health partners like DEVLINK and Lwala Community Alliance training Kenyan community health volunteers to provide support with home-based isolation, care, and management of COVID-19 in the community. During the nationwide ban on public transportation in Uganda, Mukisa Foundation and Bless a Child Foundation organized door-to-door food distribution and transportation services to ensure that their clients (children with disabilities and children battling cancer) could continue to access therapeutic meals and make it to health centers for essential medicines, therapies, and treatments. In Rwanda, Solid’Africa was able to use SFF’s COVID rapid-response grant to ensure that vulnerable patients at CHUK, Rwanda’s biggest public hospital, got three meals a day to support their recovery. Approaching COVID response through the lens of the most disadvantaged members of society often enabled our partners to reach entire households and impact more people than they would have otherwise been able to identify.

Jacaranda Foundation, Malawi

Collectively, SFF awarded over $2 million in COVID adaptation grants during this period. These adaptation grants proved key in supporting grantee partners to meet the additional costs associated with resuming their operations safely in keeping with COVID guidelines (for instance, building new classrooms). They were also instrumental in helping our partners to pivot to new ways of delivering services to their constituents and, in some cases, diversifying or adding new program components such as mental and psychosocial support to meet their constituents’ shifting needs during the pandemic.

We learned along the way that the impacts of COVID-19 and national responses to the pandemic varied greatly across our different focus countries. They ranged from Kenya and Rwanda where the government was taking a firm, proactive stance to the pandemic, to Tanzania and Burundi where denial and disinformation were widespread and the situation was further compounded by ambiguity in the official positions taken by their governments regarding the pandemic. We realized that by continuing to take a highly-centralized approach to our response, we would be limiting the ability of our program officers on the ground to respond with the desired nimbleness and creativity. To mitigate this limitation, subsequent phases of our COVID-19 response were fully steered by our in-country program teams. This allowed for greater diversity and innovation in the structure and types of grants awarded. By taking a decentralized approach that accommodated flexibility and contextualization of our COVID response, we were able to respond with more urgency to the immediate challenges and needs in different countries, yielding far better collective impact for our grantee partners and their communities. This decentralized approach has become the foundation of our programmatic operating model, which reflects our bold resolve to center our local teams and partners in shaping the foundation’s strategy, grantmaking, and operations. It is an approach that is enabling us to harness the power of proximity in responding to the diversity and complexity of challenges and opportunities in a dynamic, fast-changing continent.


In uncertain times when fear, misinformation, and distrust run rife (like in the early days of the pandemic), communities look to those they already trust — such as homegrown organizations led by familiar faces. And those organizations in turn look to each other to fill the gaps between their respective areas of expertise. In Malawi, Uganda, and Burundi, our grantee partners came together in coalitions and launched COVID-response programs. The coalitions received additional financing from Segal Family Foundation and other funders, on top of the constituent organizations’ own usual grants. These alliances were incredibly effective: by banding together, their individual and collective impact was amplified through expanded networks. Now we’re thinking about how we can encourage collaboration between our partners in more countries and give these alliances more support to really go the distance. Of course, there is still a lot that we are learning about how these alliances can be adapted for maximum impact and what obstacles there may be along the way. We are hoping that those grantee partners who are more practiced in working as coalitions will provide frameworks to guide those that are just catching on to the model, and to inform our evaluation of the same.

Second in a series, this article is excerpted from the report “Leaning on Our Values in Uncertain Times: Our Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”



Segal Family Foundation

Social impact funder and advisor building a network of visionary local leaders and global donors to advance positive change in Africa