In 2020 and 2021, Segal Family Foundation collectively awarded 203 grants totaling $3.7 million for diverse COVID response efforts across Sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, we were able to facilitate $29 million in additional funding to our partners by maintaining close working partnerships with peer-funders throughout this period. Upon reflection, what is most striking about our response to the COVID crisis is how much we as a foundation learned and evolved alongside our partners–and how decisions and opportunities taken out of necessity have since become integral parts of our DNA and ways of working three years later.
When the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, the shocks to our grantee-partners and their constituencies were severe and widespread. The effects of the pandemic in Africa, like elsewhere, extended beyond health and cut across all spheres of society and the economy. In the overwhelming disruption that brought global systems and services to an abrupt halt, many African non-profits also lost funding as donors redirected monies towards pandemic relief efforts. We at SFF knew that we had the responsibility to help our partners across Africa to respond quickly. Yet, like other foundations in the initial days of the pandemic, we also grappled with how to make the best decisions in the midst of a crisis that far exceeded anything that we’d ever experienced or contemplated in its scope, complexity, and far-reaching impacts.
Turning to our core values as a North Star enabled us to overcome our initial paralysis. We realized that rather than slowing down for the sake of perfection, this was time to act with urgency in ways that felt right. One of our key realizations in the early days of the pandemic was that our grantmaking approach had been intended for such a time as this, with the goal of providing our grantee-partners with as much trust, flexibility, and certainty as possible despite the tumult and uncertainty in the global financial markets. We also lived our value of trust by prioritizing flexibility and responsiveness to communities over compliance, recognizing that our grantees would need to pause or change their plans to better meet the urgent and evolving needs of their constituents. So how did we demonstrate this trust?
- By easing reporting timelines such that end-of-grant conversations with program officers focused more on understanding how the grantee-partner was experiencing and navigating the pandemic rather than following progress on agreed milestones.
- Radically stripping down the steps in our grant renewal process to automatically renew grant commitments to all grantee-partners in good standing, often with a simple email.
- Supporting organizations facing cash flow issues by giving grantee-partners the opportunity to request changes to their grant payment schedules to obtain advances if this was helpful for their COVID-response.
It was important to have our grantee-partners feeling trusted and empowered to spend more time understanding and responding to their constituents’ needs, rather than complying with funder requirements. This approach, in many ways embodied our founder Barry Segal’s style of trusting people, valuing relationships over process, and moving quickly and decisively in critical situations. This letter from executive director Andy Bryant in March 2020 assured our grantee-partners that their work mattered more than ever in turbulent times, and that SFF would keep our promises and commitments to them. We know from testimonies shared by our grantee-partners and other anecdotal evidence, that the continuity in support from SFF in a time when funding priorities globally were shifting towards responding to COVID-19 was crucial in helping them to maintain their core programs and keep their staff on salaries.
In return, we saw partners deploy remarkable resilience strategies to sustain their staff and respond to their constituents’ urgent and changing needs. For example, partners who were unable to implement school or community-based outreach programs due to closures and restrictions on gatherings used the savings to creatively pivot to other ways of serving their constituents. We also saw partners like Set Her Free in Uganda, Kibebe in Malawi, and SaCoDé in Burundi leverage their assets (e.g. sewing machines) and networks of women tailors to make face masks, hospital gowns, and soap for health centers, and also as a way to also generate income for the women in their programs. We are proud to share that 100% of our grantee-partners have been able to survive the pandemic and sustain their core missions.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic was a time of great trauma and suffering, it was also a time where we witnessed remarkable innovation across our community of grantee-partners and peer-funders. In hindsight, the COVID-19 pandemic was both an adaptive and transformative challenge for which no playbook existed to guide the best decisions. We did not set out with a planned, strategic response to the pandemic. In the face of great uncertainty regarding how the spread and impacts of COVID-19 would play out globally, we embraced an adaptive approach. The diverse types of responses that we supported evolved with continuous consultation with our grantee-partners and local team regarding what was needed to protect lives and secure the dignity and well-being of their constituents and communities at different phases of the pandemic.
First in a series, this article is excerpted from the report “Leaning on Our Values in Uncertain Times: Our Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.”