COVID-19: How Business and NGOs Can Partner to Support our Global Community Through the Pandemic

By Lisa Seymour-Doughty, Senior Manager Strategic Partnerships, Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps joined a recent Business Fights Poverty online discussion on supporting NGO partners, Lisa Seymour-Doughty, Senior Manager Strategic Partnerships, shares reflections on Mercy Corps response to the pandemic and how the need to work together has never been more important.

As I, like many others in the UK and around the world, continue to work from home, much of my day is informed by hearing from our teams about the devastating impact the COVID-19 pandemic continues to inflict on our global community.  While deeply concerning, I could not feel more proud to be part of an organisation that pivoted quicker than a ballet dancer’s fouette turn to respond to the changing needs of the communities we partner with in more than 40 countries. 

By the very nature of our work as a humanitarian organisation, Mercy Corps is designed to shift gears quickly. We have an incredible global team of nearly 6,000 people who are experts in their fields, who care and who are powered by possibility. 85% of whom are from where they live and work. But, we don’t do it alone. A key driving force behind our ability to respond and pivot quickly to emergencies and crises is our incredible partners and donors. 

We rely on dynamic partnerships that offer the opportunity for bigger impact and the possibility to reach scale faster. Our relationships are built on identifying shared challenges and driving forward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and go beyond fundraising, all the while we

support and enhance our partners’ responsible business efforts both internally with their teams and externally with their stakeholders.

Globally, COVID-19 has triggered fear, instability and uncertainty. For organisations like Mercy Corps, we waited to see the impact on the delivery of our programmes and how our supporters would respond. Would our partners appreciate our need for flexibility in our agreements in order to adapt our programmes? Would they understand our shift in priorities? Would they be willing to support us by stepping outside their own comfort zones and current strategies? 

What we quickly realised is that this pandemic has put us all in the same boat – NGOs and the business sector are facing the same business continuity challenges, with many operations restricted and teams affected. There is a shared sense of urgency, one that goes beyond sectors and beyond international borders. COVID-19 threatens our health, our social norms, our economies. It has ignited the recognition that we need to be working collectively on shared solutions – both local and global – and figuring out how we can scale up our response to help our global community stay resilient, mitigate the risks and come through this pandemic with as minimal impact as possible. 

In light of the shared and global cause, many partners and supporters not only stepped forward to maintain their support, but many also stepped up to bolster it too. This was down to openly recognising that this is not “business as usual”. Open communication and transparency about what is achievable during these times, allowed us to pivot and realign our shared goals. 

Flexible support – financial and contractual flexibility – has been essential. One long-standing partner made a significant unrestricted gift to our COVID-19 Resilience Fund, and another, offered early payments and increased budget flexibility. This support enables us to embrace adaptive management – adjusting our designs and work plans to meet the evolving needs on our countries, all affected by COVID-19. Our climate change resilience programme in West Pokot, Kenya pivoted to train community members as trainers on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And in Colombia, we’re adapting our emergency cash programme for Venezuelan migrants and refugees and vulnerable Colombians so that we can still safely deliver assistance. For people who have already received emergency cash cards through the programme, we have digitally topped up their cards with two months’ worth of payments instead of one, knowing that they will likely be cash restricted in the days and weeks ahead. We will distribute four more digital cash transfers over the next two months. 

Providing flexibility takes trust. For long-term partnerships, the shift to flexible support has the potential to be quicker as trust has already been built and partners may have already experienced the impact of the partnership. For new partners, we need to build trust quickly – this relies on frank and honest conversations and having the right decision-makers at the table, and understanding of a shared goal. Within today’s context, shared experiences are shaping many of our common goals. These include the need to maintain the health and wellbeing of our teams and the communities where we work, as well as keeping supply chains functioning and markets open.

Working together to support our global community during this unchartered time will be a test for many partnerships, but hopefully one from which many partnerships will emerge stronger than before, and will offer new and innovative ways to make an impact and create long-lasting social change.

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