Opinion: CSO Digitalisation Needs Informed Support

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COVID-19 has obliged civil society organisations (CSOs) to fundamentally and inescapably digitalise in order to carry on their work, inclusive of internal staff meetings, coordinating meetings with partners, organising events, mobilising support, undertaking research and pursuing advocacy. However, funders lag behind in adequately understanding and supporting CSOs in this transformative stage.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on CSOs mirrors the impact on the workplace worldwide, although CSOs often do not have the financial reserves to mitigate the negative consequences. At the same time, CSOs find themselves unable to generate income from enterprise activities of the pre-COVID-19 era, which included providing administrative support, events management, service support and venue rentals.

As activities were postponed or cancelled, project funders’ standing financial procedures mandated that CSOs—which were disbursed payments for projects—return funds for activities that could not be implemented in pre-agreed traditional formats.

Meanwhile, CSOs’ overheads remained the same if not higher, as costs drifted towards software subscriptions, upgrading of computers, purchase of digital equipment (laptops, microphones, TV screens, adjustable cameras and speakers) and additional human resources required for the technical operation of software and equipment.

While project funders approved the shift to an online approach, they were regrettably slow in supporting or did not support the purchase of technical equipment, software licences, human resource, and extra time needed to execute digitised operations.

The overly bureaucratic procedures led CSOs to engage in lengthy exchanges with project funders, itemising and detailing the costs they were facing in order to transform their activities into digital ones. It created a situation where on occasions project funders’ finance managers began to influence project objectives and implementations.

Budget line items associated with online activities suddenly became suspect. Debates around cost of venue to broadcast events, equipment, video-conferencing software subscriptions and staff time to manage online events ensured. There were also requests for co-payment by CSOs and arguments that CSOs were “partners” and therefore needed to contribute to costs even though project funders increasingly do not pay for core or institution costs.

Even as explanations were provided, additional compliance to regulations and requirements were sought after by the financial managers of project funding organisations. Often these staff were either inexperienced with responding to CSOs operating under the challenges of pandemic or were simply unable to respond empathetically to the situation and new ways of working.

Even before the pandemic, enterprise activities undertaken by CSOs to cover their core costs and to be financially sustainable were frowned upon. Any income-generating activities were summarily treated as profit-making without appreciating the enterprise innovation of CSOs to cover their core operating costs.

While CSOs initially received support as important actors to promote and safeguard human rights, they are increasingly being treated as “vendors” or “service providers” for project funders’ objectives. Yet, CSOs are not adequately compensated for undertaking the same tasks and offering similar services compared to business vendors.

Hence, it is an increasingly pressing matter that project funders invest more time in understanding the new challenges and digital environment in which CSOs work. Falling back on rigid regulations to justify what is allowed and not allowed or a “take it or leave it” approach in the new normal of a digitalised CSO landscape does not help.

Following a better understanding, project funders could then integrate digital operations and social enterprise activities into their guidelines and calls for grant applications. This would help ease the financial burden on CSOs and help funders better support project implementations.

The strategic shift towards digitalisation of CSOs’ activities and their quest to become self-sufficient—prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic—has exposed the need for donor education.

CSOs are not vendors implementing activities in exchange for resources. They are an important partner to realise social change. Therefore ensuring their essential role in this digitalised landscape is important.

Dr. James Gomez is Regional Director of Asia Centre and Srdja Popovic is the Co-director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). This commentary is based on their joint report COVID-19 and Democracy in Southeast Asia: Building Resilience, Fighting Authoritarianism.

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