We want to demonstrate our commitment to your privacy. In support of the changes to the EU data protection law, we’ve updated our privacy notice effective May 25, 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced NGOs around the globe to find creative ways to serve communities most in need, who face heightened social and economic challenges due to a worldwide emergency. 

Three NGO leaders from around the world gathered virtually to address this topic as part of The Hong Kong Jockey Club Programme on Social Innovation’s Social Impact Leadership Series: Bowie Lam '20 (AXP-19), founder and executive director of Teen’s Key - Young Women Development Network; Georgette Tan, president of United Women Singapore; and Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and nonprofit engagement executive in residence at the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

In a conversation moderated by Rustandy Center Executive Director Caroline Grossman, ’03, speakers shared how their organizations, which work with women and children in vulnerable communities in Chicago, Hong Kong, and Singapore, have changed course in response to the pandemic and offered valuable insights for other NGOs.

New Challenge Highlights Old Wounds

While their organizations serve groups around the world, speakers agreed the pandemic was exacerbating existing social challenges around gender, race, and economic inequity. 

“COVID has highlighted the impacts of systemic racism” and unequal access to health care, in particular, said McWhorter. In Chicago alone, while 50 percent of COVID cases were African Americans, they accounted for around three quarters of deaths, she said, quoting government data.

Lam, whose organization serves sex workers and vulnerable and at-risk young women in Hong Kong, said that while the Hong Kong government offered resources to unemployed and furloughed residents, groups like sex workers were unable to access them.

Women and mothers have also been shouldering much of the new economic stress in addition to their work and family duties, said Tan. This stress has also led to an uptick in domestic violence, including in Singapore, as families and couples spend more time at home. 

Filling Critical Funding Gaps

When Chicago went into lockdown and federal funding for unemployment assistance ran out—increasing food and income insecurity—McWhorter’s YWCA focused on getting fresh food and cash into the hands of residents, with the help of donors, and also supported communities by buying local.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, which were both hit by the first SARS virus in the early 2000s, governments were swift to provide assistance, although private sector donors still needed NGOs to help them reach communities in need. 

Teen’s Key helped to educate its service group in how to access government resources while in Singapore, UWS helped to distribute donated hygiene supplies and raised funds for organizations like shelters for women and children fleeing domestic abuse.

Fresh Perspectives on Philanthropy

As COVID-19 has led to an outpouring of philanthropic efforts, NGOs have played a critical role in educating donors and guiding funds. 

Sometimes that means helping to distribute masks and sanitation supplies, as was the case for United Women Singapore. Sometimes it means flagging COVID-adjacent issues to donors, like limited access to fresh food or economic pressures.

“Many people come to us because they want to donate face masks and hygiene supplies,” said Lam. “Like a bridge, I try to communicate with them that while that it is very important, some of them don’t have fresh food, some of them can’t pay the rent and they’re late on the next month already.”

In other cases, NGOs play a critical role in educating a community that may lack contact or trust in the government. Lam said Teen’s Key frontline workers help Hong Kongers apply for government assistance, while in Chicago, the YWCA has worked with Mastercard for the first time to help communities get access to digital payment services so they are able to order daily goods and groceries online.

A New Chapter for Funding

One silver lining from the crisis, speakers agreed, was a slight relaxation of funding parameters.

While many donors have strict guidelines on how funding is used, (particularly to pay administrative costs and other overheads), many of these guidelines were relaxed in order to help organizations get through the difficult pandemic.

“We are building better accountability into our modelling and proposals - specifically to address manpower and operating costs.  The response that we’ve been receiving has been encouraging.  I think there is generally a better acceptance by donors of this need today,” said Tan.

Tan said it has also been important to remind donors that communities and NGOs in need now will still be in need long after the pandemic is over.

Email icon

Get Updates from the Rustandy Center

Please send me updates on social impact events, programs, and research at Chicago Booth.

Get Updates from the Rustandy Center

Recommendations