Does the pandemic risk sending NGOs back to the last century?

Does this pandemic risk sending NGOs back to the last century?


The Public Chamber of the Russian Federation identified some of the problems faced by the non-profit sector in the pandemic. Some of these problems, according to experts, can send NGOs back to the last century.

The Public Chamber hosted a round-table event The Future of NGOs After the Crisis: What to expect and how to prepare. Representatives of the non-profit sectors discussed how the work of NGOs will change following the pandemic and what problems have been revealed. 

The meeting was moderated by Elena Topoleva, Chair of the Commission for the Development of the Non-profit Sector and Support for Socially Oriented NGOs, and director of the Agency for Social Information (ASI).

Learning to anticipate difficulties

Lev Yakobson, Vice-President of the Higher School of Economics and Scientific Director of the Research Centre for Civil Society and the Non-Profit Sector, noted that the demand for many NGO services had sharply increased over the past few months, “a period of great tension”. However, he also noted that difficulties simultaneously arose in addressing a number of these tasks.

According to Yakobson, NGOs need to learn to anticipate the challenges they will face following the pandemic. “This is only possible through a dialogue. Those organisations that can anticipate these challenges will benefit from the crisis in the long run, ” Yakobson said.

He also believes that thanks to digitalisation, which the crisis has made essential, some NGOs will be able to literally expand their field of activity and remove geographical barriers. Weak organisations, he said, on the contrary, can be forced out.

“We must understand that the end of the crisis, fortunately, is not far off. But it will not be a transition to a problem-free situation. You can’t avoid challenges, but you need to see them in advance. Systemic changes are coming, and they are dependent on us, ” Jacobson said.

Who will provide systematic help?

During the pandemic, many NGOs deviated from their core mission and began to engage in other, non-statutory activities, observed the Smirnova, Executive Director of the charitable group All Together. Because of this, in her opinion, the core charity projects have suffered.

“Earlier all funds raised were directed to core charity projects, but in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic it has become more difficult to raise funds for even the most ordinary core projects. Money is collected mainly for “humanitarian aid” and PPE provision. Donors are also switching from supporting traditional core projects to more current and relevant ones. Charities have lost their focused position that they managed to develop over the years,” said Smirnova.

According to her, it will become even more difficult to promote core projects after the pandemic. “The prospect of regressing several years is frightening,” she emphasised.

Donations are being collected on personal cards

Smirnova also drew attention to a dangerous trend: many NGO representatives have begun collecting donations on their personal cards.

“People want to help, which is a good initiative. But there is an ethical point here. We explain to donors why good organisations shouldn’t be collecting donations on cards – and yet some still do! This could be detrimental to our work. It also poses a risk — I would like everyone to come to their senses a little bit, ” Smirnova said.

Alyona Bykova, editor-in-chief at ASI, agrees with her. According to Bykova, during the pandemic the media has increased its coverage of independent fund-raising by proactive citizens or NGOs. On the one hand, this is understandable: people are helping as much as they can. It also really important to highlight which organisations are in need of help.

On the other hand, there is a serious ethical question. Collecting donations on personal cards “does not align with our values, ” Bykova said. In her opinion, such fund-raising also poses a threat of de-modernising the non-profit sector.

The price of isolation

Elizaveta Oleskina, director of the charitable foundation Old Age in Joy and deputy Chair of the Commission on Charity and Social Work, thinks that during this struggle to save human lives, people began to forget the importance of life-quality.

“The pandemic has thrown back not just our achievements, but our understanding of the value of a human life. You can focus on just fighting to save lives, but the question is: what about the quality of these lives? Who will be responsible for millions of people with broken minds after self-isolation? You can’t impose the values of the last century on people: “Survived it? Well, all is good.” Our task is to restore a positive attitude to human value, and not reduce everything to the most basic, bottom step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Oleskina said.

The expert said that Old Age in Joy plans to launch a programme for post-COVID rehabilitation. “This is a existential question. It is important not to fall into the ‘life-death’ dichotomy of the last century,” Oleskina concluded.

The Safety Net and NGOs as volunteer organisations

Among other problems, experts pointed to the lack of a safety net for most NGOs — not a financial one, but resource-focused one. According to Igor Gall-Savalsky, a member of the Public Chamber and Chair of the Regional Audit Commission in the Novosibirsk region, organisations need to think about what safety net structure they should have in place.

Furthermore, society has again begun to perceive NGOs as volunteer organisations that work for free. According to Elena Malitskaya, president of the Siberian Centre for Support of Public Initiatives, this is because at the beginning of the pandemic “everything was presented as voluntary actions”.

In her opinion, it is now necessary, firstly, to understand what to do with the large number of volunteers who responded to the pandemic and, secondly, to think about what should be the proper positioning of the non-profit sector, in which “people also get paid”.

The round table was organised by the Commission for the Development of the Non-Profit Sector and Support of Socially Oriented NGOs, and the Centre for Research on Civil Society and the Non-Profit Sector at the Higher School of Economics.


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