Covid-19 caught the world unaware and has spread at a rapid pace. It has disrupted economies, healthcare systems and daily life. The challenges it presents are real and consequential—especially for the social sector. To help policymakers and donors better understand the impact on Asia’s social sector and support intermediaries, CAPS (virtually) sat down with Emma Dudley, Director and Carol Liew, Impact Management Lead at Just Cause in Singapore, on 16 April 2020, followed by an update in September 2020.
Just Cause is a consultancy specializing in research and evaluation for funders and nonprofit organizations in Southeast Asia. Their mission is to increase the impact of nonprofit organizations through research, consulting and sharing information. This is achieved through helping them adopt a stronger focus on impact, in addition to working with funders to support more strategic approaches to partnering with nonprofits.
Emma and Carol shared how the government has worked to mitigate the fall-out from the pandemic, how nonprofits, the government and funders in Singapore are responding and the impact they believe Covid-19 will have on the social sector.
CAPS: Emma and Carol, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. What is the situation on the ground in Singapore?
Just Cause: In April, the Singaporean government introduced a “circuit breaker”—closing all workspaces for 8 weeks and instructing residents to work from home unless they perform essential services. Movement was restricted too. However, residents were able to leave the house to go grocery shopping and work out outdoors provided they maintain a one-meter distance from others. The government enforced these guidelines strictly and people have been fined if caught breaking these rules. We are now in phase 2 of these measures and life is starting to resume some normalcy albeit with limits on gathering sizes and travel.
CAPS: Has the outbreak of Covid-19 affected Just Cause and your work?
Just Cause: We are all safe and well, but still working from home. This hasn’t been hugely disruptive to our daily operations.
However, as we do research and evaluation work, we have seen that programs have been suspended, new programs are not starting up, and new partnerships are halted. We also saw some of the mainstays of our work being suddenly and unexpectedly postponed. Many funders were initially in a holding pattern–waiting to see what the impact of Covid would be and how they could use their funds strategically but also conservatively.
We used this time to have conversations and understand where nonprofits, social enterprises and funders are at and how they are responding to the situation. More recently, we have found that funders and nonprofits are taking positive steps to move on and adapt to the new normal, and so after a quieter period earlier in the year, we are now experiencing a wave of requests for support as organizations design new programs and adapt their strategies.
CAPS: How has Covid-19 impacted them?
Just Cause: While we are a regional organization, we’ve been focusing on reaching out to our nonprofit partners here in Singapore to understand the challenges they are facing. We are hearing from them that funding is being cut as a result of the withdrawal of corporate pledges and partnerships, cancellation of fundraising events, and a fall in revenue from service fees.
At the same time, we are seeing the responsiveness and reach of the government as a funder here in Singapore. In that a lot of the established NGOs, known as Institutions of a Public Character (IPCs), which often receive government grants, are not experiencing any immediate financial distress.
CAPS: What about organizations that don’t have IPC status—how are they, and their beneficiaries coping?
Just Cause: For the broader NGO sector, the government has provided relief through the Jobs Support Scheme, which extends to all organizations including nonprofits. Through this scheme, the government subsidized 75% of the wages of all Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) for the month of April and May during the circuit breaker period. This scheme has since been extended till March 2021, with the level of subsidies to be re-adjusted according to how each sector has been affected by the pandemic. While challenges remain, nonprofits have said that this support has been very helpful as an estimated 80% of their costs are salary related.
Despite the financial uncertainty, we’ve also seen NGOs being extremely adaptable, shifting their programs online or even reinventing their services altogether to remain relevant and impactful to their communities. Many have told us that they are seeing the number of people in their communities grow, especially as people lose their jobs and experience mental health challenges.
CAPS: Have you seen any grassroots level initiatives emerging during this time to support people and organizations?
Just Cause: Yes, we have. This is especially evident with organizations and ground up efforts working with migrant workers. The Covid pandemic has hit the migrant worker community in Singapore hardest, and the vast majority of confirmed Covid-19 cases are coming out of this community. It has highlighted the disparity in Singapore, in addition to the unfavorable working and living conditions of these workers.
We saw an enormous mobilization of ground up initiatives and those working in advocacy stepping up to support these workers. Grassroots NGOs were able to mobilize quickly, made appeals for funds and provided services to these migrant workers. These included meeting basic physical needs like food, healthcare and protective equipment as well as providing mental health and wellbeing support. Organizations are also launching crowdfunding campaigns online to bring in money for supporting this work longer term.
While there’s been an influx of funding and interest to support migrant workers, it’s not clear yet whether this will be sustained going forward and whether such efforts will be able to go beyond immediate relief to address the root causes of the challenges faced by migrant workers in Singapore.
CAPS: Have you seen any nonprofits pivot their work in response to the outbreak and the current needs of society?
Just Cause: Yes, we are seeing grassroots organizations stepping up and filling in the cracks at this time. For example, NGOs that work in marginalized communities and offered counselling services have now pivoted to providing food delivery and PPE to these families. This pivot was due in large part to the fact that social workers providing the counselling services were the ones aware of each family’s circumstances and needs. While smaller grassroots organizations are taking on this work, it is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term as their funding, operations and training isn’t set up for the provision of these services.
CAPS: How do you think Covid-19 will impact Singapore’s social sector going forward?
Just Cause: Excellent question. We’ve been seeking answers to this ourselves and will keep sharing what we find on our blog. In Singapore at least we think that to weather the storm the government will continue to extend generous support to nonprofit organizations. We’ve already seen the launch of a $230 million fund to strengthen capability building efforts for social service organizations. However, it’s likely that more support will be required for all important grassroots community efforts addressing those that are left out. The immediate relief provided by these organizations during this time has reiterated the importance of the work they do and why it is important to support to them.