The Aotearoa COVID-19 experience

This is the third article in a global series about philanthropic responses to COVID-19 and its effects, which was produced in partnership with The Alliance Magazine. This was part of the SIX Funders Node Year on Power programme.

Sue McCabe, the Executive Director of Philanthropy New Zealand, adds important context from Aotearoa New Zealand.

At the time of writing Aotearoa New Zealand is in an enviable position compared to many other countries with regard to the incidence of COVID-19.

This is due to both good political management, pretty solid behaviour by the vast majority of Kiwis, a large dose of luck and because we’re an island at the bottom of the world that shut its borders – just in time. 

The ‘team of five million’, as Prime Minister Jacinda Adern termed it, has its collective fingers and toes crossed for the future, and there is no complacency that the threat is anywhere near over. We are hopeful that we’re now better prepared to deal with any future waves. 

Despite the comparatively low incidence of COVID-19 to date, the social and economic impact on our country has been massive. Unemployment started climbing as soon as we went into lockdown (where all but essential services needed to shut their doors). We’ve been dependent on international tourism for jobs and economic stimulus, and given global interdependence, we’re impacted by the worldwide pandemic in numerous ways. 

Readers of this blog will not need telling about the hidden impacts of lockdowns and economic recession. Time will tell this story more fully, but there are grave concerns for people’s mental health, for the prognosis of people who couldn’t access diagnostic tests or medical treatment during lockdown. Our Human Rights Commission reported on increased racism since the pandemic was declared, and there are fears that family violence rates will rise. The list goes on. In short there are now far more people needing support than there were pre-COVID. And those that were already vulnerable will have been disproportionately affected. 

Our philanthropic funding community has been watching with care and interest the amazing activities of funders globally. As always, we have much to learn from the efforts of others as well as being willing to share our experiences and insights.

At this stage it appears that COVID-19 sped up many trends occurring in New Zealand philanthropy including the move to higher trust funding agreements, reduced application and reporting requirements, and more collaboration. This article looks at guiding principles and highlights some features of the COVID-19 response, before looking at the rethinking occurring around what and how we fund. 

Five guiding principles for readiness, response and recovery
Aotearoa New Zealand’s funding community, like many overseas, came into this crisis with experience from previous tragedies. The Canterbury earthquakes, the Whakaari/White Island eruption, and the terrorist shootings on 15 March 2019 are events that received global coverage and required significant philanthropic and grantmaking focus. 

In late 2019, Philanthropy New Zealand drew on the experience of its funders and our international counterparts to produce a guide to getting prepared for, responding to, and supporting communities to recover from major events. The guiding principles we outlined are relevant to the pandemic. These are:

  • The need for collaboration due to the size and scale of major events – between philanthropic funders and cross sector (with business and Government).
  • The importance of developing relationships with diverse communities, in order to be able to support them during a crisis. 
  • Build flexibility, responsiveness and customer focus into funding processes. Every event is unique therefore any disaster planning needs to be able to be fine-tuned after a major event. Funders who have flexibility find it easier to act quickly, where they choose to focus on immediate response.
  • Stay the distance. While public donations and Government initiatives are high profile in the immediate response, philanthropy and grantmaking are well positioned to support in the medium and longer-term. While some funders respond quickly and strongly, others are more focussed on community needs that are yet to emerge and settle.
  • Over-communicate. Good communication in terms of response activity, between different types of funders, and between funders and those who seek the funds, is important. 

Each major event is unique, and three features of the COVID-19 recovery follow: the size and scale of the Government response; the type of cross sector collaboration that occurred; and the reflection on what and how we fund.

The fast and large Government response
It’s important to highlight the speed and scale of our Government’s response to COVID-19, given the interdependence between this and philanthropic contributions. The Government started funding into new areas and announced significant funding packages for particular sectors. An implication of this was that it was challenging for philanthropy and community organisations to work out what money was available to whom, and where were the gaps and overlaps. 

Funding decisions highlighted the lack of community sector voice in political decision-making, prompting some in philanthropy to consider their role in stronger advocacy. Due to our small size we have a relatively accessible public service and Government. Philanthropy New Zealand was able to host weekly online meetings where Government officials briefed philanthropy on topics like food insecurity, the digital divide, funding for the health sector, and where funders could discuss their own activity. We produced weekly bulletins where we highlighted community need, the philanthropic response, and Government activity in areas of interest to philanthropy. Their aim was to gather intelligence and share information to support philanthropic decision making, in the fast-moving environment of emerging need and changing Government funding available.

Cross-sector collaboration
Given the complexity and scale of the economic and social impact of COVID-19, we saw some great cross-sector collaboration. For example, in the food rescue and distribution system funders, Government and community providers worked together to look not just at how to get food to the vastly increased number of people needing it, but also to improve the system to cope with the greater demand we expect for some time. The area of food distribution is also a good example of the strength of mātauranga Māori (the knowledge of our indigenous people), and Māoritanga (Māori culture). Marae (a meeting place for family and community) provided critical infrastructure to deliver all kinds of support, including being able to store and distribute food. 

Another example was around the digital divide. The Government, iwi (Māori tribe) and philanthropic funders all played a part in trying to reduce the impact of the digital divide, which widened in COVID-19. They made a huge effort in ensuring school students had the required technology and internet connection to learn online when schools were shut. Other examples of the digital divide were elderly people struggling to access help online, and people in rural areas particularly isolated in lockdown due to poor connectivity. We now have significantly more school students with internet connectivity and devices, but this will only be a short-term gain unless a longer-term plan is developed. 

The business community also played a strong role in the COVID-19 response. For example, businessman and former Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe held a key liaison role between Government and business. Rob and other businesspeople, including high profile philanthropist Sir Stephen Tindall, leveraged their international and national networks to support New Zealand accessing equipment in high demand in a fiercely competitive environment. They also paid for a significant number of intensive care ventilators, and PPE protective equipment, and ensured it reached New Zealand.

We have a Government and officials who are open to working with philanthropy and business on solutions, so there is cross-sector work occurring in this space as to what role each group can play around shared outcomes. The scale of the economic and social impact meant that all sectors cut the red tape, sped up decision making and became more trusting and flexible in order to respond quickly. Philanthropic funders (as well as other sectors) are now looking at the positive progress made in these areas, and what they can embed as business as usual, rather than sliding back into processes that create extra burden for not for profits.

Rethinking what and how we fund – reflections for philanthropy
In an article for a Philanthropy New Zealand magazine, philanthropic trustee and local government councillor Merepeka Raukawa-Tait said the crisis highlighted how Māori providers, with their knowledge of community, were well placed to engage with people needing more support. Merepeka urged New Zealand funders and to make sure they know and then support the providers close to the community who will be crucial to wellbeing. Merepeka called on funders to prioritise equity in their funding. This has been a strong theme from many New Zealand funders – careful thinking about how they can fund the recovery to support greater equity, rather than end up worsening the divides in society.

Philanthropy New Zealand wrote an open letter to funders in March, as Covid-19 started impacting our country, encouraging them to adopt best practice principles when engaging with not for profits. Our not for profits, like those in other parts of the world, were affected in all sorts of ways. Some saw reduced income from fundraising or sponsorships being cancelled, others couldn’t operate, others needed to move online quickly with little capacity for IT investment, while another group saw increased demand for their services. 

Philanthropy New Zealand followed up with a survey of funders. This showed that many funders pulled out all the stops to help the communities they support. For example, more than half of responding funders said they’d adapted funding agreements, so community groups had more flexibility as to how to spend funds. Another half had proactively contacted not for profits they had relationships with to check in with them.

Increased collaboration between funders was a huge theme. For example, some met to share information on community need and who was funding what, where were the gaps and overlaps. Others created a one door approach whereby local charities could make one application to access a range of funders. Now that we are in a time of recovery, not crisis, more funders are talking about how to embed the increased collaboration, and what tools are needed to sustain it. Philanthropy New Zealand is exploring establishing a philanthropic marketplace as one potential solution.

The funder effort is occurring despite uncertainty for funders around the return on investments they’ll see in coming years and what this means for their levels of distribution. Our funder survey, which was a very early snapshot of changes to funding levels, predicted a five per cent drop in the available philanthropic pool over the next 12 months. 

Some of the reasons responding funders can continue to grant at the same or similar levels include decisions to dip into capital (so spend down reserves more quickly), or that after the Global Financial Crisis they built up reserves to enable them to keep granting in the event of another downturn. 

We’re in a period of adjustment, and it feels that there are many people tired as the adrenaline of the crisis has worn off, and we’re now facing the aftermath. Some of our funders have needed to fund crisis after crisis and groups like local government not only need to fund the response, but also organise the response. Many Kiwis wear a number of hats – day jobs, volunteer roles, and being active in their communities. One in two Kiwis volunteer for a charity which helps our community connectedness but does mean people can become stretched in a time of high need.

Many people from all walks of life are determined that we’ll emerge a more inclusive Aotearoa as a result of what we’ve been through, and the opportunity it presents to do things differently. 

There are many people asking good questions as to how we ‘build back better’ but not as many clear answers at this stage. This is the task that funders in Aotearoa New Zealand, working with other sectors and also our international colleagues, are now turning their minds to.

Sue McCabe is Chief Executive at Philanthropy New Zealand