March’s Social Impact Roundup: Giving is Great, But it Won’t Get Us Out of the COVID Crisis

Alexandra Nemeth

Program manager at MovingWorlds.org

This month, we can’t possibly write our monthly social impact content round-up without referencing COVID… but we are taking a different approach in summarizing this crisis, as well as with the format of this newsletter. We started this monthly round-up to give you important social impact insights and best practices, and we’re still sharing that, but also adding in a little extra given the current pandemic. We hope you’ll give it a read, and as always, we look forward to your feedback and contributions!




So… what happened in the social impact world in March?

The exponential growth of the COVID crisis this past month has magnified the many shortcomings of our existing economic system. Most notably, people with fewer resources and security are being disproportionately affected, while those with more are finding themselves stable but socially isolated, likely wondering what they can do to volunteer or donate their way out of this crisis.

These acts of philanthropic solidarity are inspiring, but ignore a very important bigger picture. Amidst the hardship, we can use this time to ask an important question about our collective future: How can we use this as an opportunity to build a more equitable, just, and sustainable global economy

“I don’t think we return to normal. I don’t think we return to yesterday. I think if we’re smart, we achieve a new normal.” -New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo

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Why Giving Is Not Enough

One of our team members was speaking with a CEO who was seeking our advice on how to mobilize his employees to volunteer. On social media, he was highlighting his major contributions to a local relief fund. At the same time, however, his investors expected him to make layoffs to cut expenses. The irony here was missed by him: a little volunteering and donating are not going to make up for the negative impact of the layoffs. If he and his investors could relax their focus on profits—much of which they would just end up donating anyway in an undemocratic process—and instead focus on more equitable distribution then we would all be better off. There are lessons here for all of us.

Giving is great, and in fact, the social impact sector needs volunteers, resources, and donations more than ever before. But giving alone won’t get us out of the COVID-triggered recession. Author of the fantastic NonprofitAF blog, Vu Le, recently highlighted that this type of giving wasn’t enough to help alleviate the lasting effects of The Great Recession, and in fact, may have contributed to the rapid growth in inequality that happened after. Not that long ago, we shared that there is a real need to rethink charity. Yet in response to this crisis, many of us are slipping back into an outdated philanthropic mindset of trying to donate ourselves out of a situation that demands more drastic action.

In response to this crisis, many of us are slipping back into an outdated philanthropic mindset

To recover from the COVID crisis, we need to learn from our past mistakes. We must use this time to go beyond giving to achieve transformative change.

This statement might seem slightly ironic coming from the MovingWorlds team… after all, our organization first grew (and is still known by many) as a platform that mobilizes skilled volunteers to help grassroots social enterprises build capacity to create local solutions alongside world-positive jobs (that was before our Institute and Corporate work).

But what worked before COVID won’t be enough to rebuild our post-COVID world. In the past month, we’ve heard from hundreds of these organizations who shared that they are looking for much more than donations and virtual volunteering hours. In just one call with 30 different social impact travel startups that do community-based development, 100% of them have seen their revenues fall to zero, some even dipping into the negative as they issue refunds. 

The communities where these social enterprises operate are suffering even more. In Indonesia, Peru, and Guatemala, brilliant female entrepreneurs and artisan cooperatives we work with are seeing their incomes collapse as borders close. Our partners at innovative technology social enterprises working to bring clean water, electricity, internet, and education to off-grid communities have seen their growth capital collapse as investors freeze funds. As a result, environmentally positive and society enriching innovations are stalling. 

So even though our organization generates part of its revenues by encouraging people to volunteer their skills, this is not the time to sit at home and offer a few hours of virtual volunteering or a few dollars from your bank account. To recover from this crisis, we need to rebuild the system itself. In fact, even though we still operate a platform to help you find the best place to volunteer your skills, at this time, we’re encouraging you not to volunteer, and to take a different approach instead (in fact, we have a history of asking people not to volunteer during disasters even when it would financially benefit us).

Don’t get us wrong: We increase our faith in humanity every time we learn of people that want to give during this time. Indeed, during times of crisis we often see incredible acts of kindness (like the ones highlighted here by the Washington Post). This crisis is taking an emotional toll on all of us, which HBR captures well in That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief. And, as behavioral economics tells us, many people turn to support others to cope with loss, and we should encourage this in every way possible. But we can harness this energy to do much more than retain the status quo. 

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Making capitalism more sustainable in the long-term

There is one way through this recession for those that are hardest hit, and that is for those millions of people who are unemployed as a result of this crisis to find jobs in a new, sustainable economy. As former Unilever CEO Paul Polman shared at the Sustainable Business Forum last October, the biggest untapped business opportunity the world has ever known is creating a circular economy: buying materials and products that are reinvested over and over again. The world has been slow to adopt a more sustainable form of capitalism, but now we have the opportunity to do so. 

The world that we knew when we started 2020 is one we will never see again. Politico’s survey of big thinkers, The Guardian’s predictions about the future of urbanization, and McKinsey’s forecast of the path to a new normal show how many aspects of life will be forever changed.

We are, for the next few months, more connected than ever, yet physically more distant. Cloud services will centralize data and business models in fewer, wealthier companies. AI will become more popular. Surveillance capitalism will accelerate. Automation will enable higher margins with fewer employees. The climate crisis will continue to disproportionately affect the most economically disadvantaged populations. As we saw in the last recession, left unchecked, the companies asking for bailouts will end up posting record profits and executive bonuses as soon as the recession ends.

Volunteering today will make you feel better during this crisis, but it won’t address the issues upholding the unsustainable winner take all economy. If we don’t set the stage to address income inequality and environmental degradation now, by the time we start booming again it will be too late.

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What To Do Instead of (or in addition to) Giving During COVID

The biggest levers we have to affect social change are our careers. If we don’t all begin to contribute our working hours (i.e. our jobs) as well as our capital (i.e. what we spend) to creating more sustainable products and services, the post-COVID world will be more unequal than the previous.

So, what does that look like? 

In your professional life, you can lead positive change from within your company as a social intrapreneur or employee activist. You can partner with more Benefit Corporations that prioritize social and environmental impact into your supply chain and network of partners. If you work at a technology company, instead of “hackathoning” new projects and solutions, consider looking within your own organization to develop ethical technology guidelines and address inequalities. Maybe this won’t give you the initial dopamine rush of giving back, but its impact will be bigger and last much longer.

In your personal life, you can start spending money where it matters by supporting companies that have sustainability and equity built into their business models. If you’re not eating out as much, use that money on virtual cooking lessons with a vegetarian chef from A Table Less Traveled, a women-owned sustainable food tourism company. Spend your newly found downtime learning a new language virtually on platforms like NaTakallam, which employs refugees to teach. Buy your food from organizations like FareStart, which uses innovative food preparation and delivery methods to both employ and feed underserved populations. Shop at Cooperatives, rather than Whole Foods. Do business with women-led startups, which as GALI reports in its new state of the industry report, are (still) under-resourced compared to their male peers. Support companies that have made strategic shifts (like these 5 shared by MovingWorlds alumna Agne Nainyte) and undertaken corporate goodwill efforts. You can also speak up to help ensure that democracy can flourish under lockdown (like represent.us vote from home movement during COVID).

If you’re one of the millions of people left unemployed by this crisis, you can seek employment at a company that is using business as a force for good (here’s a list of the best places to look for social impact jobs) or make a career change for social impact. 

In Summary

March was hard. Scary. Life-changing.

The COVID crisis is wreaking havoc on billions of people around the world both physically and economically. This cannot be changed, and requires swift and effective governmental action. Certainly donating and volunteering can help in the short-term, and these actions are important to support immediate relief efforts. But as you contribute, consider using the rest of your money and time to bring about a more sustainable circular economy. Even once COVID recedes, the climate crisis will return as our leading economic risk. What we decide to create coming out of this crisis is up to us, and a more equitable and just world is possible if we start spending our money and time in the right places.

In the meantime, we at MovingWorlds will continue supporting a more impactful, global social enterprise movement that employs more people in world-positive jobs and brings sustainable thinking to all sectors.