Partnerships for good: Lessons learned in responding to COVID-19

By Chris Iverson
September 11, 2020

Private sector engagement has become an essential and standard practice for international nongovernmental organizations to deliver global development assistance and support the people we serve. Often, relationships with the private sector and philanthropic community can maximize impact, helping NGOs reach more and diverse people at scale and get resources to the most vulnerable people in a timely manner.

On the other hand, the power dynamics between private sector partners and NGOs are complex. Occasionally, they yield adverse effects on the desired impact during times of greatest need. Partner flexibility, transparency and trust during Plan International USA’s response to COVID-19 has been key to our ability to adapt and more appropriately serve our program participants and communities globally.

One clear example of this is our partnership with Comic Relief US, an American charity using the power of entertainment to drive positive change. In January 2020, Plan, Comic Relief US and its supporters joined forces to provide formal and nonformal education to indigenous girls and boys in rural Guatemala. Our relationship has exemplified how an effective partnership can work to mitigate challenges and provide much-needed flexible assistance with greater success during a global health pandemic.

In Guatemala, despite the fact that the government took early and decisive action to prevent the spread of the virus, the impact has been devastating. Consequently, the educational system has been negatively affected, especially in rural communities where economic and educational resources are already scarce and access to technology is nearly nonexistent.

As young people in rural areas like Cubulco, San Miguel Chicaj, Salamá, San Jerónimo and Purulhá struggle to access the educational resources that some of their urban Guatemalan peers enjoy, it seems likely that disparities in educational attainment and achievement are widening during the pandemic. This is particularly worrisome for the few indigenous girls who have been able to attend school in spite of impoverishment and social customs.

Recognizing the daunting challenges that implementing partners were facing, Comic Relief US acted quickly. First, the Comic Relief US team communicated swiftly and transparently with Plan and its numerous implementing partners on the organization’s adapted grants management plan in light of COVID-19. This rapid communication allowed Plan to notify our team and the project participants that the program would remain active in spite of the pandemic.

Second, Comic Relief US provided a comprehensive, concise response plan. This plan includes the acceleration of payments for all active grants, elimination of certain reporting requirements, submission of no-cost extensions for up to six months and reallocation of some grant funding, as long as the new repurposing maintained the integrity of the program. These clear, flexible instructions afforded Plan the time and space necessary to thoughtfully reflect on how our program could reach young girls and boys in rural communities, via digital technology platforms and social media, and inform them of the more urgent protective health measures they and their families should practice to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Third, Comic Relief US communicated that, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic and potential changes to its well-known Red Nose Day campaign, the organization would still work with implementing partners to effectively adapt the campaign promotion, and subsequently ensure the campaign’s success. Red Nose Day is Comic Relief US’s tentpole fundraising campaign in the U.S., specifically meant to support projects that ensure children in need are safe, healthy and educated in the U.S. and across the world. Red Nose Day has raised over $230M in its first six years in the U.S., impacting the lives of nearly 25 million children.

Comic Relief US pivoted its campaign communication strategy to address the COVID-19 pandemic. To help promote the campaign, they developed a media toolkit and partner guidance for us to support Red Nose Day on social media channels. This toolkit contained pre-made content that allowed organizations to easily post messages without having to create new content and enabled us to focus on serving the girls and boys most affected by the pandemic.

Furthermore, Comic Relief US and its corporate partners recognized the risks posed by their typical campaign marketing model, including the purchase of Red Noses from Walgreens retail locations across the U.S. Instead, they created a social media filter on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram which enabled supporters to donate for access to a digital Red Nose in support of this year’s campaign, as well as the children and young people we serve.

As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations, NGO and private sector partnerships can offer a new medium for engagement and a way to solve problems. Effective and timely communication, clear and concise action plans and a flexible and collaborative engagement style are essential to reap partnership benefits, while still responding to those who need it most.


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