21April

Leading NPOs in lockdown

Most nonprofit organisations (NPOs) deal daily with challenges such as tight budgets, over-stretched staff, and limited capacity. The lockdown, however, has added a whole new dimension to how an NPO delivers its much-needed services.

Ensuring that staff feel supported and up-to-date on what is happening in the organisation, as well as being informed about news regarding clients and funders, is vital.

Leading NPOs in lockdown

“As is the case with many other NPOs, our usual style of working changed within days ‒ we had to adapt rapidly,” says Inyathelo Operations Director Feryal Domingo. “One week we were working efficiently from our well-appointed offices, assisting other NPO staff who needed training, specialist advice, or simply a reassuring chat over a cup of coffee. The next week we were in lockdown and juggling work and family responsibilities under much more restricted circumstances.

“It is natural for NPO staff to feel overwhelmed, fearful and uncertain at this time. Fortunately, there is a great deal that an NPO manager can do to reassure colleagues, who are at the heart of the organisation, and to put practical measures in place so that essential services continue.”

Inyathelo offers eight tips for an NPO whose staff are working remotely:

Daily data: IT advances mean that colleagues can stay connected with one another, download research material, handle banking, and much more. A key aspect is ensuring that staff have sufficient data, and that they use this optimally. Work out a plan for regular data top-ups. Set an agenda and time limit for online meetings. Not every conference call need include data-hungry video.

Trustees on board: Inyathelo has always stressed the importance of a well-run board with committed, effective members who bring real value to an organisation. Keep trustees informed of major developments, and draw on their expertise, whether you need help in approaching new funding contacts, or dealing with a human resources challenge.

Communication is key: Ensure that staff, too, are kept informed. Many will be questioning whether companies that have supported them in the past will continue to fund them, and if they will still have jobs in three months’ time. While not glossing over real difficulties, ensure two-way, positive communication.

Workplace readiness: Few people enjoy the luxury of a home office. Encourage staff to work from the same location, which should be as free of distractions as possible. Set goals and required outcomes, stick to work plans, and update a shared calendar. Maintain an atmosphere of trust, while still keeping up established reporting routines such as weekly work plans and key performance area reports to determine accountability.

Show consideration: Managers should be mindful that the staff member is sharing his or her personal space and resources for purposes of continuing the work. Expect, and be accommodating of, occasional disruption, especially if your work colleagues are also engaged with other responsibilities. Many are doing their best to meet deadlines while also overseeing home schooling or caring for elderly relatives.

Social media: This is a good time to remind staff about work policies such as a social media code of conduct and the need for confidentiality and data protection.

Keep your virtual office door open: Communicate when you have queries, doubts, concerns ‒ and also celebrate your successes. Remember personal milestones such as birthdays. A video catch-up tea and cake, or sharing a lunch break on-line, a reassuring phone call or personal thank-you email can boost morale. Knowing that one is appreciated and supported makes the world of difference.

Support self-care: It’s easy to feel sluggish and unmotivated in lockdown. Share recipes and tips on healthy eating, home workouts, getting sufficient sleep, and staying positive.

This is a stressful time for all, and particularly so for nonprofits that are on the front line,” says Ms Domingo. “It is more important than ever to take care of one’s work colleagues ‒ and oneself ‒ to ensure mental and physical health and operational continuity.

“Staff mostly need assurance that they have jobs, so keeping in touch and making sure that they know what track the organisation is on, are key. Don’t leave anything out. No surprises. This is a worrying time, but if it is properly managed, the people in your organisation could emerge closer than ever and committed to the vital work they do.”


Inyathelo was established as a non-profit trust in October 2002. Its vision is a vibrant democracy in South Africa with a robust and sustainable civil society and higher education sector, supported by a strong local philanthropic movement, rooted in the African cultural heritage of sharing.