Days before the launch of Harambee’s newest partnership with the South African presidency to scale up in-person job placement centers across the country, COVID-19 forced the country into lockdown. Plans came to a halt, and Harambee pondered how to move forward in the face of an unexpected crisis.

We imagine that many of our peers recognize the feelings experienced when a crisis disrupts a painstakingly planned initiative. Whether it is COVID-19, economic fallout, a government coup, or other crisis, social enterprises often find themselves working in communities where disruption is the rule, rather than the exception. To understand how to make the best of such trying circumstances, we interviewed leaders of social enterprises as part of our Scaling Pathways series. We wanted to know how these enterprises were making short-term adaptations or more lasting shifts in their strategies to navigate through crisis. Amid the insights that emerged from our conversations, four stood out:


1. Re-Evaluate the Problem

It may feel unnatural to pause amid the urgent demands of an unfolding crisis, but to ensure you can continue to achieve your mission, it is important to step back and ask:

Have the needs of the people we serve changed as a result of this crisis, and do we need to address those changing needs to move forward?

When schools in India closed due to COVID-19, Educate Girls, which works through schools to empower vulnerable girls in rural and economically disadvantaged communities across the country, used its network of volunteers and field teams to survey local leaders, teachers, and parents to identify emerging challenges. The organization learned that the girls it served were struggling with getting daily necessities, such as groceries and sanitation supplies. Educate Girls concluded that—in the midst of COVID-19—it had to help take care of these basic needs, even though this effort was less directly related to education. It partnered with local governments and village leaders to distribute ration kits, knowing that a return to focusing on girls’ education could only occur once basic needs were satisfied.

2. Mind Your Money

Organizations, whether they need to solve new problems or not, face increased financial pressure amid the unpredictable costs a crisis may generate. What short-term and long-term financial decisions do you need to make to survive during the crisis and finance your path forward?

Understanding your cash flows, thoughtfully cutting costs, strengthening unit economics, and fundraising are just some of the steps a social enterprise should consider during the onset of a crisis. The health care technology company mPharma, which ensures access to safe and affordable medicine across Africa, worried that supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 would make pharmaceuticals too expensive for its customers. In the early days of the pandemic, mPharma assessed its cash flows and determined it could pre-purchase vital medicines at lower prices and allow patients to lock in those prices before cost fluctuations hit. While this enabled mPharma and its customers to avoid increased expenses in the short term, the company also recognized that it could not sustain a perpetual price-lock program. The company built a robust financial model to determine how long it could sustainably stock inventory and lock prices, and made sure that its customers would participate for the duration. The strategic adaptations helped provide valuable medicine to the most vulnerable people while ensuring the organization’s long-term financial health.

3. Don’t Start Anew

A crisis is a time to consider how an organization’s core assets and competencies could be leveraged in different ways, not to try something totally new. Ask yourself: What existing assets, including physical resources, people, and partnerships, could we build on to solve new problems arising from a crisis?

When Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator recognized it could not proceed with the scale-up of its in-person job centers, it found another way to repurpose its partnership with government and its network of young people across South Africa. It launched the “3 Million in 3 Weeks” COVID-19 communications campaign to combat widespread mistruths about the pandemic. By the summer of 2020, it had reached nearly 9 million young people. In the process, it became a trusted source for information not just about the virus, but also what youth can do to prepare for job opportunities. The project also bolstered Harambee’s partnership with government and its credibility with young people in its network, assets that will continue to be important in the future.

Sokowatch, a B2B e-commerce platform for informal retailers across Africa, provides another example. When the pandemic struck, it recognized that its logistics infrastructure, supply chains, and network of retailers could help provide food aid and other essentials goods to people struggling with the crisis. To put their resources to work, Sokowatch partnered with aid groups to give vulnerable families digital vouchers, which could then be redeemed at local shops for essential goods. By building on existing assets, Sokowatch achieved three major accomplishments: it provided critical aid to communities; donors and government entities did not need to set up new distribution systems; and Sokowatch’s network of informal retailers was included in the value chain.

When thinking about existing assets, social enterprises shouldn’t forget how to leverage and engage one of their most important resources: their employees. Harambee had its key accounts team members—whose work helping major employers hire unemployed youth slowed due to the pandemic—shift to helping businesses use and make sense of often confusing government relief programs. Harambee also redirected its contact center team to provide support to South Africa’s national unemployment insurance fund, helping the government disburse funds to thousands of businesses. As a result, Harambee was able to retain and engage staff while strengthening relationships with customers.

4. Prepare for a Post-Crisis World

While the future is always uncertain, some sort of “new normal” is coming. How can you use crisis-driven experiments as a way to prepare for tomorrow?

As Sokowatch rolled out its digital voucher program, it was not just responding to the crisis at hand, but also testing a product that it plans to scale in the future. In another example, VisionSpring—an organization that provides affordable eyeglasses, vision screening, and training to vulnerable communities—realized that an eventual return to its aggressive growth plans would require significant personal protective equipment (PPE), given the high-contact nature of eye care. It repurposed its existing supply chain to procure and distribute PPE to its service locations, making sure vision screenings can eventually resume safely.

Aiming for Equity

As these organizations re-evaluated the problem they aimed to solve, focused on their finances, built on their assets, and prepared for the “new normal,” they also observed that COVID-19 brought issues of structural inequality to the fore in ways that many people had not seen before. Many of them considered what it would mean to not just overcome the challenges of today, but also to “build back better.”

Sharmi Surianarain, Harambee’s chief impact officer, said organizational shifts driven by COVID-19 could and should “address issues of structural inequality and make structural and sustainable changes that will allow us to build this more just and inclusive future.” While it can be painfully difficult for organizations to pursue or even consider deeper social changes when fighting for daily survival, we hope these insights make it easier for them to build the brighter future they all envision.