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Giving in times of need - balancing immediate and longer-term philanthropy

WHAT does one of the world's biggest pop stars have to do with the coronavirus emergency? Behind this headline How Taylor Swift's Chinese fans are helping fight the Coronavirus is a touching story about communities coming together to assist those in need. The Swift fanclub's approach to identifying immediate needs (phoning hospitals to ask what supplies were needed); their ability to mobilise and organise quickly and effectively; and their transparent approach to ensure accountability (carefully tracking all donations) leave a lasting impression. They are all best practices in designing and managing philanthropic projects.

Like community groups, many multilateral institutions, national governments, businesses and philanthropists have also come together to arrest the pace of the outbreak, deliver protective gear and equipment to responders, and support the development of vaccines and treatments for those affected.

The World Health Organization has set aside US$675 million to develop a preparedness and global response plan. Complementing its efforts, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed US$100 million to work with governments and researchers to help find a vaccine, strengthen detection and limit the spread of the virus, especially in nations with weaker health infrastructure. In Asia, the Jack Ma Foundation is working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Engineering and other scientific institutes to develop a vaccine.

Similar to the Swift fanclub, these organisations spent time listening to needs, spoke with partners to identify areas where they can make the greatest difference, considered their strengths, and coordinated their funding to see to the strategic allocation of resources. The user-centric and science-based approach enable governments and non-governmental organisations to take immediate measures to manage the outbreak.

There are many other ways for individuals to support organisations that are helping communities affected by the health emergency. While fast, flexible and catalytic funding is integral to providing immediate relief measures, there is still a need for thoughtful and longer-term financing to support recovery and enhance preparedness as the situation evolves. It will take time for all types of needs to emerge. Here are some areas for would-be funders to consider:

  • Local organisations serving low-income and vulnerable communities. Many sections of society may be struggling to source and pay for personal protective equipment such as masks and sanitisation products. They often have less access to robust healthcare networks, or disability or language barriers may hinder communication. With a strong network within the community, these organisations can assist with distributing necessities effectively, monitoring health conditions, and helping donors keep track of evolving needs.
  • Organisations promoting health and hygiene. With the medical profession repeatedly emphasising the importance of personal hygiene and handwashing to limit the contagion, there is still lots to be done in supporting the distribution of sanitary products and in helping groups that promote healthy behaviour. According to the Global Handwashing Partnership, handwashing with soap can cut acute respiratory infections by 25 per cent.
  • Institutions focused on medical research. In addition to vaccines and anti-viral drugs, there is still much to be done to understand the long-term health impact of those infected by 2019-nCov. Furthermore, as funding for research might have been diverted to tackle the coronavirus, scientists will need support to continue their research on medical challenges unrelated to the immediate crisis but vital to the future well-being of millions of people. Underlying research is often complementary: it is the millions that have been invested into genomic research over the past decade that enabled scientists to map out the DNA sequencing of the 2019-nCoV within weeks.
  • Groups providing services to address various mental health challenges. From those who are under self-quarantine to families who have lost loved ones, there will be considerable need to assist individuals in managing the effects of social isolation, anxiety and grief.
  • Institutions working on integrated recovery and emergency preparedness plans. A golden rule of crisis management is to stay prepared by conducting drills and capture lessons learned through the handling of recent crises. Philanthropy is in a unique position to help public health institutions and NGOs learn from the experience, which tends to be an underfunded area. These organisations will benefit from capacity building initiatives as well as the setting up of systems and infrastructure to help them anticipate and respond to the next "black swan".

Long-term thinking will be required to restore economies with the view of building more resilient communities. Support will be needed, not only in addressing health-related issues, but also in policymaking, strengthening social ties and building sustainable infrastructure. As Taylor Swift's fans showed, a coordinated and data-driven approach is integral to maximising impact when resources are limited.

  • The writer is head of philanthropy services and advisory, HSBC Private Wealth Solutions

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