Seven Lesson Learnt In 2020

Every year I publish a research report for the grantmaking, social investment, humanitarian, philanthropy and development sector focusing on trends That is, until 2020 happened!

Seven months into 2021, I would like to reflect and share on what I learnt during 2020.

Lesson 1: Complexity requires clear strategy

Whilst 2020 required rapid responses to several issues all at once – to survive the pandemic, 2021 calls for recalibration of focus. In a world that has changed fundamentally previous investment and development portfolios now looks insignificant and irrelevant.

It has become clear that to respond effectively to continued economic, social and environmental challenges spaces must be created for deep, meaningful and sometimes uncomfortable engagement and consultation with several stakeholders that represent different viewpoints. In crafting future strategies, we will have to make room for constructive disagreement, shared learning and stronger alignment across different sectors of society. In addition, the complexity we face in a post Covid-world will require not only vastly different but very clear strategies to solve complex issues.

Lesson 2: We will have to achieve more (not with less) but by doing things better

Most actors in the humanitarian ecosystem knows that to make meaningful (and measurable impact) we need to catalyse systemic change. Collaboration and partnerships have never been more important than in 2020, quite simply because the demand was so much greater than the supply on so many fronts.

The reality is that we will have to achieve more with less and we can only do that by building ecosystems that link the efforts and contributions of many to achieve outcomes beyond the reach of any single organization or sector.

In addition, we must recognize the way we have approached ‘development’ is outdated and has been rendered ineffective, inefficient with little return on investment for all the resources invested. We can no longer afford to fund initiatives that do not lead to change and impact at scale. We need to innovate both our approach, processes, structures and systems and work together to drive shared value for all stakeholders equally to improve outcomes that are lasting. We cannot afford to keep on funding organizations and interventions that do not innovate or that are no longer relevant to the context in which we now all live. We must leave behind what no longer serves us and the constituents we serve.

Lesson 3: Balancing between urgent matters with long term views

As we start rebuilding societies and economies in a post Covid Era, we must move past short term solutions (that address immediate needs) to long-term sustainable solutions that will address persistent as well as new and emerging challenges.

We have come to realize that more pandemics and disasters are to follow. These will not only be health related but also resulting from the climate crises, whilst at the same time – considering and addressing persistent challenges like poverty, unemployment and inequality. Not only will this require serious internal debate, extensive research into innovative solutions, but also external engagement to ensure shared responsibility for outcomes, change and impact by several actors, most importantly government.

Lesson 4: We have ignored past evidence of mediocrity and failure and chose easy over difficult

Whilst all stakeholders in the social sector agree on the importance of monitoring and evaluation for learning, to understand impact and inform decision making, so far, we have focused on things that are easy to measure.

We chose to ignore systems change approaches which are too complex and independent to capture with tools that measure cause and effect. With a short term focus we encouraged incremental changes – measuring one intervention at a time, forgetting to compare the results of one organization to another, instead ignoring more difficult indicators to measure that is focused on larger systemic transformation. This has led to much ineffective, irrelevant and outdated evaluation processes, that did not serve us in the past, and that will definitely not add any value in the future.

Lesson 5: We kept having the same discussions over and over without choosing to make a change

There is a lot of fanfare about failure, but that does not change the fact that failing can be painful, embarrassing and often non-strategic. If we want to embrace failure and reap the benefits of iterative innovation, we must create environments where admitting failure aligns with the interests of all stakeholders. Similarly, we persist in using logic model frameworks, theories of changes – that gets produced without anyone questioning our assumptions, logic or interrogating evidence of what really works.

Following so called ‘best practices’ in development and prescribed models has not brought better practices in reality. In the same way we conduct due diligence for literally decades, none of our compliance and governance measures bought about guaranteed outcomes and the envisaged impact. Many flagship and signature initiatives were announced with much fanfare, and beautiful social media posts, only to never be heard from again. The time has come to own up to our own failures, take accountability for what little we have achieved with our resources, to step away from our own ego’s and getting real about whether we can or cannot make real, sustainable impact as a sector. This will require us to be really transparent about our logic model frameworks and being accountable for delivering on all aspects of our theories of change.

Lesson 6: Can new money bring new change?

Sustainable investing and impact investing appear to be on the rise in the wake of COVID-19. But will markets truly change and create the potential for more development funding, or is much of the new trend mere window dressing?

The new buzzwords, ESG and impact investing space has, until this year, been quite separate from global/humanitarian development. For one thing, ESG is skewed to the most advanced economies. For another, ESG has been heavily weighted to environmental factors and less focused on the social issues more relevant to global development. As for impact investing, it remains comparatively small (read non-existent) in low-income countries or emerging markets and has only marginally connected with broader global development efforts.

Lesson 7: We are in unfamiliar territory – none of us have been here before

Money cannot fix everything. As donors and social investors, we have our strategies and are very clear on what important issue we want to change or influence. Social purpose organizations and entrepreneurs are very clear that their solutions solve specific problems. However, if both were right, would we not have solved poverty by now or at least unemployment? The question is – are we too focused on solutions before anything else? The issue is – a solutions mindset impedes opportunities to learn from others, especially those who are familiar with the problem that need solving.

Changemakers have a natural tendency to offer novel and concrete solutions to problems they encounter. However, some people may not want their problems solved for them—they would rather be heard, understood and supported as they find their own way. Transformational change often requires the dismantling of structures that maintain the current system, no matter how daunting that process may be. And this daunting future is what presents us with the opportunity for the future.

We have many tools available to bring about transformational change, including “traditional tools” like granting, donations and sponsorships, and “new tools” like impact investing and blended/innovative finance. While each tool is appropriate for achieving different outcomes, there is untold potential awaiting those who experiment, remix, and re-combine the familiar with the new opportunities that awaits us.

My wish – that no matter how challenging, how daunting – that you stand with me – to recreate new systems and consider new solutions that will contribute to a better world. These are my musings and observations as we enter a post Covid world.

Reana Rossouw
Reana Rossouw is a Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa Industry Contributor and a management consultant who works with social and impact investors to develop strategies for enhanced impact and return on investment. She has assisted numerous corporate social investors moving from traditional grantmaking to impact investing. Her particular expertise in impact management and measurement has ensured a successful transition to a new environment for her clients that has led to increased opportunities to create shared value for all stakeholders.


  • Susan Hill says:

    Completely agree! We have learned so much during this pandemic and it’s time to implement lessons learned rather than just talk.. Thank you for this very informative and inspiring write up.

    iKhaya le Themba, Hout Bay, was fortunate to be able to distribute fresh veggies and fish during lockdown 2020. Students returning in August suffered such loss – educationally, socially, emotionally – particularly as government schools were ill-prepared. Closing the gaps were vital and still are necessary in order for SA’s children to thrive. The loss of jobs impacted families and their children, further stunted their growth and prevented them from moving forward while the world continued to turn. Collaborating with the farmer across the road to provide the veg and Food Flow for the fish; we turned into planting five circular veggie gardens with the mothers of the children! What a huge blessing it’s been for them, for iKhaya and the wider community! Next we realised the importance of SMEs. Our moms had no skills when they began, now they grow fresh veggies and have harvested some of the largest cabbage I’ve ever seen! Next they are tackling learning computers, English and sewing – we can’t wait for the outcome!

    We learned from our students, too. They were thirsting for knowledge and learning poverty simply widened the gap during the lockdown! With the help of Outliers we provided education packs for our students along with the fresh fish and veg and we’ve strategically honed Math and Literacy Labs to close the gap on what they missed during lockdown. It’s a sheer delight to see the lights come on as a child reads fluently for the first time! There are so many ways SA can impact its people together! It’s time to also realise that not every child is academically inclined either, so what will their future be like? Imagine retired age professionals sharing their skills with youth? There are roads and solar panels that could be built; there are other trades like bricklaying and electrical wiring skills, events planning and so much more! Does society need to care about the lack of access to quality education, food security, unemployment of so many good people in South Africa? We should see our challenges as opportunities and look within our nation and our communities for solutions. We are ALL in this together and realising this will make the greatest impact any of us have ever seen!

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