• Molly Morrison

On the offence: how international development NGOs are innovating in response to COVID-19

Updated: Jan 28

What is the development sector getting right in the response to the pandemic, and what are the upcoming fundraising opportunities?


2020 will always be known as the year COVID-19 stopped the world. Entire sectors ground to a halt, exposing weaknesses in our systems and demonstrating our lack of preparation to cope with a global public health crisis on this scale (which has been pointed out by many, including Bill Gates in his 2010 TED Talk). It has also demonstrated both the strengths and shortfalls of governments – for example, rapid government action in places like China, Australia, and New Zealand led to effective lockdown periods that stopped the spread of the virus and returned the countries to normal more quickly.

Unfortunately, due to the multifaceted nature of a global pandemic, government response is not enough to mitigate all the effects of COVID-19. There is a clear need for the non-profit sector to step in and fill the gaps.

In fact, when it comes to public health, the importance of the non-profit sector has been well documented. For example, the global effort to eradicate polio (which has decreased numbers by more than 99% since 1979) was the result of the largest-ever public-private partnership for public health. The international effort was led by the WHO, Rotary International, US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who mobilised more than 20 million volunteers and have collectively immunised nearly 3 billion children over the past 20 years. As in the eradication of polio, NGOs have been a significant part of the COVID-19 response. The far-reaching impact of the virus has meant there is a need for more organisations to get involved. These are the types of organisations that are required to respond to the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Global health research institutions that contribute to the development of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics.

  • Organisations that work to strengthen healthcare systems.

  • Organisations that have the infrastructure required for distributing personal protective equipment, vaccines, or medications.

  • Media NGOs and journalists that are countering misinformation about the spread of the disease and possible treatments.

  • Organisations that work with the elderly.

  • Organisations that support vulnerable populations that government authorities have difficulty reaching, such as migrants and people experiencing homelessness.

  • Organisations that can support the recovery of hard-hit businesses and workers.

  • Humanitarian organisations that support healthcare services in fragile contexts without established healthcare infrastructure.

As these organisations are in the frontline of responding to COVID-19, there are existing or emerging funding pipelines that can be accessed to support activities, including:

NGOs supporting health systems have more funding opportunities at this time. For example, the Islamic Development Bank is calling for proposals for long-term preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic focused on the following: the application of advanced technology; innovative health supply chain management systems; development of low-cost rapid tests and screening methods; capacity building interventions in IDB member countries and Muslim communities in non-member countries. Grants are $50,000 - $1 million (deadline: 1 June).


There are increased crowdfunding opportunities for NGOs supporting the COVID-19 response. As COVID-19 has taken centre stage in mainstream media and everyone’s daily lives, NGOs are therefore in a unique position to run fundraising campaigns on social media. Famously, Captain Tom walked the length of his garden 100 times to celebrate his 100th birthday and raised £1 million for the National Health Service (NHS). However, despite the influx of goodwill, the challenge for fundraising is that with the economic downturn, many people may not be able or willing to donate.


Governments are awarding contracts to organisations with infrastructure that can support service delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in developing counties where distribution of medications and personal protective equipment is challenging, NGOs can use their infrastructure to distribute supplies. Omidyar Network India announced a call for proposals for rapid response funding to tackle the challenges posed by the COVID-19 situation and the consequent socio-economic impact. They are accepting proposals for funding up to $1.4 million. This opportunity is for NGOs, research organisations, and for-profit businesses, registered as Indian entities.


For research institutions, donors have rapidly increased funding for a possible vaccine and treatment options. For example, the Booz Allen Foundation has established a $1 million Innovation Fund to help nonprofits, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, innovators, startups and small businesses improve COVID-19 relief efforts through data, technology, and diverse intellectual capital (deadline: 5 June). Additionally, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome, and Mastercard announced $125 million in seed funding for COVID-19 response innovations. The COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator will play a catalytic role by accelerating and evaluating new and repurposed drugs and biologics to treat patients with COVID-19 in the immediate term, and other viral pathogens in the longer-term. The Accelerator is focused on identifying, assessing, developing, and scaling-up treatments (no deadline).


Donors are calling on NGOs that work on media and journalism to counter the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. Journalists and NGOs that focus on media can find a table of opportunities in this article released by the Knight Foundation. In addition to the above resources, Grand Challenges Canada's list of external calls for COVID-19 funding publishes a currated list of current calls for tenders and grant opportunties.


Is your organisation interested in accessing funding for COVID-19 response? If so, what resources would you find useful? Have you faced barriers in accessing funding to respond to the COVID-19 crisis?

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