Re-purposing travel and event funding toward COVID-19 relief

By: Josh Adler

I want to be clear — this is not a debate on whether conferencing, travel and events are the best ways for non-profits to spend money for impact. Let’s just acknowledge upfront that the true impact gains from travel and convening within the non-profit sector are both difficult to measure and deeply variable. The fact remains that many non-profits spend meaningfully on travel and convening. If a program is global or regional, these budgets can be quite significant.

I’ve been managing programs like this for almost a decade — and so much can change when it comes to travel as a program or event evolves. In general, a well-designed program is best served through travel that was budgeted, and changes in environment (e.g. visas) or tactics (securing co-sponsors) mainly result in timing variances. Under-spend is mostly deferred to the future.

This year is different.

It was clear from early March as we began re-forecasting our program spend that timing variances were an optimistic lens. Permanence was staring at us from red lines and scratch notes from our budget meetings.

So, what to do?

The first decision we made was a principle of response, rather than one of deferment. As we heard more and more from our Anzisha Fellows (active, very young entrepreneurs in Africa) and the growing impacts on their livelihoods, talk of deferred travel opportunities for them to a time in the future just rang hollow. Our entrepreneur acceleration team, led by Thokoza Mjo, quickly reached out to as many of our beneficiaries as possible to assemble a suite of options. The speed at which her team collected both anecdotes and supporting evidence across almost 100 entrepreneurs was remarkable, and we found a few key takeaways:

  • Our very young entrepreneurs faced the same challenges around employee retention that all SME’s were facing, but most would not qualify for government-backed schemes that were being rolled out.
  • Our entrepreneurs with larger businesses were already modelling their working capital needs and had begun raising debt to support cash flow while they adjusted to the new reality.
  • Our entrepreneurs at all levels had already started or were planning on pivoting aspects of their business or skills to respond to new market demands and opportunities.

At the same time, Melissa Mbazo — the Deputy Director of the Anzisha Prize — and I were looking at our future travel and event budget lines for the coming months to see how much we could viably re-purpose into a new COVID-19 Relief Fund. A short but robust process to get feedback and sign-off from our partners and executives from a governance perspective was then followed. This was of course critically important as we were making material changes to a well-designed program.

We are proud to say that right now we’re busy disbursing the first tranche of $50,000 USD after a strong application process to fairly allocate the funds. We will be able to release another $50,000 USD tranche in June and will keep evaluating our options.

Here are the specifics of what the Anzisha COVID19 Relief Fund offers to our fellows:

  • EMPLOYEE RETENTION GRANTS: To help businesses deal with the impact of COVID-19, the Employee Retention Grant Program will assist Anzisha Fellows to retain the most vulnerable employees as businesses face decreased revenue. The criteria will be clear, and follow the guidelines of similar programs from governments around the world.
  • VOUCHERS/RELIEF PURCHASES: Some Fellows’ businesses are able to operate, and are already providing or could provide important services in response to COVID-19. We will purchase these services (food, deliveries, medical supplies) on behalf of local communities that need them.
  • INTEREST FREE LOANS: For larger businesses in our network, we will provide interest-free loans with a repayment holiday pending a short due diligence process.

It’s wonderful to work with a team and partners that put the needs of our fellows first. If anyone would like to talk through how we did this in more detail so that you too can explore how to re-allocate your own travel and event budgets into direct relief, please contact me via LinkedIn.

A few links for those that aren’t familiar with our work:

  • We’re focused on figuring out how to support successful transitions of very young people directly from school to entrepreneurship. Read our Theory of Change
  • We select fellows before they turn 22, from across Africa. We have been doing it for almost 10 years, and you can meet over 122 of them here.
  • We’re building communities of African parents and educators around this idea of entrepreneurship as a career. Why not join?

** Note. Our relief funding is sadly only available to Anzisha Fellows already within program. We are unfortunately unable to consider applications for funding from others.

Featured image: Attendants at the 2019 Anzisha Prize Tour in Kampala, Uganda (Photo Credit: Mfundo Mbanze)