Like many other sectors and industries across the world, the social sector assesses its health and progress using a key indicator – the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic forced social sector organisations to re-evaluate their work, and ask themselves an important question– “Are we really as effective and impactful as we think we are?” For some organisations, the answer to this was yes, for others it was no, but for everyone, drastic changes needed to be made, for them to adapt.
While the pandemic was devastating, and its ripple effects will continue to be felt for a long time, it accelerated a domino effect of change that has not only been beneficial to the sector but to the individuals and communities that it supports.
Over the last few years, the sector has grown tremendously, including in the areas of:
Innovation and creativity: I would compare the social sector pre-COVID, to an old model car, with a functioning engine. It works well enough, performs its primary function of moving people from one place to another, and is probably serviced from time to time. What it does lack, however, is the upgrades that come from newer model cars – speed, sophisticated systems, smarter engines, aesthetics, and in some unique cases, self-driving technology. The social sector post-COVID has begun to adopt more innovative and creative approaches for achieving impact. From the use of technology and digital transformation to creating systems that provide both financial and social profit, the sector has been able to improve how it does its work, increase the scale of its impact, build the capacity of its personnel, and address social issues in a more systemic and sustainable way.
Technology: Social sector organisations are using technology to address social issues that have continuously affected communities, especially on the African continent. From the creation of Artificial Intelligence-based digital reading devices for visually impaired students, to using technology to combat food scarcity and wastage, and providing low-cost tech-enabled solutions for rural farmers, non-profits and social enterprises have embraced the digital transformation era, and this has only impacted positively on their work, and beneficiaries.
Youth participation: Young people who were already ‘riding the technology wave’ – found it much easier to adapt to the changes that COVID brought, especially during the lockdown. They leaned into their civic power (the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria being a good example), created financial opportunities for themselves using digital platforms like social media, and embraced opportunities in the tech industry. Considering that Africa is the youngest, and fastest growing continent in the world – by 2030, there will be 375 million young people in the job market – the youth population holds tremendous potential for growth, within, and beyond the social sector.
Social enterprise: The social sector, used to be primarily comprised of non-profit and charitable organisations only – groups addressing social issues, by relying solely on financial support from funding organisations, and donations. Now, there’s a new wave of social impact organisations – the social enterprises. These are profit-making organisations/businesses driven by social missions and reinvesting their profits into creating positive social change. Their work has further expanded the social space and introduced another dimension of social impact work.
Partnerships and collaboration: There is now more emphasis on collaboration and partnership – within and across sectors. Actors from the social, private, and public sectors are working together, now more than ever, to collaboratively address recurring social challenges. The Coalition Against COVID-19 of which I served as co-administrator, is a great example. While it was private sector driven, especially as regards the financial support, it was technically supported by the public sector and operationalised by the social sector. These kinds of partnerships can only positively influence the growth of the sector, in the years to come.
I have been privileged to witness the various dimensions, and transformations that the social sector has been through over the years. From the era of ‘pure passion’, where there was less emphasis on structure and systems, but we did the work because we were passionate about it, to the early stages of the ‘formalised social sector’, and now to the present days of social impact innovation. I am truly excited about what the future holds for the sector and encourage actors to focus on strengthening their internal systems and processes, designing outcome and impact-driven solutions, emphasizing locally led and driven solutions including in philanthropy and social work, and documenting their wins and successes. As I add another year, I mentally flip the page to a new chapter, for myself, as well as for this sector I hold so dearly. We can only go onwards and upwards from here.
- Osayi Alile is the Chief Executive Officer, Aspire Coronation Trust Foundation