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How non-profits turn to creativity as a Covid-19 survival mechanism

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

One of Phare Ponleu Selpak performers during the world’s first 24-hour, non-stop circus to set a Guinness World Record. SCOTT SHARICK

At 4am one Monday in March, three Cambodian jugglers wobbled on a highwire in a tent in Battambang province, while a small, masked audience gasped below. Onlookers included several monks had stayed up all night to support Phare Ponleu Selpak’s now-exhausted performers as they neared the end of the world’s first 24-hour, non-stop circus. Half a million watched the event online from around the globe, donating thousands of dollars to support Phare’s audacious attempt to set a Guinness World Record. The entire fundraiser was a vivid illustration of how Cambodian non-profits have responded to Covid-19 with creativity.

Plato wrote “need will be the real creator”way back in 375BC, so there’s nothing new about the idea that crises drive innovation. We’ve all had to reinvent our professional and social lives to stay safe during this pandemic, while companies had to overhaul business models. Drive down any major Phnom Penh road in the evening and you’ll pass squadrons of masked food delivery drivers, living symbols of Cambodia’s changed social and economic landscape.

ManyNGOs have been forced to get particularly creative to survive a perfect storm of pandemic-related challenges. Like other organisations, they’ve overhauled working practices to protect staff, but have also had to learn how to support vulnerable people without being in the same room. Meanwhile, many streams of funding, already drying up before Covid-19, have evaporated.

“Public performances were our key source of funds and came to a sudden stop. We had to drastically adjust, including pay cuts, reduced hours, and curtailing activities. And that then forced us to get creative with our fundraising,” remembers Osman Khawaja, Phare’s executive director. “Sadly, I know several non-profits, especially in education or training, which had to close or cut back services.”

Yaim Chamreun, executive director of First Step Cambodia, tells a similar story. His organisation provides crucial services protecting Cambodian children from sexual abuse, including training for social workers. It has faced daunting funding challenges: “Many of us NGOs are at risk of downsizing and have had to put an end to some projects.”

Fortunately, as August’s International Business Awards demonstrated, many Cambodian non-profits have successfully embraced creativity as a survival mechanism. Phare alone won four gold trophies for its circus fundraiser, while ISF Cambodia was recognised for its innovations, including “Social Distance Football”, a new Covid-safe sport that took off globally. ISF is now the first Cambodian organisation ever nominated for a People’s Choice Award for the world’s best NGO (vote Cambodian at!).

Creativity doesn’t have to mean bold gestures like inventing sports or breaking records. It can also mean rethinking working methods. First Step shifted support services and training online and reappraised its priorities in light of the pandemic. Aware that children were increasingly online, Yaim says: “We paid closer attention to the growing issue of online sexual abuse in Cambodia, why it happens and what are the best ways for children to be protected.” He’s also seen individual social workers get creative: “There’s been a growing adaptation of social work professionals to the digital world. A large number of creative posters or videos have been made and this has been great to see!”

The big development agencies had to rethink and restructure even more radically, not as a matter of survival but to support the government in its Covid-19 response. UNICEF has been a key partner to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport for decades, but school closures meant its education division had to transform itself in a matter of weeks. A new curriculum for home learning was created, with UNICEF supporting the ministry in developing online lessons and educational programming such as the award-winning Happy Families animation series. Even as schools cautiously reopen, UNICEF continues working with the ministry on delivering hybrid learning packs which children can use at home and school.

As well as inspiring existing NGOs to get inventive, the pandemic also gave birth to new ones.Unexpectedly delayed by Covid-19 from returning to university in the US, and heartbroken by the plight of Phnom Penh’s poorer communities, 21-year-old Taing Huang Hao reached out to the Cyclo Association and developed creative community events like Cyclo Cinema and Cyclo Christmas. When Covid-19 restrictions tightened in March 2021, he stepped up even more and launched a new NGO, Local4Local. This youth-run organisation works with cyclo drivers to deliver food to struggling families, benefiting all parties. In mere months, it raised $64,000 from local donors and delivered 26,000 meals.

“I come up with my best ideas in the shower,” laughs the enthusiastic Taing over a Zoom call. “I 100 per cent believe we need to be creative when faced with challenges. My goal is to be a bridge between entrepreneurs and creatives.” He argues innovation will be even more essential as Cambodia recovers from Covid-19.

That’s also the motivation behind UNICEF’s new “Generation Future” initiative, which connects young people who have creative ideas for change with mentors who can help them deliver them. One Generation Future project will focus on encouraging children to return to schools as they re-open. Almost everyone in the NGO world agrees this is a top priority. Yaim is deeply concerned that large numbers of Cambodian children may drop out: “We really need to put these children on their way back to school.”

Khawaja of Phare agrees. “We’re going to have to be really inventive in persuading the more disadvantaged Cambodian children to return to education after so long away, and to persuade parents that it’s in everyone’s interest that they do. That’s the next big creative challenge for the whole NGO sector, and it starts right now.”

Jaime Gill is creative consultant at Box Clever Creative, and winner of the silver award for Best Communications Professional at the 2021 International Business Awards. For more information about Jaime Gill and his works, visit:


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