Remote Momentum

How a global nonprofit was able to keep boots on the ground across the world

“There is a wealth of human ingenuity out there — we just have to create space for it.”

Unbound

Stay-at-home orders have left vulnerable populations in a precarious situation. For Kansas-based Unbound, an organization that pairs sponsors with the elderly and children in countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, local staff lost the ability to check in on the people they helped.

Fortunately, the mothers whose children received help from the group were able to step up and fill in during this time. Andrew Kling, Unbound’s community outreach and media relations director, explains in the Q&A below.

What does your company do?

Unbound is an anti-poverty organization partnering children and elders living in extreme poverty across Latin America, Asia, and Africa with supporters in the United States. Each year, our donors help send more than $100 million in direct support to families in need around the world.

How have you conducted business in the past?

We have 2,000 local staff in the 19 countries we work. Before stay-at-home orders, local staff would visit the families in their homes and help them identify and set plans to achieve their goals. We also organized the mothers of sponsored children into small accountability and support groups of 20 to 30 women. There are more than 10,000 Unbound mothers' groups around the world, each with an elected leader.

What immediate effects did stay-at-home orders have on your operations?

While the impact of this situation varies across countries, all local staff have had to adjust to new social distancing standards that advise against the type of support group gatherings that have proven to be beneficial to the mothers in our programs.

Back at our headquarters in the US, we’re facing the challenge of finding new sponsors and donors during precarious economic times for people here and abroad. There are more than 40,000 children and elders on our waiting list seeking a sponsor.

What changes did you make to adapt to our current situation?

It’s been fascinating watching the innovations come out of neighborhoods around the world, both high tech and low tech. The staff in most of the countries where we operate are working from home and cannot travel to the neighborhoods of our families during this time. Having a mother leader in every community where we work helps us stay updated on the latest unique needs and challenges facing each community.

The moms are finding ways to connect virtually with each other to keep families on track to achieve their goals and are even assuming some of the duties normally done by our social workers to enroll new families in our programs. Mother groups are also checking in on the elders in their area to make sure no one is left behind. In some neighborhoods they have organized a flag system so that families can hang a colored banner to signal for help if they are running low on supplies.

An Unbound staff member working with families in Guatemala.Unbound

What were the challenges in implementing these changes?

Luckily, thanks to years of organizing with moms, they have built a strong foundation of mutual support to use to adapt and respond. They have been able to make and scale innovations quickly, which has been inspiring to see. But the challenges of poverty are already immense.

We’re seeing a painful technological divide emerging as institutions deliver more resources virtually and schools move to distance learning. Many of the neighborhoods where Unbound-sponsored families live do not have access to the internet at all, let alone a high-speed connection. This makes it much more challenging for families that may all share one mobile phone and attempt to submit schoolwork or sit in on lessons. That’s not only difficult in the moment, but it could cause students who are left out to lag behind for years, entrenching that inequality for another generation.

What have been the results?

With the help of the mothers, we’ve been able to stay connected to the needs of children and elders in our program. The families are showing amazing leadership in their neighborhoods to make sure no one gets left behind. We have been able to maintain the flow of support and have seen so many people going above and beyond to support their neighbors.

What have you learned through adapting to a remote environment?

We’re inspired by the action taken by the mothers of sponsored children to keep our work alive at a time when situations are becoming more dire each day. Technology has also been instrumental in helping us stay connected to the work and the families we serve thousands of miles away at a time when they need support more than ever before. There’s also been a special sense of solidarity in all of this that has been encouraging. It’s remarkable to know that there are thousands of people who are trying to help others from their kitchen tables, too.

What advice do you have for others who are trying to figure out this new way or working?

Invest in local solutions. There is a wealth of human ingenuity out there — we just have to create space for it and then put velocity behind the ideas that emerge.

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