COVID-19 and a Philippine think tank: three enduring changes

10 August 2023

The Alliance for Improving Health Outcomes (AIHO) is a non-profit public health organisation in the Philippines, which comprises experienced young professionals within the public health sector. At the AIHO, our mission is to enable people to make health systems work for people. 

One way that we achieve this mission is by mentoring young professionals, allowing them to participate in research, programme design, policy development and project implementation. 

When we were in the executive team, our role was to implement the AIHO’s strategic goals through financial and organisational management, external relations, grant procurement and staff management.

The organisation’s work played a vital role in informing health policies and systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. And our experiences during the pandemic have given us three key focus areas, which we will continue to strengthen going forward.

The AIHO’s national role during COVID-19

Early in the pandemic, we, along with other organisations, launched PHCAN. This aimed to inform the general public about how the virus is spread and why masking is important, which filled an important communications gap. 

Our partners and consultants were also core members of the Healthcare Professionals’ Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC), which has a strong voice on COVID-19 clinical and public health management. We co-developed several guiding documents for policymakers and implementers. 

This organisation also supported the creation of the Virology Institute of the Philippines by facilitating the development of research priorities with experts in virology and conducted a COVID-19 vaccination gap study in Mindanao, Philippines.

But it wasn’t all easy. We recognise the importance of learning from the pandemic and applying these lessons to shape our future strategies. Three key lessons stood out to us as important in our efforts to navigate the evolving landscape of non-profit think tanks.

1. Flexible work arrangements

Remote work has been one of the lasting legacies in the “new normal”. While major companies have begun to put an end to remote work, we’re continuing our culture of embracing flexible work arrangements and are investing in digital infrastructures to enhance collaboration, productivity and cost-efficiency. This is enabling us to attract talent from diverse locations and will also ensure operational continuity in future challenging circumstances.

When the pandemic hit, the AIHO was already open to remote working. With the exception of events, meetings and data collection, some of our projects had already been operating remotely. Our positions as executive and deputy directors were also partly remote.

However, because no travel was initially possible during the first community quarantine, our research and project teams had to upskill and adapt to remote data collection methods (using online tools) and some of our advocacy activities had to be temporarily suspended.

Once the national quarantine measures began to ease, we devised a pragmatic approach to resuming fieldwork. Project leads were given the option to suspend project implementation indefinitely, in coordination with their partner agencies and funders. 

Although collecting primary data remotely was still our priority, we also made provisions to support fieldwork: we submitted a COVID-19 field activity plan and an emergency contact and travel authorisation form (approved by the executive director); we hired local data collectors, who could only travel through their locality; and we protected our staff and the local community through budget realignment, accommodating personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests and medical insurance.

2. Financial resilience and sustainability

The pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of non-profit organisations, particularly in terms of financial stability. At the AIHO, we’ve learnt the importance of diversifying funding sources, cultivating strategic partnerships and building robust financial reserves. 

During the pandemic, we reviewed our operational budget and realigned our funds to provide resources for setting up home offices and to provide safe transportation for staff who were travelling into the office. 

Travel budgets were cut down dramatically to fund a new budget line on home office set-ups, which covers new mobile hardware (e.g., laptops, webcams and headphones) as well as software for online conferences and work collaborations (e.g., Zoom and Google Suite for non-profit organisations). 

The office maintenance and supplies budgets were also reallocated to the communications budget to fund better internet connectivity and electricity at employees’ homes. 

We also diversified our funding sources, including more private funding for our research and projects. We targeted funders who have more flexibility in funding realignment and unrestricted funding. With projects geared towards the pandemic response, new funding sources from corporate and international foundations were identified. These funders have a much higher allowable management fee (15–20%) compared to government funding (7.5%).

By strengthening our financial resilience, we’ll be more able to withstand future crises and continue our vital work without compromising our mission.

3. Prioritising staffs’ wellbeing and support

The wellbeing of our team members remains paramount. Throughout the pandemic, we held online group therapy, anxiety management, and social sessions with staff and consultants. This was in response to the need for mental health and social support during one of the longest community quarantines, globally. 

We also engaged volunteers from Argao Psych and the Miriam College’s Department of Psychology to provide these services for our staff and consultants. 

Young professionals in the AIHO also organised social interaction sessions via Zoom, allowing employees to chat and play interactive, multiplayer party games

We continue to prioritise mental health support, to promote a work–life balance and to provide professional development opportunities. Nurturing a supportive and inclusive organisational culture fosters employee retention, motivation and productivity.