Agility in changing times sets VukaNow up for success

Beginning in late 2019 and over the course of six months, the USAID VukaNow Activity had been planning for a combined five day, in-person learning event involving large gatherings of people and significant international travel – then COVID-19 hit.

The VukaNow activity serves as a learning and sharing function for the entire USAID Combating Wildlife Crime in Southern Africa (CWCSA) portfolio and was responsible for organizing a critical mid-term learning event in Botswana, known as a Pause and Reflect. From inception, USAID designed the CWCSA portfolio to follow the principles of Collaborating, Learning, and Adaptation (CLA). However, challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic put the portfolio’s principle of adaptation to the ultimate test. Beth Skorochod, Director of Practice with CollaborateUp,  VukaNow’s Consortium Partner, says: “While COVID-19 was already an issue in China, it didn’t initially occur to us that it would impact our planning. But just a few days before the event was scheduled to take place, with flights already booked, the Botswana government indicated that travelers would not be allowed to enter the country without quarantining for two weeks. That just wasn’t feasible. So, with only days to go, we had to pivot the entire event to virtual.”

Traditionally, all-virtual formats consist almost entirely of talking at people– more like broadcast television than problem-solving and networking. There were concerns that people wouldn’t find value in the online sessions, which prompted the VukaNow team to do extensive outreach to encourage stakeholders to take part. Richard Crespin, CEO of CollaborateUp, elaborates: “The Regional Mission Director, John Groarke, was in attendance and several people from USAID Washington  woke up at 3am to attend… This telegraphed that they took the meeting seriously and set the scene for others. The flexibility of participants hugely impressed us. We even had people who would participate from their cars, having had to drive to find broadband connectivity or even electricity!” John Groarke gave the closing remarks, and emphasized the importance of the work being done by the CWCSA portfolio, particularly during the pandemic, and USAID’s ongoing support for these efforts.

With most people having limited experience with virtual meetings and Zoom at that point, it was necessary to learn the technology quickly and ensure that it would still enable the original plans for group work and interaction. We had to drastically reduce the agenda given that it would have been unrealistic to ask participants to remain online for a full eight hours a day for five days. To ensure optimal use of time, we adapted the agenda to 12 hours of formal workshops that were supplemented by set activities provided beyond the formal facilitated sessions. CollaborateUp developed  a virtual meeting strategy based on the learnings from this Pause and Reflect. Some tips for ensuring a good virtual event included splitting up facilitation roles, understanding client security protocols, choosing a platform that allows for breakout groups and being thoughtful about team formation, and ensuring rapid feedback loops are in place.

Not only was this event a success for technical information sharing, with several participants saying it was the best meeting they’d ever attended, but it also positioned VukaNow to operate smoothly throughout the pandemic. The success of this quick pivot to virtual resulted in increased likelihood for attendance and buy-in on similar events in the future, and allowed the team to feel confident adjusting the remaining FY 2020 programming from mostly in-person to almost entirely virtual. As a result, VukaNow hosted a further 11 virtual events during the remainder of the financial year.