Opinion: Evolving philanthropy during the pandemic

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A primary vision care entrepreneur in India. Photo by: Essilor

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented time for those working in philanthropy. It has changed the face of philanthropy and philanthropic outreach completely and perhaps even permanently. We have seen philanthropic resources at large being diverted to fighting COVID-19 and its effects. Livelihoods across the board have also been impacted by the pandemic, leading to more people struggling financially and a larger need for philanthropic support.

On the vision care front, we are seeing vision-screening events being scaled down or even suspended. But as economies suffer, more people are suffering from poverty and cannot afford vision care and glasses. This means the need for direct philanthropic actions just got greater, which raises the question: How can we continue to bring good vision to underserved communities amid a pandemic?

As with any crisis, it is an opportunity for us to take a step back and assess how we’ve been conducting philanthropy and how we can do it differently to better suit the unique requirements of today’s new normal.

1. Shift from ‘necessity’ to ‘urgency’

Although we had seen it coming, we all felt lost during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. The whole world went into emergency mode, and health care workers and hospitals were focused on the urgent tasks of combating the pandemic and saving lives.

At Essilor, our long-standing ambition to eliminate one of the largest unaddressed disabilities in the world today — uncorrected poor vision — which has been an essential fight over the past years, was suddenly becoming a second priority. It was becoming clear we need to pivot to support the urgent needs at hand — and swiftly at that. While “agility” is a term most frequently associated with start-ups and business management, it has a place in philanthropy too.

As we saw reports of the new coronavirus being transmitted through the eyes, we provided front liners combating the pandemic with safety glasses. We also worked with our network of primary vision care entrepreneurs around the world to share critical information on COVID-19 hygiene and safe distancing measures among their communities.

During the pandemic, it becomes even more critical to have a coordinated philanthropic response to effectively align resources toward the most vulnerable people in communities.

2. Protect what you’ve built

The pandemic and its associated lockdowns have put tremendous economic pressure on everyone — even more so for communities at the “base of the pyramid,” or BoP, which are all the more fragile.

Therefore, it becomes even more important for us to secure and protect what we’ve built for our causes — networks, assets, partnerships, etc. — from the effects of the pandemic, so we don’t lose or undo past efforts and progress for these underserved communities.

Essilor has been working to eliminate uncorrected poor vision from the world since 2013 through a combination of awareness-raising, philanthropy, inclusive business, and innovation. We have nurtured a network of primary vision care entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, and Kenya to bring vision care to underserved communities where it was not available before.

When the pandemic impacted the livelihoods of some of these primary vision care entrepreneurs, our social impact fund, Vision For Life — which supports all programs that address the needs of those with uncorrected poor vision and bring about socioeconomic benefits for them and their communities — provided financial assistance equivalent to one month’s income for them, ensuring that the communities they serve do not lose access to vision care.

3. Address the long-term fallout from the pandemic

One of the biggest fallouts from the pandemic is the rise of rural unemployment. In India, for example, rural unemployment hit a peak of 26% in May, with experts saying daily wage earners and low-income households are impacted most drastically. Therein lies an opportunity for philanthropic organizations to pivot from the direct provision of goods and services to offering skills and capability-building to help ease the issue in the long run.

At Essilor, we are expanding our programs to train unemployed and underemployed young men and women in rural areas to become primary vision care entrepreneurs in their communities, building sustainable livelihoods for themselves and offering access to vision care where it was previously unavailable.

4. Don’t stop raising awareness

As the focus continues to be on tackling COVID-19, we must continue to drive awareness for the causes we champion because the issues we are addressing have not gone away. In fact, they might even be compounded by the pandemic or worsen consequences brought on by it.

In the case of vision, 1 in 3 people — or 2.7 billion — suffer from uncorrected poor vision, making it a public health crisis today. It is critical that we continue to dismantle the barriers of awareness and access preventing people from getting the vision care they need.

It becomes even more important when taking into account the fact that 90% of those suffering from uncorrected poor vision are from BoP communities — the same ones whose livelihoods are most impacted by the pandemic. Helping people from these communities see well will improve their health and well-being, education, and work opportunities, as well as the communities’ overall sustainable development, placing them in better positions to adapt to the new normal brought on by COVID-19.

During the pandemic, Essilor Vision Foundation ASEAN — which organizes vision-screening philanthropic activities — kept its work going by inviting beneficiaries and NGO partners to share their stories and experiences via public webinars.

5. Partner and pool

Partnerships and collaborations will always be our silver bullet to drive scale for our philanthropic programs and create ever-greater impact. During the pandemic, it becomes even more critical to have a coordinated philanthropic response to effectively align resources toward the most vulnerable people in communities; otherwise, there could be a lot of wastage and duplication of efforts that could end up being counterproductive.

A mobile visual health unit in France. Photo by: Essilor

We continue to work with our partners to deliver philanthropic support to everyone in need. In December, we launched our very first mobile visual health unit in France, capable of providing complete eye examinations and glasses to beneficiaries. It is currently situated at an emergency shelter center for migrants that was established by one of our partners, and we have plans to work with our other partners to bring it to underserved communities around the country.

As we look forward to widespread adoption of COVID-19 vaccines, we cannot deny that the world has been irrevocably changed by the pandemic. It has disrupted the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, rendering many in need of help.

For them, philanthropy will always play a role, whether temporarily or permanently. Our role as people who work in the field is to ensure we effectively harness and coordinate available resources to deliver sustainable impact and to bring about socioeconomic benefits for those we help, as well as to drive continuous awareness of the causes we champion. That’s also why bringing good vision to underserved communities is important to me personally: It delivers the kind of sustainable impact that effective philanthropy does.

More than impacting one’s health and well-being, good vision reduces inequalities and positively impacts the daily lives of individuals, their families, and their communities through their ability to learn, work, and be safe.

Devex, with financial support from our partner Essilor, is exploring challenges, solutions, and innovations in eye care and vision. Visit the Focus on: Vision page for more.

About the author

  • Frédéric Corbasson

    Frédéric Corbasson has worked the last 33 years with Essilor across multiple geographies, from North America to Asia. In 2013, he joined the social impact team to contribute to the company's global ambition of eliminating uncorrected poor vision from the world by 2050. Today, he leads the philanthropic efforts of the Essilor Group globally in bringing good vision to everyone, everywhere.