World ORT hosts its first virtual National Directors Forum


New format reflects changing needs in response to COVID-19

World ORT held its first virtual National Directors Forum (NDF) on 27th July 2020. Usually held as an annual face-to-face gathering of ORT national directors from around the world, due to COVID-19 this was the first time that the NDF was held remotely. A total of 23 ORT national and regional directors from 18 countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa, Canada, the United States, France, Italy, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Israel – came together via Zoom.

The new format included keynote presentations from ORT France National Director Raymond Soussan, who gave an overview of the current situation in the country, and ORT America CEO Barbara Birch, who spoke about the ways it is transitioning into a new kind of organization. The presentations were followed by two breakout sessions in which the participants discussed the immediate educational needs of their schools in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and how they are handling the new fundraising challenges presented by the crisis.

In the first breakout session, it was noted that many ORT schools would not be opening in the autumn due to the COVID-19 restrictions and that these schools will be continuing to educate their students via distance learning. The isolation caused by the continuing lockdowns is causing anxiety and stress among students, so some schools are organizing socially distanced gatherings in order to enable students and teachers to connect and engage with each other socially. Other schools are planning to offer a mixture of face-to-face and online learning where permitted.

It was noted that ORT schools were performing better than other schools during lockdown, but continuing school closures had the potential to adversely affect both school budgets and student recruitment in the medium- and long-term. All of the national directors agreed that their teachers and school staff are working around the clock to ensure the continued education of their students, but in many cases they need further support and training. This situation is not helped by the fact that different countries have different restrictions in place and in many countries the government guidance is changing on an almost daily basis.

The second breakout session was devoted to strategies on dealing with the fundraising challenges caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Participants noted that ORT no longer seemed to be a priority for many donors since there are currently so many other pressing needs to be addressed. In earlier crises it could take several years for fundraising levels to recover and for traditional fundraising methods to be adapted as necessary.

There was evidence of positive change, however: at the start of the pandemic people seemed to be mostly concerned about the well-being of themselves and their families, but now these concerns have widened to local needs and the needs of the community. Participants mentioned that it is often the same large donors who are approached repeatedly (and who are also approached by other charities), and ORT must also look at smaller donors who are sometimes overlooked.

An example was given where ORT students were asked to give a dollar each, which inspired their parents and grandparents to give. Another successful example was selling children’s art in auctions. It was suggested that ORT alumni and younger donors should be approached for funding as well. Delegates discussed the need to tap into people’s interests, to keep in touch with donors and tell them our stories. Others suggested that support doesn’t necessarily need to be strictly financial: COVID-19 showed that people are happy to donate computers and other equipment. All participants agreed that since the situation is constantly changing, ORT’s fundraising approach must also be fluid and adaptable.

The annual National Directors Forum provides an opportunity for ORT national directors to meet one another, discuss common issues, compare solutions and strategies, and plan for the future. The importance of these meetings, particularly during the current global situation, is such that it was decided to hold the forums more frequently, with the aim of meeting at least quarterly in 2021.