Rotary Foundation Basics, Part 3: What’s Great, What Could Be Improved?

by Quentin Wodon

This last post in a series of three on The Rotary Foundation (TRF) looks at what is great about the foundation, and what could probably be improved. TRF support for Rotary projects is first discussed, based on my own perceptions and those of a few fellow Rotarians to whom I talked before writing this post. Ratings received by the foundation as a charity are then briefly reviewed.

TRF Support for Rotary Projects

On the plus side, TRF support for polio has been instrumental in the near eradication of the disease, as mentioned in the previous post in this series. The focus on polio has also helped Rotary in getting a seat at the table with major partners such as the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Even more importantly for Rotarians involved in service projects, the matching system whereby TRF co-funds grants is well appreciated. Both district and global grants benefit from TRF support, but I will focus in this post on global grants.

TRF provides up to $200,000 in matching funds for global grants, with the minimum match being $15,000. This is for projects that reach a minimum size of $30,000 in overall cost/funding. The system for global grants has been fundamentally revised in recent years in order to have fewer but larger grants, which should help in ensuring that projects have a bigger impact on the ground and are well managed. Six areas of focus have been selected for the grants, which is also positive to narrow down a bit the scope of what is funded (even if this scope remains fairly broad). The rules of the game for putting together global grants are clear, which also helps.

In terms of potential areas for improvement, the Grants Online System may not be as friendly as it could be, given today’s technology. Several Rotarians mentioned to me that there may also be at times issues with the grant review process. Hopefully reviewers are as objective and qualified as they should be, but this is something that could be assessed. In addition, despite efforts to help Rotarians put together great global grants, more could be done in terms of e-learning resources and other tools to help the membership develop impactful projects beyond the management and processing aspects of grants.

Many global grants are complex and require substantial expertise. It is not always clear that project teams have enough expertise. The system relies largely on volunteer hours to prepare and implement grants. This helps not only for cost savings but also for getting Rotarians’ hands dirty. Personal experiences gained through hands-on work are invaluable, especially when working directly with project beneficiaries. But it may be useful in some cases to rely more on external paid expertise, especially for large grants. In principle Rotarians can get help from Rotarian Action Groups (RAGs) for the design and implementation of projects. These are great resources, but it is not fully clear how active and effective some of the RAGs are.

One area of concern is the ability of TRF to respond to crises, with the most recent case being Ebola in West Africa. There are two issues here. One issue is fundraising. TRF does not seem to have a good system to provide incentives (read matching funds) for individual Rotarians to donate in times of crisis. Many Rotarians donate when a major crisis hits, but they often do so through other organizations because TRF does not have a good system to attract these donations. If TRF could set aside funds to match individual donations by Rotarians for major crises, this could help the foundation raise more funds. It would also help TRF gain in visibility as a humanitarian organization. The other issue is about the allocation of the funds that could be raised. Part of the funds could be allocated to Rotary clubs in affected countries for their projects to respond to crises with some type of fast track approval. Part of the funds could also be transferred to well established national and international NGOs active on the ground in responding to crises. Overall, setting up a stronger crisis response mechanism within TRF could strengthen the Rotary brand while providing much needed rapid support to vulnerable groups in countries affected by major crises.

Finally, more expertise and commitment from TRF is needed for proper monitoring and evaluation of global grants, and for disseminating the results of such evaluations. My perception is that few projects are evaluated in-depth with baseline and endline data collection to assess impact. Impact evaluation can be expensive, so not all projects should be evaluated in that way. But more should be done in this area, including in partnership with some of the NGOs implementing TRF projects. If TRF could fund more innovative projects that would be evaluated seriously, it could have a larger impact because other organizations with more resources could then bring successful TRF pilots to scale.

Ratings for TRF as a Charity

The comments above point to some great features of TRF, but also some potential areas for improvement. One should not forget however that overall TRF is very well rated as a charity. Given that many of the followers of this blog are new, let me repeat here what I mentioned on TRF ratings a few months ago on this blog as well as in another post for Rotary Voices.

In the US, Charity Navigator provides ratings for charities. Three ratings are available for financial performance, accountability and transparency, and a combination of both. Charities can get one to four stars overall. TRF has the highest possible rating (four stars). The yellow dot in the Figure below shows exactly how the foundation is rated – it has a rating of 89.8 out of a maximum of 100 for financial performance, and 97.0 on accountability and transparency, which yields a four stars rating overall.

RI Foundation Graph

For financial performance, Charity Navigator considers seven main indicators: the share of the charity’s budget spent on programs and services, the share spent on administrative expenses, the share spent on fundraising expenses, the fundraising efficiency ratio, the primary revenue growth, the program expenses growth, and the working capital ratio. Details are available on the Charity Navigator website. For accountability and transparency, a total of 17 indicators are used. TRF could have scored even higher except for the fact that its donor privacy policy requires donors to opt out for their basic information not to be (potentially) shared with other charities.

Conclusion

Overall, TRF helps fund great projects on the ground, and it is also well rated as a charity. The reform of the global grants model of the last few years to define areas of focus and implement fewer but larger grants was smart. But as for any other organization, there are also areas where TRF could probably do better, especially in terms of the friendliness of the Grants Online System, the need to ensure that project teams have the expertise they need, the ability to respond to humanitarian crises, and the need to better evaluate the impact of projects that appear especially innovative. What do you think?

Note: This post is part of a series of three on TRF: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

2 thoughts on “Rotary Foundation Basics, Part 3: What’s Great, What Could Be Improved?

  1. I very much agree with your analysis. Apparently we are still in the transition phase from Matching Grants to Global Grants, which causes some difficulties both for ordinary Rotarians and TRF staff. However, I just returned from India, where we did a rain water harvesting program in 16 drought stricken villages and 2 colleges and it was fabulous to see how crops were growing and there was still plenty of water available although already 5 months had passed since last rain. Over 30000 people have now access to water throughout the year, they can grow fruit and vegetables, sugar cane and food for cows and have milk as well. A close relation is now between village people and Rotary clubs nearby and many local projects (eg. doctor camp, building of toilets) are being planned already.

    • Virpi – thanks for this. It would be great to tell the story of this India project in some details. I will soon feature more project briefs (4-6 pages each) on the blog. I am mentioning this in case you would like to write one brief on this project and its impact – or propose this to fellow Rotarians from India.

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