Increasing the Impact of Rotary (Partnerships Series No. 9)

This post is the last in a series of nine posts on partnerships, innovation, and evaluation in Rotary. The rationale for the series was my conviction that if Rotary is to have a larger impact globally, it must rely more than has been the case so far on partnerships, innovation, and evaluation (and in some areas advocacy, as has been the case with polio). Seven different projects or investments that have relied on partnerships, were innovative, and were evaluated at least in some way, were showcased. A compilation of the case studies together with a brief introduction is available here. Separate briefs are also available for each of the projects here.

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As I mentioned it in the introduction to the series, partnerships help to implement larger projects and benefit from the expertise of organizations that are among the best in their field. Rotary’s Foundation was created almost 100 years ago (the Centennial is next year) and it has about $1 billion in assets. This is respectable, but in the world of development projects, which is in practice where Rotary is investing most of its funds, this remains small. Without innovation, the contribution of Rotary is an important drop, but still a drop in the development assistance bucket.

By contrast, if Rotary clubs and district innovate, successful pilots can then be scaled up by other organizations with deeper pockets, thereby potentially achieving much larger impact. However, for innovative projects to be recognized as such, proper evaluations are needed. We must be able to demonstrate the impact of pilot projects. Innovation and evaluation are like twins: they work best in pairs. Together, partnerships, innovation, and evaluation are the key to larger impact.

To encourage clubs and districts to think bigger and more strategically, stories of great projects were shared: an innovative financing mechanism for polio eradication; an award winning project fighting malaria and Ebola in Mali; a teacher training program that is transforming teaching and learning in Nepali classrooms; a project on obstetric fistula saving the lives of mothers and children in Nigeria; a program to invest in the writing skills of disadvantaged youth in the United States; a project to improve access to water and sanitation in Uganda; and a global network of Peace Centers and Peace Fellows to help promote peace.

Some of these programs and projects are large. Others are small. Most were implemented through global grants, but one was implemented through a district grant. All these projects have been in one way or another innovative. They have all leveraged partnerships not only to crowd in financial resources, but also – and even more importantly – to build on great expertise. And they have all relied on monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to assess their impact, at least partially.

Putting together great projects requires work. Fundraising is often time consuming in Rotary given the funding model of the Rotary Foundation that requires raising funds from many clubs and districts first before getting a match from the Foundation. Planning, implementing, and in addition evaluating projects also takes time, especially when one tries to do this in a professional way. Finally, in order to be innovative, Rotarians leading projects need to be aware of where the frontier is in their field, and what could be innovative. This also takes some time.

There is nothing wrong with clubs and districts funding and implementing traditional Rotary projects. Most projects will continue to be fairly simple, with funds provided to worthy charitable causes. These projects, as well as the volunteer time often contributed by Rotarians when implementing them, serve an important purpose. The beneficiaries of these projects are better off thanks to them. These projects help communities, and they also benefit Rotary through the goodwill that the projects create.

But if we want to raise the bar and achieve larger impact, we also need to do more innovative projects. Rotary needs to be bolder, more ambitious. It needs to better learn from its projects, both the great and not so great ones, and make sure that lessons learned are shared broadly, well beyond the Rotary family. The launch of the Future Vision model, despite some challenges, was a step in the right direction. As we celebrate the Centennial of the Rotary Foundation next year, let’s make sure that we have the right vision for what Rotary and its Foundation could accomplish in the next 100 years.

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