Partnerships, Innovation, and Evaluation, 1: Introduction

This post is the first in a series on increasing the impact of Rotary. The series will feature case studies of great service projects that have achieved larger impact through partnerships, innovation, and evaluation. The hope is that the case studies will encourage clubs and districts to think bigger in their service work.  The series will cover each of the areas of focus of the Rotary Foundation, as well as polio.

Service work through volunteering or projects is at the heart of what Rotary is all about. Membership surveys suggest that the main reason why members join and remain in Rotary is the opportunity to serve (see my recent book on Rotary). Fellowship and networking are also very important, but service is first.

Rotary is a fairly decentralized organization with at its core the Rotary club. Rotarians come in many shapes and forms, beliefs and passions. There is amazing diversity in the types of service work that Rotarians engage in. This is a strength as members choose to contribute to the causes they are most passionate about.

Most of the service work that Rotarians engage in is done through volunteering, not through service projects that benefit from financial support from the Rotary Foundation (TRF). In adition, many projects implemented with TRF support are small and based on local opportunities identified by clubs. These projects may not rely on partnerships, they may not be especially innovative, and they may not be evaluated in depth. As long as it is clear to clubs and local communities that the projects are helpful, a lack of partnership, innovation or evaluation is not necessarily a major drawback. One straitjacket does not fit all in Rotary.

At the same time however, if Rotary is to have a larger impact globally, there is also a need to put together more and larger projects that do rely on partnerships, are innovative, and are monitored and evaluated properly.

Partnerships help to implement larger projects and benefit from the expertise of organizations that are among the best in their field. Partnerships may also generate visibility and media coverage for Rotary (polio is the best example). Partnerships have a cost since effort is required for collaborations to work. But if partnerships deliver scale, expertise, or visibility, gains outweigh the costs.

Innovation is even more important than partnerships to achieve larger impact and discover better ways to serve communities. Without innovation, the contribution of TRF is a drop in the development assistance bucket. TRF does have a respectable size, but in comparison to development funding, it is very small.

Total annual giving by the foundation represents less than half a percent of what the World Bank provides in development assistance every year, and this is just one of a number of development agencies. But if Rotary experiments and innovates, pilots that prove successful can be scaled up by other organizations with deeper pockets, thereby achieving larger impact.

Without serious monitoring and evaluation, innovation does not help much because impact on the ground must first be demonstrated at the pilot stage for a promising intervention to be scaled up. Innovation and evaluation are like twins: they work best as a pair. Evaluation is also needed for Rotary to learn internally from both successes and mistakes.

All three ingredients ̶ partnerships, innovation, and evaluation, can help increase the impact of Rotary’s service work. In order to encourage clubs and districts to move in that direction, this series will show how partnerships, innovation, and evaluation can be harnessed to serve Rotary’s mission of service above self.

The series will tell the story of projects in each of the areas of focus of TRF: promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, saving mothers and children, supporting education, growing local economies, and eradicating polio.

You will learn about an innovative financing mechanism for polio eradication; an award winning project reducing under five mortality in Mali; a program that is transforming teaching and learning in Nepali classrooms; a project to save the life of mothers and children in Nigeria; a program to invest in the writing skills of disadvantaged youth in the United States; projects and initiatives to improve access to water and sanitation in Uganda; and the work done by Rotary with Peace Centers.

All these projects are in one way or another innovative. They all leverage partnerships. And virtually all build on solid monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. Hopefully, the series will give you additional insights into some of the great projects that clubs and districts are implementing around the world.

Please do not hesitate to send me an email through the Contact Me page of this blog if you believe other projects should be featured (perhaps in another series), and feel free to post comments on the projects that you find particularly inspiring.



How Is Vocational Service Practiced? How Should It Be?

by Quentin Wodon

Members of service clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions often talk about vocational service. How is vocational service practiced today? How should it be? In Rotary, October is Vocational Service month. Before the month closes, it may be useful to discuss how Rotarians engage in vocational service, and what more could be done.

Rotary International has published a guide on vocational service. The idea is for Rotarians to promote (1) High ethical standards in business and professions; (2) The recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations; and (3) The dignifying of each Rotarian’s occupation as an opportunity to serve society. The guide suggests that this can be achieved among others by talking about one’s vocation and learning about others’ vocations, using professional skills to serve the community, practicing one’s profession with integrity, and guiding others, especially youth, in their professional development.

Vocational service can take many forms, but some of those are not specific to Rotary. Everyone should practice his or her profession with integrity. And many different people talk with passion about their vocation and enjoy learning from the vocations of others.

What should be emphasized most in Rotary as well as in other service clubs is the use of one’s professional skills and experience to serve communities. Mentoring younger individuals, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in order to help them make good career choices is a great step in the right direction. But vocational service should be broader than that, as the Rotary guide indicates. Unfortunately, we are probably not doing enough.

Let me take the example of a club I know well. The club is strong, with a large membership. It runs many different successful service activities, including among others distributing food for the homeless, providing dictionaries to third graders, planting trees in parks, tutoring students in public schools, providing grants to local organizations, visiting wounded warriors, designing international projects, etc. Yet for most of these activities, the professional skills of the membership do not come into play in a major way. When service projects make use of the professional skills of the members, this is typically the case for only a few of those members.

This club – and probably many others – could achieve more in the community by designing and supporting projects for which the unique legal, administrative, managerial, financial, medical, and other skills of the membership would be tapped. Many Rotarians have deep professional skills, and these skills have a high value on the market. But in my (limited) experience, relatively few Rotarians use their skills in their service work in a systematic way.

There are exceptions. One of them is the work of Rotarian Action Groups (RAGs). These groups are led by Rotarians and Rotaractors in their field of expertise in order to help clubs implement projects and exchange ideas and experiences. There are today close to 20 RAGs operating on the following topics: AIDS and family health; Alzheimer’s and dementia; Blindness prevention; Blood donation; Child Slavery; Dentistry; Diabetes; Food plant solutions; Health Fairs; Hearing; Hunger and malnutrition; Literacy; Malaria; Microfinance and community development; Multiple sclerosis; Peace; Polio survival; Population and development; Water and sanitation. A brief description of RAGs together with the contact information for each of the groups is available here.

But the work of many RAGs, while very important, tends to focus more on international than local projects, and the reality is that a larger number of Rotarians are involved in local than international projects. New models are needed to encourage Rotarians to use their professional skills and experience in service to their local community. Yes of course, this is already happening in many places, but it needs to happen much more.  What I have in mind are models such as Taproot (to take just one example) that facilitate pro bono work by professionals in the community. It seems that we do not have such models yet in Rotary, and probably other service clubs do not have them either.

If Rotary and other service organizations were not only promoting, but also facilitating on the ground the use by members of their professional skills in service to the community, either with their own systems or by partnering with existing groups that specialize in this type of facilitation, clubs and their members could probably make an even larger difference in the world.

Are Youth Less Involved in Community Service Today?


Photo: An Interact Club raises $2,000 for Doctor without Borders with a 5K race

by Quentin Wodon

Twenty years ago Putnam suggested in his Bowling Alone paper that in contrast with earlier times in American history, social capital was eroding in the United States. Putnam suggested several explanations for this perceived decline (which has been much debated since). The movement of women into the labor force may reduce the time they have for investing in social capital and community life. A higher labor mobility may be preventing workers from planting deep enough roots in their communities to nurture civic engagement (the “repotting” hypothesis). Demographic and other transformations may also play a role, including through the rise of supermarkets as opposed to neighborhood stores. And perhaps most importantly, the technological transformation of leisure – at the time Putnam wrote his article, the irruption of television, the VCR, and other technologies, may lead to a privatization and individualization of leisure time and a concurrent drop in civic engagement.

In today’s world, at least in wealthy countries such as the US, many teenagers often carry their cellphone, iPad, or other electronic device almost everywhere they go. The irruption of technology – and the apparent privatization of leisure time, may seem to be stronger than ever, potentially eroding further various forms of social capital, including in terms of service work for communities and the less fortunate.

But is this actually the case? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes annual statistics on volunteering in the US. In 2013 the overall volunteer rate declined by 1.1 percentage points to 25.4% for the year ending in September – this was the lowest rate since the BLS started to collect the data in 2002 (see the press release here). The rate for teens (16- to 19-year-olds) was slightly higher, at 26.2%, but it was also in decline from 27.4% in 2012. However, the volunteering rate in 2012 was also the highest recorded in the previous six years – for teens, the volunteering rate in 2007 was at 25.5%. More importantly, beyond variations over short periods of time, if one looks at longer term trends, as the Corporation for National and Community Service has done, volunteering rates appear higher today than 30 or 40 years ago.

Volunteering among teens seems to be alive and well, not only in the United States, but also abroad. For example, the youth report of the European Union suggests that the proportion of youth working for civil society organizations and associations has increased slightly over the last decade, mostly thanks to large gains in four countries (Denmark, Germany, Finland and Sweden). One of the potential explanations suggested is that lack of satisfaction with political structures would lead youth to get more involved with community activities and small-scale organizations where they feel they can make more of a difference.

In Rotary, the available data also points to substantial, and possibly more volunteering over time among youth. Interact is the branch of Rotary International for children and youth between 12 and 18 years of age. The first Interact Club was chartered with 23 students from Melbourne High School in Florida in 1962. Today Interact worldwide has more members than Rotaract (the Rotary branch for young professionals).

Exactly how many Interactors (the members of Interact clubs) are involved in clubs is difficult to tell very precisely because Rotary International does not maintain a database of Interactors like it does for members of Rotary clubs. But estimates suggest that there are close to 400,000 Interactors worldwide. This is based on a total of 16,742 clubs (April 2014 data) and an assumption (based on the data available) of an average of 23 members per club. Interact Clubs operate in 151 countries and geographic areas. The estimates – based on club growth – also suggest that the year-on-year growth rate in membership is positive (it was 1.7% from 2013 to 2014).

What do Interactors do in terms of service work? They are involved in all kinds of projects, some of which are featured annually through the Interact video contest. This blog will feature Interact projects – as well as other great service initiatives by youth whether they are involved in Interact or not. Some of those stories will also be published as part of the Interact Today newsletter that you can find on the Interact page of this blog. The first issue of the newsletter featured an interview with then-Rotary International President Ron Burton. But it also featured a nice story about the Broadneck High School Interact Club in Maryland. The club held its first Broadneck without Borders 5 kilometer race a few months ago and raised $2,000 for Doctors without Borders. This is the non-profit organization leading the fight against Ebola in West Africa.

Youth – including Interactors – are doing great service work all around the world. Congratulations to you if you are one of them.