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.

TRF_Centennial_logo_lockup

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.

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.

 

 

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.