The Rotary Foundation is 98 years old; basically you are asking people for money so you can go out and do good in the world. How easy or difficult is it to ask people for money … and get it?
Well, the Foundation started slowly and didn’t have much money for a long time. When Paul Harris died we made requests for contributions to honour him and that was in 1947. As a result of that, enough money came in for us to start the scholarship programme in 1948 with 18 scholars. And then it grew to 1,200.
In 1965, two new programmes came in; the matching grants and the GSE (Group Study Exchange) and those moved on and became comparable with the scholarship programme and became so popular that we couldn’t handle the volume and that was what gave rise to Future Vision. We had the choice to hire more staff or move on to larger projects. Financially it made more sense to move to larger and more sustainable projects because it costs as much to administer a small grant as a large one.
But well, as all the NGOs in the world discover … we’re not the only ones … not all grants are sustainable. So in 2005 we undertook the quest to improve the system and that resulted in Future Vision, with 100 districts piloted for three years starting in 2010. Now we are in the third year and probably the most important thing that is going to happen in my year (2015–16) is evaluation of the new grants model.
When there is so much demand and claims for the Foundation’s funds from all across the world, how do you decide which project to fund?
The good news is that we put out the information and Rotarians decide what to support. We have a very good fundraising staff and in the field we have endowment and major gifts advisors. Then there are the RRFCs charged with raising money, there are the District Rotary Foundation Committees and it all works because Rotarians believe the projects are worth giving the money for! Today somebody said … I think it was John Kenny… that when you send a dollar to the TRF it doesn’t sit in Evanston, it goes out to the Rotarians. So that is the secret of our success and so far it is doing very well despite our competitors, who also are doing wonderful work.
We’re not attracting younger people in Scandinavia. But in Germany the prestige of the clubs is so high that people want to join for a better image in the community.
On the one hand you have the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and on the other hand you have small contributions from individual Rotarians, and ultimately all of it goes to funding well deserving projects! So are there different models of raising funds in different regions?
Yes. For example, Australia has never been a very strong supporter of TRF because it has its own charities. It has been a tradition that Australians run their own programmes. But now they’ve started a programme where every Australian Rotarian has to give $100 every year to the TRF on a regular basis and the clubs keep track of it. And it is working! While Australians give $100, in the US we raise more money through the Paul Harris Fellowships ($1000).
Coming to membership, while some European countries such as Germany and Italy are holding on to their members, Rotary membership is going down in Scandinavia. Why is this so?
I don’t think we are attracting younger people in Scandinavia. But in Germany the prestige of the clubs is so high that people want to join to be able to say they are Rotarians, because that gives them a certain image in the community. At one time Scandinavia had the highest Rotarians per capita than other countries in the world. But we are gradually losing them in the last 15–20 years.
What do you think is the reason?
I don’t think Rotary is attractive to the younger people, as well as women, as the gender gap in Rotary membership shows. We’ve just not been able to cross the bridge to the younger people and in Scandinavia the young people are little more avant-garde than other countries.
Is Rotary actively wooing women?
That is up to the clubs; we’re now up to 20 per cent and are disappointed that women’s membership is not growing faster.
At the district leadership level, even that 20 per cent is not reflecting in India when it comes to women Governors. We have 34 DGEs from India at this Assembly, and only one is a woman!
Well, when I was (RI) President, in New Zealand, there were six Governors and three were women! We started taking women in 1989, and it took until 2008 to get a woman on the Board of Directors! In Rotary you have to work your way up. But they are there now and I believe they will eventually be over-represented on the Board in proportion to their numbers. But I don’t like to say it because they will be representing all members, and not only women. I think that women in Rotary, because of their hard work and willingness to work, even if their membership numbers remain at 20 per cent as now, their leadership in Rotary will be more like 30–40 per cent.
From my little interaction with the only incoming woman Governor from India — Bindu Singh — I can tell you, she is tough as nails!
Is she? (Guffaws in delight)
There has been discussion of involving the Rotary scholars more closely with the organisation, because over the years they tend to drift away. And do they even end up becoming Rotarians?
The Rotary scholar’s aim is to make the world a better place … as for their becoming Rotarians they might if while selecting them we tell them we expect you to be active in the Rotary world. And they can choose whether to join or work on a project or come for occasional meetings. But we need to tell them that ‘Rotary is changing your life and you need to share your story in appreciation.’ And I believe they will respond to it.
We need to tell Rotary scholars that Rotary is changing your life and you need to share your story in appreciation.
A lot of thought is now going into branding Rotary. Unfortunately, in the mainstream media at least in India, there are negative vibes about Rotary being all about a bunch of men wanting to project themselves. But I see Indian Rotarians doing amazing work, be it building check dams in the semi-desert regions of Rajasthan or rebuilding devastated schools in the difficult terrain of Uttarakhand in the Himalayas. But most Indians don’t know all this.
We come from a background where it was believed that it is wrong to draw attention to yourself … that has to change. In the old days we could attract people just by the prestige of the club but now we have to convince people about the work we are doing and ask them to help us so we can help them and their communities. So we are learning but are not there yet.
You made an interesting observation about connecting commerce and cause; can you elaborate?
Commerce, or business around the world, should be involved in humanitarian causes because they (business persons) have more expertise, more integrity, more ability to achieve results in humanitarian work than anybody else. So business people should be taking up this work … Many of us are business people providing service and products and we have the expertise to make the world a better place. If good people in the community, who are not Rotarians, have a project, a cause, if they join hands with Rotary, we’ll help them implement it better.
For how long have you been a Rotarian?
I joined Rotary in the US in 1961, so it is 54 years.
How has such long years in this service organisation shaped your life? Was this a turning point for you in any way?
The exposure to Rotary taught me to raise my horizons and gave me much better focus on many areas/issues of life.
What will be your focus as you take over TRF leadership this July?
Two areas — one will be to get ready for the Centenary year (2016–17) when Kalyan Banerjee from your country will be TRF Chair. And to evaluate the Future Vision programme — it will be time to look back and see what we did right or wrong.