In 1905, a lawyer, a merchant tailor, a mining engineer, and a coal dealer met in downtown Chicago. Rotary's founders initially were looking for an opportunity to build relationships and promote their businesses. A hundred and twelve years later, Rotary has matured into one of the world’s largest membership and humanitarian nonprofit organizations.
The work of Rotary's 1.2 million members combines the building of community connections with humanitarian efforts such as promoting peace, providing clean water and sanitation, preventing disease, and alleviating poverty — challenges that are just as pressing today as they were when Rotary was founded.
Yet, as is true of many large organizations in the world today, Rotary faces the ongoing challenge of staying relevant at a time when technology and organizations new to the NGO space are changing the landscape of philanthropy.
For example, the number of social sector organizations in the United States has increased some 8.6 percent since 2002, while by some estimates there are now approximately 1.44 million nonprofits registered with the IRS. Part of this growth reflects society's increased reliance on nonprofits to fill service gaps in areas where cash-strapped governments are no longer able to deliver on past promises.
In addition, with a greater range of charitable opportunities and new models for fundraising (e.g., peer-to-peer, mobile, crowdfunding), there is increased competition in the nonprofit marketplace for both supporters and donations.
In the face of these challenges, how can nonprofits like Rotary continue to thrive? Over the past few years, Rotary and its members have been thinking about that question and, after much discussion, have developed a plan to address the challenge. Below are three concrete steps we have taken or are taking.
1. Staying relevant for boomers and millennials. Organizations in the twenty-first century must structure themselves in ways that encourage sustained engagement opportunities, especially with respect to a millennial generation that tends to identify with causes and social impact more than with hierarchically organized institutions. Of the approximately 80 million millennials living in the United States, a recent study showed that 87 percent are interested in volunteering or participating in their company's corporate social responsibility programs, while nearly half have volunteered for a cause or nonprofit in the past month.
At the same time, it is equally important that we engage people at the other end of the demographic spectrum. As the New York Times reported in 2015, organizations like Rotary are an attractive option for the 10.6 million Americans over the age of 65 who want to stay active and engaged and who are eager and in a position to give back to society.
The importance of this change is underscored by the insights of Michael McQueen, an author, business consultant, and Rotary member. In the diagram below, McQueen illustrates the fact that sustained relevance is rarely linear, and that when an organization has passed its peak relevance (the red x), a reinvention is in order if it hopes to remain relevant.
|Fig. 1: What is Your Silent Pulse?, Michael McQueen|
Organizations can avoid the downward slide by taking appropriate action, which is what Rotary did when a series of independent surveys revealed that many non-members (and even some of our members) could not fully explain our mission, or why people should join.
After lots of analysis and introspection, we began to address these issues by sharpening and strengthening our brand identity. That effort has borne fruit, as we surpassed our target of $1 billion in current and projected endowment assets two years early. We also were recently ranked no.3 in a CNBC and Charity Navigator profile of the top 10 charities changing the world in 2016.
2. A unifying cause: eradicating polio from the face of the earth. Staying relevant in a rapidly changing world also involves setting audacious, transformational organizational goals that serve to engage and motivate members and supporters. In Rotary's case, the big one has been the eradication of polio globally.
In 1985, Rotary, a nongovernmental organization — not a government ministry or multilateral institution like the UN — had the audacity to take on the challenge of eradicating polio. Thanks to our efforts and those of our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the incidence of polio around the world has been reduced by 99.9 percent over the last thirty years — making it one of the most successful public-private global health partnerships ever.
There were four key factors that enabled Rotary and its large, diverse membership to achieve this goal and stay focused on it for three decades.
The cause was relevant to our members. Polio was endemic in a hundred and twenty-five countries when Rotary announced its goal to eradicate the disease in 1985. Rotary is an international organization, and, as a result, many Rotary members had first-hand experience of the disease and the suffering it causes.
Hands-on participation. The use of the oral polio vaccine made it possible for any Rotary member or supporter to become a vaccinator and forge a deeply personal and emotional connection to a cause that went beyond simply writing a check or attending a fundraising event.
Results were measurable. Success and victory were easily measured — you either had polio cases in the world or you did not. Our members set themselves a concrete and achievable goal with clear metrics for success.
We didn't do it alone; finding good partners is crucial. When Rotary decided to tackle polio in 1985, we knew we couldn't do it alone. So we assembled a coalition in 1988 to achieve the goal — the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, joined more recently by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — and allowed each to define its role in the effort.
As part of GPEI, Rotary has leveraged its unique strengths in fundraising (Rotary members have contributed more than $1.6 billion to the eradication effort), advocacy, awareness raising, vaccination initiatives, and enlisting the support of governments.
One irony of this incredible project is that we could become victims of our own success. Over the three decades that we have worked to end polio, there was always the danger that the goal would become less relevant to a younger demographic, particularly in developed countries where the virus had been eradicated. To avoid mission fatigue, our response has been to highlight the opportunity of being a part of history and contributing to the eradication of a human disease for only the second time ever, after smallpox in 1980. The approach has resonated.
3. Shifting the paradigm: social good becomes part of the value proposition. As the world rises to the challenge of a new set of ambitious United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, nonprofits able to blend commerce and cause will play a key role. Organizations that do this effectively also will be well positioned to meet millennials’ insistence on integrity, accountability, and social good as core corporate values.
Making these values part of your organizational DNA is critical. At Rotary, the promotion of business ethics and our focus on maximizing positive social good is a core organizational principle. Rotary's Four-Way Test — which asks of the things we think, say, or do: Is it true? Is it fair? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? And will it benefit all? — has guided Rotary leaders and members for more than a century.
In the for-profit sector, however, adding social value is not always embedded in a company's mission, and corporate social responsibility initiatives often can seem like discretionary add-ons to a firm’s business objectives.
If that is to change, the social value of a company's work must become a key performance indicator for executives in the way that share value currently is.
The question, then, is how to unlock the significant potential of the private sector as a key engine of sustainable growth and a force for improving lives globally. This is where nonprofits can lead. NGOs can help bridge the gap between private capital and local causes, providing the capacity, leadership, and experience needed to forge smart partnerships.
For example, Rotary partnered with global healthcare company Abbott to offer Mega Wellness camps in India and Brazil. These are daylong events where doctors and laboratory assistants provide free consultations and healthcare information to all walk-in patients about a range of health issues. Over the life of the partnership, Rotary and Abbott teamed up to provide care to 26,226 people at thirty-eight different events, and Rotary volunteers helped raise awareness of the camps, mobilized support within the various communities, and helped spread the word about the benefits of polio immunization.
Partnerships like this also help Rotary establish a legacy for our flagship polio program by demonstrating to communities in which we work our commitment to public health more broadly and our ability and willingness to provide resources to back that commitment up. Last but not least, they provide a framework for a deeper, more sincere commitment from the private sector beyond the limitations of strategic corporate social responsibility. And that helps advance an ongoing paradigm shift in the for-profit world from a model where shareholder value and the maximization of profit are all that matter to one where creating positive social impact is a core element of every company’s model.
So, as nonprofit leaders, how can you ensure that your organizations are positioned to compete for hearts, minds, and dollars in the twenty-first century? It's pretty simple: Stay true to your DNA but take steps to make sure you stay relevant; identify a big, audacious goal that motivates your teams and mobilizes your supporters; and maximize your impact through smart partnerships. Do all three and your organization is likely to not only survive but thrive in the years to come.
John Hewko is the general secretary of Rotary International and the Rotary Foundation.