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Q&A with Rotary Foundation Chair Kalyan Banerjee

Banerjee imageAFP selected The Rotary Foundation as its 2017 Outstanding Foundation, and the organization will be honored at our International Fundraising Conference in San Francisco, April 30 – May 2. We were honored to have Rotary Foundation Chair Kalyan Banerjee answer our questions about the foundation, its impact and what’s ahead.

Q: What are the Rotary Foundation's charitable goals?

A: The mission of The Rotary Foundation is to enable Rotary members to advance world understanding, goodwill and peace through the improvement of health, the support of education and the alleviation of poverty.

Q: What does Rotary’s membership look like?

A: Rotary’s membership has remained steady overall. Today, there are 1.2 million Rotary members of 35,000 clubs in more than 200 countries and areas. The top Rotary countries are the United States, India, Japan and Korea. 

Q: How have you chosen your focus areas, and how has that evolved over the years? What new has cropped up over the past decade that Rotary has gotten involved in?

A: We took a look at the types of projects Rotary members have been historically involved in and where they have made the biggest impacts. Since members seemed to naturally focus on literacy, empower youth, enhance health, promote peace and advance communities, it made sense to formally adopt these as our Areas of Focus. Rotary has been committed to these initiatives for a while now.

Over the years, Rotary members have continued to spearhead and support many programs rooted in our Areas of Focus like Rotary First Harvest, a food bank that works with local with farmers, truckers and volunteers to bring valuable skills and resources into hunger relief efforts in communities across Washington state, and the Zubuli Education Center – a Kindergarten-12 girls’ school in Afghanistan.

Q: You've focused a lot on polio, with stunning results. What is there left to do in this area? Is there a point at which you say, okay, we're done in this area and focusing on another key health issue?

A: Eradicating polio is Rotary’s main focus. Rotary members are dedicated to ridding the world of this disabling disease and have volunteered their time and collectively donated over $1.6 billion since we launched our PolioPlus initiative in 1985. The world is now 99.9 percent polio-free, with more than 2.5 billion children immunized. While that is amazing news and we are on the cusp of a polio free world, we still have work to do. There are three endemic countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. We will not relent until polio is wiped from the face of the earth.

Q: What have you learned from working with partners like the Gates Foundation and various governments?

A: In 1988, following the unanimous adoption of a World Health Assembly Resolution on “Global eradication of poliomyelitis”, Rotary spearheaded one of the most successful public-private partnerships in history, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Since then, more than 13 million people who would otherwise have been paralyzed are walking because they have been immunized against polio.

The GPEI—a public-private partnership spearheaded by Rotary, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and later joined by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—offers several valuable lessons. It shows the value of finding good partners who persevere over many years with disciplined adherence to a set of clearly defined roles. It shows the importance of constant communication and coordination between partners to track down a formidable threat to public health. It engages voluntary support with creative advocacy, extending its reach and appeal, and also uses clear metrics for success and independent oversight to keep a massive undertaking on track, with a singular focus.

We have learned that with competing priorities, not least other infectious diseases, it is imperative to keep polio eradication at the top of the agenda for heads of state, health ministers, and for multilateral organizations such as the U.N. As the only GPEI partner which is comprised of citizens in more than 170 countries around the world, Rotary was uniquely positioned to urge officials from the local to national level to focus on polio eradication.

Q: How do you approach your grant making? Have you made any changes to your approach in recent years as the philanthropic community has shifted and evolved?

A: On July 1, 2013, The Rotary Foundation launched a new grant model that enhances the scope, impact and sustainability of the humanitarian and educational projects we fund. The grant model received an Edison Award in 2013 for being an innovative new service, and Rotary was listed as the third-best charity of the year in CNBC's profile, "The Top 10 Charities Changing the World in 2016."

The grant model simplified the Foundation’s grant process and focuses Rotary members service efforts where they will have the greatest impact. The model is innovative in combining Rotary’s volunteer base and a global reach with local resources to support sustainable, high-impact results in communities all over the world. The Foundation funds more than US$100 million in service projects and scholarships annually.

In 2015-16, Rotary’s Annual Fund had its second highest year, with over $121.3 million in contributions.

We tap into a global network of Rotary members who invest their time, money, and expertise into our priorities, such as eradicating polio and promoting peace. Rotary grants empower Rotary members to approach challenges such as poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition with sustainable solutions that leave a lasting impact.

Almost 45,000 donors made contributions through, donating a total of $11.4 million.  Strong financial oversight, a stellar charity rating, and a unique funding model mean that we make the very most of contributions. Rotary transforms financial gifts into projects that change lives both close to home and around the world.

Rotary has six areas of focus. In 2016 each area received generous donations:

  • Disease Prevention and Treatment: $27 million donated; 378 grants supported
  • Water and Sanitation: $18.9 million donated; 272 grants supported
  • Economic and Community Development: $9.2 million donated; 165 grants supported
  • Basic Education and Literacy: $10.3 million donated: 173 grants supported
  • Maternal and Child Health: $6.9 million donated; 93 grants supported
  • Peace and Conflict Prevention/Resolution: $3.7 million donated; 84 grants supported

Q: Talk a little about the Peace Fellows program? How did this get started? With so much going on in the world, how do you choose where they go and where these programs are run?

A: Rotary has a rich history of funding scholarships for undergraduate and graduate study in a wide range of academic fields. In 2002, The Rotary Foundation partnered with leading universities around the world to create the Rotary Peace Centers. Rotary Peace Fellows began earning master’s degrees in fields like international relations, sustainable development, and peace studies. In 2006, a new Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University began offering a three-month professional development program in peace and conflict studies for mid-level and upper-level professionals.

We have six Peace Centers around the world – University of Queensland, Australia; University of Bradford, England; International Christian University, Japan; Uppsala University, Sweden; Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, United States; and Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. These centers are supported by Rotarians, Rotary districts, individuals and foundations worldwide.

To date, our Peace Centers have trained more than 1,000 peace fellows. These graduates are leaders who often go on to become catalysts for peace and conflict prevention and resolution in their communities and across the globe. Many of them serve as leaders in national governments, NGOs, the military, law enforcement and international organizations like the United Nations and World Bank.

Q: What trends do you see coming in grant making overall?

A: People want to see the results of their philanthropic giving. It is no longer enough to know that their funds are being handled with care. Donors want to know that their funds are invested in projects and activities that will have a tangible impact in improving people’s lives. Global grants fund effective projects that achieve their goals within the Foundation’s six areas of focus.

Q: What's in store for the Rotary Foundation in the future?

A: The Rotary Foundation’s number one goal is to fund polio eradication efforts. With the world 99.9 percent free of polio, we are very close to this goal, but there is still work to be done. We hope to see the end of this disease in the near future. We are also continuing to build support in our six Areas of Focus – basic education and literacy; disease prevention and treatment; peace and conflict resolution; clean water and sanitation; maternal and childhood health and economic development.

Q: What does it mean to win the Outstanding Foundation award?

A: The Association of Fundraising Professionals is such a prestigious organization so it’s an honor to win the Outstanding Foundation award. It shows that our organization is forward moving, innovative, upstanding and respected in the non-profit community.  It also feels great to recognize the hard work of our diligent members who serve selflessly to better the lives of others.  

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