Pay Attention, Nonprofits: Rotary Clubs Are Going Strong and Do Some Serious Grantmaking

Many people know that Rotary International has played a critical role over recent decades in the drive to eliminate polio. It's channeled tens of millions of dollars toward this effort, which has reduced polio cases by 99.9 percent worldwide since Rotary's first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979. In recent years, Rotary has worked with philanthropic heavyweights like the Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies in its polio push. 

But here's something that most people don't know: Rotary clubs can be a source of support for nonprofits working locally on a wide range of challenges. 

As a reminder, Rotary clubs are secular service organizations that bring together business professionals of all kinds to advance humanitarianism, goodwill and high ethical standards. The first Rotary clubs were formed over a century ago, and they feel like to a throwback to an earlier era of civic association when Americans weren't yet "bowling alone," as Robert Putnam famously said. Surprisingly, though, the clubs are thriving. There are some 340,000 Rotarians in thousands of clubs organized by district, and together, they paid millions of dollars in dues last year. The Rotary Foundation and Rotary International, which are separate entities, together have $1 billion in assets. Who knew, right?

Annual grantmaking by Rotary is formidable, with tens of millions of dollars going to support global work beyond the large-scale giving to eliminate polio. But local Rotary districts also give out grants. Worldwide, Rotary districts gave $24 million in 487 grants in the 2014-2015 fiscal year. 

So while we don’t typically think of these groups as big players on local philanthropy scenes, perhaps their giving is worth a closer look. Beyond the giving power of the clubs themselves; there's the separate giving of their affluent members. 

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The Rotary Club of Los Angeles is a leading example of the local philanthropic activity of Rotary. Also known as LA5, it has been around since 1909, and over 300 of the most prominent leaders in business, law, government, and the nonprofit sectors are members. This club recently awarded grants to five local nonprofits in Los Angeles. The goal of these grants is to combat homelessness in the city, a common cause of concern among L.A. funders.

One interesting thing about this new grant commitment was its competition and presentation aspects. Five local homeless nonprofits (Homeless Health Care Los AngelesShelter PartnershipNew Directions for VeteransSociety of St. Vincent de Paul, and The Midnight Mission) were invited to join the club’s Fast5 luncheon at City Club Los Angeles to give five-minute presentations about their organization’s unique strategy to end homelessness in the city.

In true Rotarian fashion, all of the members got to vote on which group had the most promising approach, and that organization got the bulk of the total $70,000 prize. However, each of the five groups received a portion of it as well.

LA5 president Todd Johnson said in a press release, "Our Fast 5 program not only allows LA5 to invest in organizations that are using innovative approaches to serving this vulnerable population, but also to invest our time through volunteerism and other resources as we work together to help overcome this challenge.”

So where is this $70,000 coming from that LA5 had to give?

Before the event, approximately $45,000 was raised by members, and $25,000 was given by the Rotary Club of Los Angeles Foundation. The foundation accepts gifts and is one of the largest of its kind in the Rotary world. LA5 ended up raising more money through donations at the event and got the total award amount up to $73,000.

The winning nonprofit that the Rotary members voted on was New Direction for Veterans, which received $20,016 to support long-term transitional housing for displaced female veterans and dependents of veterans. This was the only veteran-focused grantee, though, as the others focused more generally on homeless men, women, and children in the city. 

We've written about LA5's other giving in L.A. community through its service grants (which you can read more about here.) No doubt here's plenty of interesting Rotary grantmaking going on in other cities, too.   

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