The kindness of strangers
Rotarians make 98 percent of all contributions to The Rotary Foundation, which supports global service projects in the six areas of focus. A new option for targeted donations may attract more friends of Rotary.
Bob Rewoldt credits his mother with nurturing his dedication to peace from the time he was a child.
“She volunteered for local causes, many of them church related, and supported peace movements,” recalls Rewoldt, who grew up on a farm near Waverly, Iowa, USA. “She also encouraged me in my studies.” After serving in the navy, he earned a degree in political science from Drake University in Des Moines, then moved to Marin County, Calif., where he began a successful career in real estate, specializing in residential property transactions.
His early interest in peace led him to support the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, an annual conference started in 1989 that rotates among five colleges in Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota: Augsburg, Augustana, Concordia, Luther, and St. Olaf, all founded by Norwegian immigrants. For that program, he produced an eight-page pamphlet and study guide titled The Peace Race International.
A few years ago, Rewoldt contacted John Osterlund, general manager of The Rotary Foundation, to learn about Rotary’s commitment to world peace. During their conversation, Osterlund discovered that he owed the call to Rewoldt’s other passion: playing bridge. Although Rewoldt was not a member of a Rotary club, he had heard good things about the organization from a longtime Rotarian friend and fellow bridge player. When Osterlund realized that Rewoldt was calling from nearby Minnesota, where he and his wife, Susan, live for part of the year, he invited them to learn about the organization firsthand at RI headquarters in Evanston, Ill.
Their visit, Osterlund says, marked the start of a personal friendship with the Rewoldts, and a relationship with the Foundation that led to a large donation. Last year, the couple were inducted into the Arch C. Klumph Society, which recognizes those who give $250,000 or more to the Foundation. Their gift supports the Rotary Peace Centers, a program that has trained nearly 600 future leaders in peace studies and conflict resolution at seven universities over the past decade. Rewoldt’s pamphlet is now distributed to all Rotary Peace Fellows.
Rewoldt is particularly concerned about the obstacles to peace associated with “the consolidation of power in the hands of a few.” For years, he has warned of a world transitioning to a society with “1 percent of the population in control of everything and 30 percent in poverty,” in which going to war may provide a step up in the quality of life for the impoverished. He is a staunch advocate of the direct democracy model of government as practiced in Switzerland, a country he has visited many times. “I believe the best hope we have for peace in the world is through direct democracy,” he says.
Susan Rewoldt says she and her husband “are happy to make a donation to Rotary because it does so many good things. The Rotary Peace Centers aim to achieve world peace through leadership, and the programs promoting areas such as literacy and health help to elevate people.”
Osterlund credits Jerry Besses, a member of the Rotary Club of Petaluma Valley, Calif., with doing “an incredible amount of the prep work” in bringing Rotary to the Rewoldts’ attention. Besses has known the couple for decades. “I met Bob 30 years ago over a bridge table, and we discussed the concepts of world peace back then,” he recalls. “He and I are very close in terms of what we believe. He’s very liberal socially, and he is not materialistic. He believes passionately in world peace.”
Working through the Petaluma Valley club, Rewoldt donated a residential property in Australia, valued at more than $300,000, to the Foundation. In a gesture of gratitude, the club added two new honorary lifetime members to its roster.
According to Osterlund, 98 percent of contributions to the Foundation come from Rotarians; gifts from donors outside Rotary are uncommon. “The nonprofit sector is intensely competitive,” he says. “As much as we would like to attract the interest of non-Rotarian donors, it’s difficult for us unless we have a personal advocate, such as Jerry Besses – someone who can communicate a passion for Rotary. It all boils down to relationships.”
For a long time, Osterlund adds, only those contributors who made very large donations could be directive in their giving to Rotary. But last October, as part of the Future Vision Plan, the Foundation began to offer all donors the option of directing their Annual Fund gifts to a specific area of focus: peace and conflict prevention/resolution, disease prevention and treatment, water and sanitation, maternal and child health, basic education and literacy, or economic and community development. In addition to allowing people to contribute toward activities they strongly support, the new areas of focus funds could help increase contributions from donors who aren’t Rotarians. If that happens, Osterlund is likely to receive more phone calls like the one he got from Rewoldt.
Foster Friess, a prominent conservative philanthropist who made his fortune as the founder of the Brandywine Mutual Funds, was brought into the Rotary fold five years ago by Sandra Schley, past governor of District 5950 (Minnesota) and a member of the Rotary Club of Edina. She and Friess are lifelong friends, having known each other since Sunday school in Rice Lake, Wis., she says.
Schley, a successful entrepreneur in the computer software industry, says she does not share all of her friend’s opinions, but she does share his interest in helping people in need. Friess has made three contributions to the Foundation totaling nearly $600,000. Most of his support has been earmarked for water projects undertaken by District 5950 and the Edina club in partnership with two Christian organizations: Water Missions International and World Vision. Schley says her friend’s gifts to Rotary are the largest in the history of her district.
Foundations established by the Edina club and District 5950 have helped the district better leverage the contributions it receives through grants and partnerships with other organizations, Schley says. (She notes that Tim Murphy, who served as the district’s international service projects chair for three years, and Jeff Ohe, the 2011-12 Edina club secretary, have played a pivotal role in this process.) Schley estimates that each dollar donated directly is leveraged to a value of $5.30. Friess, with his background in finance and investment, is pleased about this, Schley says: “He wants the world to know where his values are, and he likes to see how his donation multiplies.”
Schley is optimistic that the areas of focus funds will encourage more donations from people who aren’t Rotarians. “There are a lot of people who admire what Rotary is doing but are not able to join because of the time commitment involved,” she says. “But that does not mean we shouldn’t engage them in supporting Rotary. In our district, we intend to establish more collaborative efforts and look outside Rotary for support and contributions.”
Rajashree Birla, a philanthropist from India, has given over US$5 million to the Foundation. “I would like to spread love everywhere I go,” she explains. “I found that The Rotary Foundation is capable of reaching more people in the shortest possible time. I am also convinced that the Trustees of The Rotary Foundation utilize every single dollar wisely, and I am able to see the results.”