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Action Plan: Programs of Scale

A significant way in which Rotary members are increasing our impact is through Programs of Scale. This multimillion-dollar initiative funds large-scale, high-impact projects that attract exceptional partners while making the most of the capacity, expertise, and enthusiasm of Rotary members. The first recipient, Partners for a Malaria-Free Zambia, has trained 2,500 community health workers and is helping people in hard-to-reach areas get faster treatment.

But to really fulfill the Action Plan priority of increasing our impact, members should think about scale whenever they're developing projects — not just if they're hoping to apply for the Programs of Scale award.

To better understand the potential that Rotary members have to expand their projects this way, we talked with two experts in social change: Larry Cooley, a Rotary member and international development consultant; and Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change and a senior adviser at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation who helped create the 100&Change global challenge for a US$100 million grant.

Q: What's the Rotary advantage in terms of scaling our work?

CECILIA: It's an amazing network — I don't think there are other organizations similar to Rotary. That's important for potential partners: Local knowledge and local social capital is something that foundations are always looking for, but it's not always easy to find the right people on the ground — the people who can really get things moving. Rotary members have roles in their local communities, they're business and civic leaders. And there's great potential for these people to build a network, learn from each other, and deal with global issues.

LARRY: There is no way to resolve big problems unless you cut across the normal silos in a community and engage the community as a community. Health experts cannot address health issues alone. Engineers may be able to design and build something, but may not be the experts in marketing or social communication. And change requires trust. Rotary members are trusted and apolitical local leaders with experience across vocations and cultures, and Rotary clubs are present everywhere. Few organizations have the assets and reach that Rotary has.

Q: What kind of new thinking does expanding our projects this way — whether it's locally or globally — require of Rotary members to be successful?

LARRY: I was talking to many of my fellow Rotarians about how major things in Rotary happen. In virtually every case, big initiatives started with an entrepreneurial, enterprising Rotarian or Rotaractor. This individual would reach out to his or her compatriots and they'd eventually mobilize a group of people working together to address a problem or meet a need. To work at scale, this kind of initiative is still indispensable. But there are interventions where Rotary and its members have the potential to think, plan, and act on a larger scale.

While clubs are always going to be the foundation and the essential building blocks, Rotary has a very large network and the potential to leverage connections amongst members and clubs with shared goals to scale solutions to a host of important problems. In the case of polio eradication, clubs and districts are deeply engaged, but the work also benefited from an organizational infrastructure to support scaling. The results are evident as we stand on the brink of ridding the world of this disease. This is a great example, but it was an exception — the question now is how to create more exceptions!

CECILIA: I think the Rotary Peace Fellowship program is a huge asset. That's where I first got to know all the things Rotary was doing. The Rotary Peace Fellows can be important conduits for information and connectors between clubs. And I understand that there are Rotary Action Groups, Rotary Fellowships, Intercountry Committees, partnerships with organizations that work across communities for a common purpose and goal. You will always need local champions committed to positive change. And Rotary has that. But how do you bring those local champions for change together with the support and resources that they need as a larger network? That is what we mean when talking about scale. It is less about the dollar amount and more about the question of reaching more people in more places because your network and what you do works.

LARRY: We know that not everything that Rotary does needs to be scaled. There are many immediate community and individual needs, and scaling shouldn't come at the expense of shorter-term, club-level projects. My dad was a Rotarian, my dad's dad was a Rotarian, and my brother and I are Rotarians, and I know firsthand the need for getting people to work together at the community level, whether it's for kids who need wheelchairs, families who need support around food security, or providing a new reading room at the library. And individual clubs often do wonderful projects in places like Uganda, Guatemala, or India. These programs do an enormous amount of good in the world and they're deeply fulfilling. But they leave on the table one of the unique assets that Rotary has, which is to join together to solve larger problems.

Q: What would you say to Rotary members who look at the world's problems and wonder how much of a difference they can really make?

CECILIA: It's important to focus on where we can make headway. MacArthur Foundation's most recent 100&Change grant recipient, Community Solutions, is addressing homelessness in the United States. Now that's a huge problem, of course. But they're starting with a strategy that targets a specific population, and building out their network, developing an understanding of interventions that work in different places, and will expand from there.

LARRY: And like every organization, Rotary is better at some things than it is at others. If it's a problem that requires mobilizing a lot of capital, it's probably not Rotary's core strength. But if solving a problem requires trust and a lot of people working together across cultural, religious, political, or geographic divisions, Rotary has an enormous comparative advantage. It takes a very special set of skills to get people organized and motivated — to create the relational infrastructure. That's Rotary's advantage, and when you bring those skills together to solve problems, the potential is enormous.

To find out more about Programs of Scale, contact