By Carolyn Schrader, Rotary Club of Denver Mile High, Colorado, USA
When I first joined Rotary, I was encouraged by another member to join in sponsoring a $14,000 AIDS awareness grant in Harare, Zimbabwe. I helped raise funds and worked with the Harare Rotarians to write the grant completed in 2005. But my connection to Zimbabwe lasted much longer.
As I was writing the grant report, I realized I had no idea what had really happened because the grant activity was in Zimbabwe and I was in Denver. I needed to go see the project. That was perhaps one of the most fateful decisions I ever made.
Along with volunteers for the training organization that had designed the program, I went to Zimbabwe, starting a love affair with Rotary grant projects. I learned more about sustainable projects, and why Rotary is encouraging members to focus on increasing impact. (download the Increase our Impact white paper)
I saw so much need that I started a grant for $330,000 for economic development. We trained over 3,000 women in basic economic skills during a four-year period.
The structure of that particular grant was powerful, sustainable, and well organized. I could see the level of commitment that Rotary had made to enable members to actually implement life-changing grants. I visited the project 21 times over the next nine years and saw how truly transformative the process can be. When we interviewed the women, they said again and again how much the project changed their lives. They said “I never thought that I could save money.”
And that was precisely the first thing that we taught in the training: how to save money. The women created groups of 10 or 12 people, and they would commit to saving, for example, a dollar a week. Everybody in the group would come to the weekly meeting and they would bring their money and put it in a common jar or a box.
After several weeks, when they had accumulated enough money to make it worthwhile, the group would start to give loans. The women would complete an application and describe what they were going to use the money for.
They could add the loan to their savings and use that money to improve their businesses. They began to make money because they had saved money. They went from being poor, not only economically, but also in spirit, to being empowered.
During my visits it became obvious that, even with the training material, there were areas in which the women, on their own, said “No, we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to do it a different way.”
The first time I encountered this I thought their way was not working. We’re going to have to fix that. That was the first time I really understood that if you want this project to be sustainable, the community has to own this project. It’s their project and they demonstrate that by doing it in a different way consistent with their culture and their experience.
In one instance, they provided money for funeral expenses to a woman who had a family member pass. My first reaction was, well, that money is not going to be repaid. But to them, the woman’s need superseded the group’s collective needs.
And that was an insight. If they change it, then they’re owning it — and they’ll keep using it as long as it benefits them. I had to see that what they were doing was owning the project, bit by bit.
I always say that the most important element in a global grant are the local Rotary members. Rotary requires that a global grant start with the community identifying needs. And that’s where local Rotary members shine. They meet with the community, hear their needs, and begin to create a work plan. Because they’re part of the culture and know local customs, they’re able to hear and understand the community and its needs.
After that, a committed team is formed of Rotary members on the ground, local community members who believe in the project plan, and international members who support the project by fundraising and site visits (even virtually.) Grant funds and money from members and supporting organizations create the perfect end product: a sustainable outcome that belongs to the community and creates lasting positive change.
Rotary Grants are not the same as sending money to pay school fees. Helping a community help themselves is one of the most satisfying things that a person can do. I am so proud to be a part of Rotary and to have seen the impact that Rotary can make.
About the author: Carolyn Schrader is a member of the Cadre of Technical Advisors and lives in Denver, Colorado. She is a retired mathematician, actuary, and a 25-year member of the Rotary Club of Denver Mile High. She was the international sponsor for the Community Empowerment in Zimbabwe project implemented in 2009-2013, followed by two economic development global grants. Schrader has made presentations worldwide in-person and on Zoom about best practices for global grants.