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Rotary Rules

By Amy Marcott and Aimee Whitenack

Never thought that blue-and-gold Rotary club sign at the edge of your town would have any relevance to you? Think again. With a little networking effort on your part, your local Rotary club could be the funding source you need for your next foreign travel experience, artistic pursuit, or community service project. Learn how to make it happen.

"There's no magic to [landing funding], but there is a need for persistence." - Michael Wolkensperg, chairman of the Toronto Council of Rotary Clubs

You've probably at least seen a Rotary club sign or two in your lifetime. They stand at the outskirts of town and cities everywhere - there are more than 31,000 Rotary clubs in 166 countries. But what do Rotarians do? And what can all these blue-and-gold signs mean for you? A Rotary club could be the funding source you need for your next foreign travel experience, artistic pursuit, or community service project. Rotarians, who are business and professional leaders in their communities, devote their spare time to helping fund projects that promote humanitarian efforts, world peace, or cultural understanding. We spoke with Michael Wolkensperg, one-time chairman of the Toronto Council of Rotary Clubs, for advice on pitching your project to a Rotary club.

Your project
Rotarians like to feel good about the projects they support. "They want to have an impact. They want to make the community better," says Wolkensperg. So if you want to travel the world, for example, you should pitch your getaway as a cultural exchange of some sort. Also, your commitment to your project idea should be readily apparent. (Can you demonstrate other involvement in your community to show that your idea isn't just a momentary enthusiasm?) Many clubs choose to devote their attention to certain causes, giving larger chunks of money to a few projects rather than smaller amounts for many different ideas. So find out if your local club has a focus. Then make sure you display a strong understanding of how your project matches the objectives of that Rotary. Wolkensperg says Rotarians appreciate a sense of community over self in the projects they fund. He adds that controversial topics aren't off limits. Rotary clubs have funded projects dealing with AIDS, drug addiction, and teenage pregnancy.

The numbers
When you pitch your project, you should present the Rotarians with a detailed budget, including a list of alternate funding sources to show you've done your homework. First-time Rotary grants typically total up to $10,000, though there are exceptions.  Andrie Cazabon, a 26-year-old from Canada, received $65,000 through the Rotary Club of Toronto to fund the making of her 25-minute film about living as a drug addict on the streets. "The thing about Rotarians is they're genuine," says Cazabon. "This is not an organization that's into just writing a bunch of checks."

The Rotary Club of Toronto alone donates nearly $500,000 annually to projects. Rotarians are also known to use their business savvy and connections to secure additional non-Rotary funding for worthy projects. All proposals must be submitted through your local chapter. Chances are, your town or one nearby has a Rotary club. You can check with Rotary International to find the club nearest you.

"There's no magic to [landing funding], but there is a need for persistence," Wolkensperg says. "The best way to get money from Rotary club, of course, is to have a good project. But you also need to know a Rotarian." In general, unsolicited proposals don't succeed in securing funding. In order for a project to advance through the approval process, a Rotarian has to "godfather" it and marshal it along. Wolkensperg suggests that if you don't already know a Rotarian, show up at a meeting. Rotarians love to see initiative. Introduce yourself and get to know the members and the club's interests. Don't ask for help right away; instead, develop a relationship with at least one Rotarian. "The more resourceful someone is," Wolkensperg says, "the more likely something like this will go through."

Take note that the Rotary year runs July 1 through June 30. The closer to July 1 you apply for funding, the better your chances are. Rotarians start making funding decisions by September, and by February, they start putting projects on hold until committee members have been chosen for the following year. In the end, remember that it's all about enthusiasm. If you can get Rotarians excited about a project and cheerlead them through it, you may just end up in the money.

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