Rotary’s long and successful strategic partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to improve access to safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) illustrates how public-private partnerships can improve impact in the communities we serve and expand services and support beyond what Rotary members could do alone.
The ability to leverage the strengths of all partners is what determines whether a partner is the right one, says Erica Gwynn, the area of focus manager for water and sanitation at Rotary.
“If you do partnerships right,” Gwynn says, “one plus one shouldn’t equal two. The impact of partnerships should be multiplicative, not just additive.”
For Rotary, partners provide benefits such as permanent staffing, expertise, and a foundation that allows Rotary members to focus on activities that capitalize on their grass roots presence. Ensuring that people have access to clean water is a huge global issue. About 2.2 billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, and more than a billion more don’t have safe sanitation. The consequences are deadly: Diseases from contaminated water account for one in nine child deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rotary members have worked for decades with local communities and governments to improve access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene. Our members have given more than 25,000 volunteer hours, contributing their skills and leadership to building water and sanitation systems, strengthening oversight, and helping communities adopt healthy behaviors.
However, Rotary members also recognize that smart partnerships leverage the resources and expertise of others to reach more people and increase the likelihood that those effects will stand the test of time. Partners like USAID work at the national level, building and strengthening monitoring systems and policy. Together, they assist national and local governments to deliver stronger and more sustainable WASH services.
Ron Denham, a founding member of the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Rotary Action Group, understood this. At the 2006 World Water Forum in Mexico, he approached USAID, which is the world’s largest government development agency. USAID could bring more technical expertise such as data collection, monitoring, and engaging with governments to the Rotary members’ expansive community connections that are invaluable in gaining people’s trust and implementing change.
“I told them, a partnership between Rotary and USAID is a natural fit,” recalls Denham. “We could do wonders together.” The idea began to take shape. Rotary had a long commitment to community health and USAID had more technical expertise, funding, and the infrastructure. Two years later, Rotary and USAID made the partnership official.
Since then, the organizations have committed millions of dollars — an estimated US$18 million by 2025 — to help more than 450,000 people gain access to more sustainable clean water, sanitation, and hygiene services. When funding for a program ends, Rotary members continue to work with all involved to ensure that the water and sanitation services are sustained.
They also keep building alliances that center the needs of communities and their residents.
That spirit and initiative is precisely why Rotary is an ideal partner, says Ryan Mahoney, a water, sanitation, and hygiene adviser at USAID. “The biggest upside has been the [Rotarian] volunteer energy to go out and see projects and engage with local communities on an ongoing basis, while advocating toward the countries’ authorities,” Mahoney says. “Few organizations can bring the same level of scale and breadth.”
It’s the influence of Rotary members, their ability to mobilize all kinds of public and private resources, their local presence and commitment to their communities, and their ability to build creative partnerships that makes it possible to create and expand that kind of relationship.
John Hewko, Rotary’s general secretary and CEO, has spent more than a decade watching the Rotary-USAID Partnership grow, and understands why it continues to succeed. “USAID has missions in most countries,” says Hewko, “but they don’t have deep roots in communities like Rotary has. That’s why this kind of collaborative partnership is so valuable. Each partner brings unique skills and talents to the table.”
Members have skills and talents — including the ability to advocate for communities and their needs and to mobilize community members to accept ownership of, participate in, and monitor the function of acquired services.
“Rotarians may not have resources at the scale and scope of USAID,” says Theophilus Mensah, a Rotary program manager in Ghana. “But our voice is equally valuable. In all partnerships, make sure you know what you bring and what you’ll gain.”
One of the biggest lessons in the Rotary-USAID Partnership stems from Denham’s initiative to begin the conversation early and in earnest. It’s easy to talk, but it’s not as easy to listen and really evaluate how a prospective partner can fit into and amplify the work you’re already engaged in. As Denham says, “Be sure you’re having a genuine dialogue from the beginning. And that means listening to one another.”
To learn more about participating in, launching, or financially supporting strategic partnerships like the Rotary-USAID Partnership, visit rotaryusaidwash.rotary.org or contact Rotary WASH Manager Erica Gwynn at email@example.com.