Decline in service clubs threatens funding for international causes

One would be hard-pressed to find an American who has not heard of the earthquake that struck Haiti in January.

Spreading the word about trachoma, one of the leading preventable causes of blindness, is a little more difficult.

Yet if Indianapolis-based Kiwanis International chooses to raise money for the Neglected Tropical Diseases Coalition, there’s a good chance thousands of members will not only be learning about trachoma, but also raising money to prevent it.

Membership in Kiwanis and other dues-paying service clubs, or so-called “mutual benefit societies,” has been on the decline since the 1990s. Yet their members are a key source of support for international causes, which tend to struggle for attention in the United States.

Indianapolis-based Kiwanis has raised more than $100 million since 1994 for iodine deficiency disorders, a project of New York-based UNICEF.

In June, the club’s leaders will select the next worldwide service project. Finalists are Malaria No More, based in New York; UNICEF’s maternal and neonatal tetanus project; and the Neglected Tropical Diseases Coalition in Washington, D.C.

For the past two decades, members of the Rotary Club around the world have been raising money to eradicate polio. The effort recently got a boost from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which will grant $250 million. Rotarians are supposed to match the Gates grant with another $100 million.

International affairs rank low in Americans’ giving priorities, according to the latest study by Giving USA. Donations in that category, which includes peace and justice, amounted to $13.3 billion, or 4 percent, of the total $307.7 billion given in 2008.

The dollar amount is higher when international health and education efforts are included, but no exact figure was available.

“I’ve been amazed at the lack of opportunities there are for funding international projects,” said Tim Nation, co-founder and executive director of the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis.

The organization, which teaches conflict-resolution skills, has joined a number of international initiatives in recent years. Nation said the main difference in fund raising is that few foundations have international missions.

“When you look at the list of foundations and groups … it’s really sparse.”

It’s a common complaint among not-for-profits with an international focus. According to a recent Hudson Institute survey, U.S. volunteer organizations sent $10.8 billion to developing countries in 2007. That accounted for 29 percent of all money from non-government, philanthropic sources.

By contrast, U.S. foundations supplied just $3.3 billion to developing countries.

Matt MacGregor, executive director of the Timmy Foundation, doesn’t expect the Gates Foundation to be paying attention to his organization anytime soon.

The Indianapolis-based organization sends college students to work with medical clinics in poor countries and has a budget of $1.9 million. Individuals who have ties to Third World countries or the students have been a main source of support.

Kiwanis, Rotary and Sertoma clubs also have supported the Timmy Foundation, MacGregor said. Looking to build up the donor base after a difficult year, MacGregor said one of the first places he went to make a pitch was the Carmel Rotary Club.

It will take a while, however, to navigate the grant-making process. Rotary clubs, for example, make grants only to organizations that are endorsed by a club member. MacGregor said he recently met a Rotary member who might support his bid.

“Those are established organizations that have their funding priorities,” he said. “Breaking in is very difficult.”

Peace Learning Center’s Nation serves on the world community service committee at the 450-member Rotary Club of Indianapolis, which is supporting projects in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Jamaica and Mexico.

The local club’s international grants are relatively small. Last year, a half dozen projects split $37,500.

But Nation said those local club grants are often matched at the district level.

“Two thousand dollars raised locally can be made into $25,000,” he said. “That’s one of the powers that service clubs have in philanthropy.”•

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