Think globally, act locally: this sentiment is shared by city planners, activists and businesspeople alike. Worldwide issues can appear so large as to be insurmountable. When a problem’s scale is overwhelming, taking action is a challenge, but small-scale, grassroots actions can make a massive difference over time. The spirit of global thinking and local action is the drive behind Kiwanis International, an international association of clubs that focus on helping children and fighting poverty and disease. The organization’s self-stated mission is to “improve the world by making lasting differences in the lives of children,” a goal which they pursue through community service projects and fundraising campaigns.
In 1914, Allen S. Brown and Joseph C. Prance created The Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers in Detroit, Michigan. This original organization was not focused on community service but on professional networking, a far cry from what it would become. In 1915, the name was changed to Kiwanis, from an Ojibwe expression that the founders translated as “We build,” which is now the organization’s motto. Around the same time, the founders began to pivot toward focusing on community service rather than business. Kiwanis was quick to grow, with chapters soon being formed in Cleveland, Ohio and Hamilton, Ontario. In the 1960s, Kiwanis began to expand outside of North America, and today there are more than 600,000 members in eighty nations and geographic areas.
Many members of Kiwanis clubs are youth — the overarching Kiwanis organization includes K-Kids for elementary school children, Key Club for high-school students and Circle K International (CKI) for college-aged members, all of which focus on leadership skills and service projects. CKI has an established partnership with UNICEF, raising money for UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) project. CKI’s work with WASH focuses on Haiti, and in the past three fiscal years, CKI has raised more than $58,000 for WASH. CKI clubs also do locally-focused projects, like volunteering at food banks to help feed the poor or decorating trash cans in order to discourage littering.
CKI’s work is an excellent demonstration of Kiwanis’ overall strategy: clubs organize their own projects based on local needs, while the larger organization tackles large-scale issues, primarily through fundraising. Kiwanis International recognizes both that individual communities have their own needs and that some problems are global. The organization reports that its clubs host nearly 150,000 service projects each year.
The Kiwanis International website lists winners, runners-up and other submissions for their yearly Signature Project Recognition Program and Contest, which recognizes Kiwanis clubs doing great work around the world. For example, the Kiwanis Club of Bendigo, Australia, has a book box program inspired by low literacy rates in the community. The Kiwanis Club of Taman Sentosa in Malaysia runs the Kiwanis Careheart Centre, which offers vocational training and support services to people with intellectual disabilities.
Other projects are larger in scale, such as Threads Across the Pacific, an initiative financially supported by several Kiwanis clubs from New Zealand. Threads Across the Pacific donates sewing machines and other sewing supplies to women in Vanuatu and trains them in sewing, with the goal of helping them pull themselves out of poverty. Projects like these are still regional and focused on the needs of specific communities, unlike Kiwanis’ organization-wide initiatives, meant to combat large-scale, global issues.
One of the international projects Kiwanis International has worked on concerns maternal and neonatal tetanus (MNT). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), MNT has been “among the most common life-threatening consequences of unclean deliveries and umbilical cord care practices,” and in 1988, approximately 787,000 newborns died of neonatal tetanus. In areas with sub-par maternal healthcare, MNT is a serious threat to new mothers and their babies.
In 2010, Kiwanis International partnered with UNICEF in an effort to fight MNT through vaccinations for women and newborns. Kiwanis pledged to raise $110,000,000 for the project, with clubs around the world hosting fundraisers to contribute to the effort. The project involved vaccinations in fifty-nine countries, and as of July 2019, MNT had been eliminated in forty-six of them. In this context, “elimination” is taken to mean that MNT affects fewer than 0.1 percent of births.
Kiwanis International differs from other organizations in its commitment to empower communities to identify local problems and work toward solving them, without losing sight of the bigger picture. After all, who better to identify problems that trouble a community than the people who live in that community? Kiwanis supports grassroots actions by teaching leadership skills and organizational planning to members through online and in-person training. In turn, Kiwanis clubs support the larger initiatives of Kiwanis International to effect change around the world. This approach to nonprofit organizational structure makes has made Kiwanis projects particularly impactful.
– Meredith Charney