Child receiving Polio vax in Angola

Inspiration for Grow Further: How the Power of Individual Action Defeated Polio

There are many instances where governments have mobilized resources to achieve great things. Individuals working together have also accomplished great feats, especially for public health.

After the Second World War, the United States famously put its spending power to work rebuilding much of Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. The Soviet Union mobilized its resources and brain power to send the first humans into space. The US later upped the ante by landing people on the moon. Japan’s government invented high-speed rail technology, better known as the bullet train. European governments built the Large Hadron Collider and discovered sub-atomic particles previously unknown to science. Indeed, governments can achieve great things.

So can individuals. Grow Further is attempting something transformative—mobilizing the power of individuals, like this newsletter’s readers, to curtail hunger and malnutrition in developing countries through innovation.

Up until now, this challenge was left to government-funded institutions like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and a couple of major foundations. Still, we know that individuals can make a tremendous impact on global challenges. We know this because Grow Further’s model is inspired in part by two organizations that have already achieved something remarkable for human health: yielding the power of individual actions to defeat polio. We aim to follow their example in the battle against hunger and malnutrition.


A march against polio

The virus poliomyelitis was once a major threat to the world, especially to children. Tens of thousands were killed or crippled by polio outbreaks in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was made wheelchair-bound by an illness diagnosed as polio and helped to establish the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938. Today, we call this organization the March of Dimes. Though a US president inspired its creation, the March of Dimes has been an independent nonprofit from its inception. Regular people working together made the March the success story that it is.

During the week of Roosevelt’s 1938 birthday, celebrities worked with his foundation to mobilize children across the nation to collect money—dimes, most famously—to pay for a broad polio vaccination campaign. Dubbed the “march of dimes” by a popular actor of the day, tens of thousands of envelopes containing coins and cash were sent to the White House. The March raised more than a quarter of a million dollars.

The March of Dimes continued its fight against polio well after 1938 and contributed significantly to the development of a vaccine. Thanks to these individual actions, a virus that once terrorized millions is now nearly extinct.

Today, polio is now known to be a serious risk in only two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s been pretty much eradicated everywhere else.

The Centers for Disease Control says isolated outbreaks have occurred in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but the march to destroy polio is winning. A new polio vaccination campaign in Angola just wrapped up on June 30, which organizers said was meant to “increase the immunity of children under five.”

The March of Dimes was so successful that the organization now devotes its philanthropy—still driven by individual donations and action—to promoting the health of pregnant women, mothers, and infants. “Our goals are to end the preventable maternal health risks and deaths, end preventable preterm birth and infant death, and close the health equity gap,” the organization now says on its website. Its work is still made possible by the power of individuals like you.


Rotary to the rescue

The polio vaccine campaign that just completed in Angola was organized in part by the CDC and major UN agencies, but also thanks to another nonprofit driven by individual actions: Rotary International.

Rotary was founded in the early 1900s by businessmen in Chicago looking to devote their time and money to local charitable work. They called their weekly gatherings the Rotary Club because they intended to rotate meetings between members’ separate offices, but the club grew so large that they eventually settled on one central meeting place. The idea spread quickly, and within a few years, Rotary Clubs were popping up across the US and in Canada. Whereas the March of Dimes is a US nonprofit, Rotary International has gone global—almost every country hosts a chapter.

Rotary International defines itself as a network of individual volunteers changing the world. As it declares at the top of its website, “our global network of 1.4 million neighbors, friends, and leaders volunteer their skills and resources to solve issues and address community needs.”

As one active member described it, Rotary is a grassroots-driven service organization. Though it has a global headquarters, the clubs are independent and organize local initiatives covering a wide array of activities: beach cleanups, food drives, educational programs, scholarships, and more.

Rotary played a major role in the development of polio vaccines, and its clubs also organize anti-polio campaigns like the one in Angola. Rotary International essentially took the March of Dimes’ immense US success story and carried it overseas beginning in 1985. “The eradication of polio is Rotary International’s longest, toughest, and most significant project,” the organization proudly says.


Inspiration for Grow Further

Unique among food security non-profits, Grow Further accepts support from all corners but especially relies on the support and passion of our donor members, individuals like you. They make our grants possible and engage with our work, learning about projects before we decide whether to fund them.

Rotary International and March of Dimes still rely on the power of individual actions and donations to achieve great things. As we gear up to announce our second round of grant disbursements, Grow Further is also counting on the power of our donor members to achieve something great: building a more food-secure future going forward. We know it can be done because it’s been done before. 


— Grow Further

Photo credit: A child receiving a polio vaccination at a clinic in Somalia. UN Photo/Mukhtar Nuur (public domain).

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