By: Kim DeCoste Issue: Vision Section: Community
The careful balance of tradition and innovation marks the success of Rotary International, one of the largest and most renowned membership organizations in the world. Rotary has a legacy of leadership that was born in the United States in 1905, when Chicago lawyer, Paul P. Harris, sought to create a club reminiscent of the friendly small town spirit he remembered from his youth. Harris and three other men began meeting regularly, “rotating” from one office to the other. Harris’s idea was to “have a fellowship composed of businessmen from different occupations, without restrictions of politics or religion.” Most of the early members were self-made—or still self-making—men who had “fought their way unaided” from farms or small villages to Chicago to build their lives. In fact, “Rotary afforded the first real opportunity (for members) to enjoy the intimate first-name acquaintance reminiscent of boyhood days far from maddening crowds.”
The Chicago group quickly added to its ranks and over the next five years Harris helped launch similar clubs in San Francisco (2), Oakland (3), Seattle (4), and Los Angeles (5). The vision quickly expanded as Paul Harris imagined as an “Around the World Rotary.” Rotary’s egalitarian view encouraged members to know one another by first name as people first. Though business often transpires through Rotary relationships, even today Rotarians’ badges in the United States have the first name featured prominently and do not bear the names of the companies they represent, but rather the industry areas in which they serve.
The notion of fellowship is not a unique one, but the fact that Rotary’s earliest members recognized the power of their mutual association to connect and collaborate for the good of others is inspirational. By 1925, with more than 2,000 clubs internationally and an estimated 108,000 members, the organization adopted its motto, “Service Above Self.” Rotarians had realized they could help one another, of course, but they could also spread their efforts more broadly for the benefit of others. In so doing, they strengthened their personal relationships, professional ties, and built stronger communities. By 1932, Herbert J. Taylor created The Four Way Test, which is the code of ethics that still guides the organization. It was adopted 11 years later and has since been translated into more than 100 languages. The test is a simple means by which Rotarians gauge their undertakings. It says, “Of the things we think, say or do: Is it the TRUTH?; Is it FAIR to all concerned?; Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?; and Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
It is remarkable now when one looks at these simple foundational elements to see what an incredible organization Rotary has become. From the small handful of men in 1905, today Rotary has burgeoned with membership of 1.2 million Rotarians in over 34,000 Clubs with more than 500 Districts in more than 200 countries or geographic areas. The roots of fellowship run deep and wide to form a dynamic and ever-relevant organization of like-minded albeit different people who seek, through fellowship, to do more not only for themselves and their communities, but for people a world apart whom they may never meet.
What truly differentiates Rotary is the audacity of its vision. Under its long tradition of varied global leadership, Rotary has identified enormously ambitious goals and continues to push forward with determination. Goals such as eradicating polio, for example, seem impossible. Or, ensuring clean drinking water for the people of the world, or promoting basic education and literacy internationally—are just a few of the goals the organization has undertaken. Wisely, Rotary also understands that it cannot do this work alone. It has assumed a leadership role not only in defining these ambitious goals but also in seeking partners who are equally motivated and invested to finding solutions.
Take the case of eradicating polio. When Rotary undertook this goal in 1988, more than 350,000 children globally were reported to have the illness. Thanks to the diligent effort of Rotarians around the world through fundraising and hard work, over 99 percent of the cases have been eradicated, with fewer than 650 cases reported in 2011. Polio, with which most young Americans today are unfamiliar, is a devastatingly crippling disease and potentially fatal infection, which mostly strikes children under the age of five in countries in Asia, Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. It has no cure but can be prevented by a vaccine that can cost as little as 60 cents. Polio paralysis can occur within hours of infection and is almost always irreversible. It has been the world’s greatest cause of disability. Rotary proudly announced on January 18, 2012, that it had succeeded in meeting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $200 million match to fund polio eradication.
“The fundraising milestone was reached in response to $355 million in challenge grants awarded to The Rotary Foundation by the Gates Foundation to be earmarked specifically for polio immunization activities.” Happily, on January 13 of this year, India marked a full year with no new cases reported. Progress in the remaining areas will be challenging for various reasons, but Rotary and its partners in this effort remain determined to see the disease eliminated from our planet. Other partners in the effort include the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF as well as several United Nations agencies.
Part of the success of any visionary organization must come from its ability to define its goals. Rotary has done an excellent job of defining focus areas for its Foundation, which therefore helps individual clubs align their efforts. The Rotary Foundation is a charitable organization supported solely by voluntary contributions. It is managed by a board of trustees and trustee chair and provides financial support to the clubs and districts. This type of consistent planning and infrastructure alignment is essential to successful connection and collaboration as ICOSA defines it. The service areas that the Rotary Foundation seeks to support are: • Peace and conflict prevention/resolution • Disease prevention and treatment • Water and sanitation • Maternal and child health • Basic education and literacy • Economic and community development
For each of these focus areas, Rotary has identified internal and external resources and it encourages individual clubs to align their efforts behind these goals. This ensures streamlined and effective funding, accountability, and benchmarked, transparent progress that is consistent internationally.
Clubs take on their own signature projects globally and locally and support their district’s causes not only through donations but also through true involvement. Rotarians travel extensively and do much of the physical work as well. One only need pick up a copy of The Rotarian, a monthly members’ magazine to see the “World Roundup” where Rotary news from around the world is featured. In January, 2012, the highlights include 1) a window safety campaign in Oregon to prevent children from falling from buildings; 2) a 5.3 million Peso campaign in Tlalnepantla, Mexico to fund a school construction project; 3) a French club’s Opera fundraiser which funded 23,600 polio vaccine doses; 4) a Coronado, California club’s efforts to get 80,000 pairs of shoes to a shantytown outside of Port Elizabeth, South Africa; 5) a Vancouver Island, B.C., club worked with a school in Ghana to improve facilities at a school as well as provide necessary materials to support health and education; 6) a joint project between Indian and Finnish clubs funded desks for 83 schools in Hyderabad; 7) Rotarians worked on an “I wish” program in Korea to help elementary school children with funds to support their dreams; and 8) in the Philippines where only 1 in 100,000 women can afford vaccinations for cervical cancer, several clubs are working together from Hong Kong, Macau, Mongolia and Taiwan to get necessary health care to women. These highlights represent a fraction of the work Rotarians are doing around the world! One can only imagine the kind of leader required to drive actions and outcomes of such a diverse international organization. Currently Mr. Kalyan Banerjee of Vapi, Gujarat, India is the President of Rotary International. Mr. Banerjee is the epitome of what a Rotary leader should be. He is the chair of United Phosphorus, Bangladesh and a director of United Phosphorous, Ltd., which is one the largest manufacturers of agrochemicals in India. Mr. Banerjee and his wife, Binota, a social worker, moved to Vapi when it was a tiny town with no infrastructure. As he built a successful company and was able to contribute time and resources to his community through Rotary, they have been instrumental to the construction and success of multiple schools and the local hospital. As Mr. Banerjee said in an interview about the partnership with his wife in his work, “one cannot clap with one hand.”
Mr. Banerjee joined the Rotary Club of Vapi in 1972—mostly out of “curiosity”—and has served in multiple roles from club president to district governor before beginning his international service in 1995, when he was appointed to the board of directors. He has served on multiple international committees ranging from the Poverty and Hunger Alleviation Task Force to the Child Mortality Emphasis Coordinating Team. He has come to understand the broad reach of Rotary International’s vision around the world and challenged Rotarians to “reach within and embrace humanity.” He went on to say in his acceptance of the presidency that he “can’t wait to write the history of good.”
Such is the way Rotarians at every level seem to be motivated, from the local club to the current and future leadership. In January of this year, ICOSA sponsored and attended the sixth Annual State of the State Luncheon and Culmination of 100 Years of Rotary Service to Colorado in Denver. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who is also a Rotarian spoke, as did several distinguished Rotarians. Among them was Ron Burton, who is the choice for the 2013-2014 Rotary International Presidency. We had a chance to sit down with Mr. Burton and were struck by his passionate dedication to Rotary and the potential for good it represents. Mr. Burton spoke of the good work being done now with polio and in other areas.
He has been a trustee of the Rotary Foundation and worked on multiple task forces. For all that Rotary has done, he talked about the “iceberg effect” and how they have just touched the tiny top (above the water) of the massive potential they have as Rotarians to “be the best they can be” and “give of them-selves.” Burton said he could “never repay Rotary for what it has done for me” and believes that through Rotary, members have more opportunity “to make a difference in the world and repay for the space we occupy.”
Burton is fully committed to continuing to build meaningful partnerships and alliances to spread Rotary’s reach. There is discussion of a possible alliance with the Peace Corps, about which he is excited. He wants to see the number of Rotarians continue to grow and suggests that recruitment should be a “constant thrust” of members not only to “replace themselves not just every year, but as often as they can.” Rotary has made great strides, by the way, in expanding its ranks to women and younger people. There are still traditional clubs around the world that are men-only, but the majority have reached out to women since 1987 when they were first admitted. Burton, embraces women in the Rotary and said of them, “They reinforce our number and help us to do more good.” He looks forward to working closely with Mrs. Jetta Burton, saying, “My wife will be an integral part of my time as president.” He was instrumental in helping his club in Norman, Oklahoma and surrounding areas break down the barriers of membership for women and continues to advocate for their involvement. The face of Rotary continues to change with new clubs springing up full of young people with greater vision of what Rotary’s potential may be in the future.
In the foreword of his book, My Road to Rotary, founder Paul Harris wrote about the journey from boy to man. He reflected on how the lessons he was taught as a boy helped him grown into the man he had become, and he reflects on the positive changes his younger self brought upon his older self. Rotary International is on a similar journey of discovery and growth and continues to learn and improve. The organization, which Harris founded, has become instrumental in so many parts of the world in making lives better, people stronger, and communities richer in talent and resources. The fellowship of Rotary has solidified relationships that expand beyond the reach of any individual member and collectively reflect the good that is within each of us when we connect and collaborate.
Harris’s words ring as true today as when they were first penned and they inspire us with the strength of one man’s vision, which was granted to millions for the good of all. Harris wrote, “The boy taught the man the necessity of being tolerant of all forms of religious and political faiths. He taught him not to be too critical of the views of others, whatever those views might be. The boy taught the man of the joys of neighborliness and friendliness and good will toward all. It took considerable time for these lessons to sink in—the grown up boy was too busy having a good time—but I am glad to be able to say that eventually the man took the teachings of the boy seriously and tried to extend them to all men.”