In my travels over the past year, I've visited many strong, vibrant clubs and districts that are transforming their communities. When I attend their meetings, I can feel the energy. When I meet their members, I can see they are people of action. And when I look at their communities, I can recognize the impact of their work.
I've also visited communities with Rotary clubs that were hardly more than social clubs. It shouldn't ever be that way. Fortunately, there's a simple approach that I believe can help revitalize any club.
I'd like to challenge every Rotary club to come up with at least one high-impact service project. Each club already has the potential, the resources, to make it happen. It has the power to change people's lives — completely.
It doesn't take millions of dollars. One of the most transformational projects I've been a part of involved providing a Jeep to a group of midwives in Haiti. We had asked the midwives what we could do for them, and they told us they needed a way to reach expectant mothers in a remote part of the country. We supplied a Jeep, painted it pink, and put the Rotary logo on it. Three years later, we went back to see how they were doing. They were excited by the outcomes: They told us that the mortality rate for mothers and infants in that region had dropped by 50 percent.
That's what I call transformational service.
But Jeeps don't last forever, and after eight years on the road, that vehicle was on its last legs. So we bought a pink Land Cruiser. It's still on the road, allowing the midwives to provide prenatal care to women in that remote region.
What makes a project transformational? It doesn't have to involve a lot of money, but it has to reach people and have a major impact in the community. That is the key, and that is where careful planning and thorough research come in. So do your research. Leverage your resources. Seek partnerships that can increase your impact. And then take action.
Of course, service is only part of what a strong club must offer. It must also have good speakers, provide leadership development, involve Rotaract and Interact, and bring value to its members and reasons to participate in Rotary events.
If your club is transformational and well-organized, everything else will follow. Members will be engaged, and new members will be eager to join you. Fundraising will be easier: People love to give when they see how their money is making a difference and when they know the organization is accountable. Your club will be vibrant, relevant, and alive — and it will Be the Inspiration to those within its ranks as well as to the community it serves.
Vocational service can be hard to define, but it is easy to describe: It is simply the point where our Rotary lives and our professional lives intersect. When we put our Rotary ideals to work through our work, that is vocational service.
When I returned to the Bahamas after many years working in health care administration abroad, I realized that my country badly needed a modern health care facility. The resources we had at the time were out of date and inadequate, and people who were unable to travel abroad for care often did not receive the care they needed. Without the experience I had gained in the United States, I could have done nothing to change the status quo. But since I did have that experience, I was in a unique position to have an impact. I knew I could turn my professional path to good and make a career out of improving Bahamian health care.
As Rotary became part of my journey, I discovered that the words of Paul Harris that became the basis of Rotary — that shared effort knows no limitations — were also true for my vocation. I could not bring modern health care to the Bahamas alone. But through partnership, both with the doctors who eventually became my partners in Doctors Hospital and with all the dedicated staff members who worked in the hospital over the years, we could change everything. My goal became a shared goal — and then it became reality.
Rotary emphasizes the dignity of every vocation and the worth of every calling. Remember that the four founding members included no doctors or peacemakers — just an attorney, a mining engineer, a coal dealer, and a printer. From the beginning, the diversity of those vocations gave Rotary a special strength. And that diversity is reflected in our classification system, which aims to ensure that each club represents the full range of businesses and professions that serve each community.
Paul Harris put it this way: "Each Rotarian is the connecting link between the idealism of Rotary and his trade or profession." It was true when he said it and should be equally true now. We only spend an hour or two a week at our Rotary meetings, but most of us spend most of our waking time at work. Through Rotary, those hours are also an opportunity for service: a chance to Be the Inspiration to those we work with, those who work for us, and the communities we serve.
It's traditional that the first Rotarian magazine of the Rotary year carries a profile of the incoming RI president and his or her family. I've always read those profiles with interest, never giving much thought to the possibility that one day, I might be the one bringing a writer from the magazine to my Rotary club meeting! I have never liked a lot of attention, and the idea of having my picture on the magazine cover made me a bit uncomfortable. But when I saw the photo the editors chose, I smiled. Because the star of that picture definitely isn't me, or even my wife, Esther. It's the flock of flamingos, none of which could care less about Rotary, all strutting past us in the same direction. All of them — except one.
I couldn't think of a more appropriate image to reflect the message I want to convey to Rotarians. That one flamingo, going the other way, represents so much of what we need to do in Rotary. That flamingo knows everyone's going one way. She sees it. But she also sees that maybe the path they're on isn't the best path. Maybe, just maybe, there's a better path over there, and she wants to get a good look before she goes marching on with her friends. And if, when she does stop and look, that new path does seem better, she'll call the rest of the crew to come over and check it out with her. And maybe, just maybe, they'll all choose that better path together.
Change is hard. And the longer we've been going one way, the more friends we have with us, the harder it is to be the one who turns around and does it differently. But change — not change for its own sake, but careful, considered, goal-directed change — is essential for any organization that wants to evolve, stay relevant, and move forward in the right direction.
So take a look at that picture, but don't look at me. I'm not the one that cover's about. That cover is about the flamingo. It's about having the curiosity, the courage, and the conviction to look at different paths that might be better — whether you're out for a stroll on a beautiful Bahamas morning, or helping chart the course for our organization.
One early June, more than 30 years ago, I had a business trip scheduled to Las Vegas. I had been a Rotarian for about six years, and I thought of myself as an active member: I attended every meeting, I’d served as club secretary, I knew everyone in my club. But for me, Rotary was very much a community organization. It connected me to Nassau and perhaps even to the Bahamas — but no farther.
I had never given much thought to Rotary beyond the Bahamas, and it had never crossed my mind to travel to a Rotary convention. But that spring, I realized that my trip to Las Vegas would coincide with the Rotary International Convention and thought, why not? I sent in my registration and paid my fees, never suspecting that the experience would change my life.
When I walked through the doors of that convention, I was stunned. It was one thing to know that I was part of a global organization with over a million members around the world. It was something else altogether to stand there in the middle of it. I went to every general session, looked in at every booth at the House of Friendship, and learned about projects that I hadn’t even known you could do in Rotary. That convention didn’t just open my eyes. It opened my mind. It inspired me to completely change the way I saw Rotary, what Rotary could do for me, and what I could do through Rotary. That inspiration has stayed with me ever since — and is renewed every year, at every Rotary convention.
In June 2019, Rotarians from all over the world will converge in Hamburg to Capture the Moment at the 110th Rotary International Convention. Many, like me, will have been coming to conventions for years; many others will be coming for the first time. Whether they’re looking to connect with old friends, to find inspiration for a new Rotary year, or simply to see what Rotary is all about, each of them will find their own moment in Hamburg.
Hamburg is a port city that connects Germany to the world and that has been an economic and cultural hub for centuries. It’s a wonderful place to visit — to stroll the shores of the city’s lake, take a boat trip on the Elbe River, dine out, hear great music, and explore fascinating museums. It’s also the ideal place to kick off a European vacation.
If you’re a regular convention goer, you absolutely won’t want to miss out on the friendship and inspiration you’ll find in Hamburg. And if you’ve never been to a convention, please consider this my personal invitation. Register at riconvention.org by 15 December for the best rate — and let this convention Be the Inspiration for your Rotary journey.
Every Thursday morning, I receive an email from the World Health Organization with an update on the status of polio eradication. It contains a wealth of information, country by country: where and how immunization campaigns are being conducted, how many millions of children are being vaccinated, and where environmental surveillance has found evidence of circulating virus. But every week, when that email appears in my inbox, my heart seems to stop for just a moment until I read the first few lines – and learn whether a child was paralyzed by wild poliovirus that week.
That, my friends, is where we are today in the work of polio eradication. The question on my mind as I open that message isn't how many thousands of cases we might see in a year, as we did not too long ago, or even how many hundreds. Instead, when that WHO email arrives every Thursday, the single, binary question it answers is: Was there a new case this week, or wasn't there?
Thirty years ago, 1,000 children were paralyzed by polio every single day. Since then, we've marked our progress, year by year, week by week. We've celebrated as country after country, region after region has been declared polio-free. As we've come closer and closer to our goal, and the number of cases has dropped further and further, the children those numbers reflect have become less and less of an abstraction. When I open that Thursday email, I don't wonder what number I'll see. I wonder, was a child paralyzed this week or not?
We are so close to eradication – but there is so much work left to do.
This month, I ask every Rotary club to help End Polio Now by marking World Polio Day on 24 October. Last year, thousands of Rotary clubs around the world held events to raise awareness and funds for polio eradication. This year, we want to see more World Polio Day events registered than ever. If you have an event planned, be sure to register and promote it at endpolio.org so that more people can take part. If you haven't planned one yet, it's not too late – visit endpolio.org to find ideas, information on this year's livestream, and resources to help your club organize a successful event.
World Polio Day is a tremendous opportunity for clubs to highlight Rotary, and our historic work to eradicate polio, in their own communities. It is also a great way to take advantage of the challenge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: For every dollar that Rotary raises for polio eradication, the Gates Foundation will give two more. Join me, and Rotarians everywhere, on 24 October for World Polio Day – and Be the Inspiration for a polio-free world.
Imagine if we could take a snapshot capturing all of the work Rotary does on a given day. No one – except Rotarians – would believe that a single organization was capable of accomplishing so much. In that snapshot you would see dedicated volunteers working to eradicate polio, setting up microloans, providing clean water, mentoring youth, and countless other actions.
We can do all this thanks both to our geographic reach and to the fact that our clubs are made up of people who are engaged in their communities. As a part of the community that you serve, you know the needs, you have the connections, and you're able to take immediate action. That's why every Rotary club's membership should reflect the diversity of its community.
We've made great strides in this. In Egypt, Indonesia, and Kenya, Rotary is approaching 50 percent female membership. We're also expanding the age diversity of our clubs. In each of our communities, young professionals are eager to contribute their talents, give back, and learn from mentors. Let's share with them what Rotary is all about. The Engaging Younger Professionals Toolkit at Rotary.org has an action plan to help you reach young leaders and Rotary alumni in your area.
Another resource that can help us better reflect our communities – one that is global like us, is a quarter-million members strong, and already shares our values of service and leadership – is Rotaract. Rotaractors are our partners: Team up with them on projects, ask them to speak at your events, and invite them to join your club. Dedicated Rotaractors worldwide are becoming members of Rotary and even starting new Rotary clubs while still serving as members of Rotaract.
The world needs Rotary, and Rotary needs strong clubs and engaged members in order to do more good. It is our responsibility – yours and mine – to make sure everyone who shows an interest in joining Rotary gets an invitation. Make use of the Membership Leads tool at Rotary.org, which helps people who are interested in joining Rotary connect with a club that's right for them. And let's ensure that every member has a reason to stay. By building strong clubs that engage in meaningful projects and have fun along the way, we provide value to our club members that they cannot find anywhere else.
Let's not keep Rotary's story – the story captured in those snapshots of service – to ourselves. I challenge you to invite leaders of all ages, men and women, who are looking for a way to give back. By doing so, you will Be the Inspiration in your community and help Rotary continue to do good in the world.
A well-known saying goes, "If you want to change the world, go home and love your family." That doesn't mean people should ignore the needs outside their own homes; instead, they should pay attention to the needs within.
It can be tempting, when our priority is service, to focus only on the things that look like service: the projects, the planning, the work that yields a visible benefit to those who need it. But to do that work effectively, we need to keep our own house in order. In Rotary, that means conducting ourselves in accordance with the principles of Rotary, treating others with respect, and following The Four-Way Test. It means maximizing our impact by planning carefully and stewarding our resources wisely. And it means looking after the long-term health of our organization by ensuring that our membership is strong, engaged, and healthy.
Our membership has hovered around the same 1.2 million mark for 20 years. We aren't growing, and our membership is getting older. We have too many clubs that don't have the knowledge or motivation to have an impact: clubs that don't know what we're doing on a global level, clubs that don't know about our programs or our Foundation, that don't even know how to get involved. And with a membership that is still mostly male, we clearly aren't doing enough to become the organization of choice for women who are seeking to serve.
We are a membership organization first. If we want to achieve the goals we've set for ourselves, we need to put membership first. All of us have a responsibility to take membership seriously, not only by inviting prospective members, but also by making sure new members are welcomed into clubs that offer them something of value. If you see someone walk into a meeting and hesitate, be sure that person has a place to sit and is part of the conversation. If you're enthusiastic about a Rotary program, make sure your club knows about it and knows how to get involved. If you see a need in your community, talk about it at this week's meeting. If we want to be part of an organization that's strong, that's active, that's having an impact – start at home, and Be the Inspiration in Rotary.
One year ago, your Rotary International Board of Directors adopted a new vision statement, reflecting our aspirations for our organization and its future. It reads, “Together, we see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change – across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves.”
That simple sentence distills so much of what is essential about Rotary. We unite, because we know that we are far stronger together than we could ever be alone. We take action, because we are not dreamers, but doers. We work to create lasting change that will endure long after our involvement has ended – across the globe and in our communities. And perhaps most important of all, we work to create change in ourselves – not just building a better world around us, but becoming better people ourselves.
A quotation attributed to French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry goes: “If you want to build a boat, don’t begin by collecting wood, cutting boards, or assigning tasks. Begin by awakening in the souls of your workers a longing for the vast and boundless sea.” Each of us came to Rotary because we had a longing – to have an impact, to make a difference, to be part of something larger than ourselves. That desire, that vision for a better world and our role in building it, is what drives us in Rotary. It’s what made us become members, it’s what motivates us to serve, and it’s what led me to choose our theme for this Rotary year: Be the Inspiration.
I want to see Rotary Be the Inspiration for our communities by doing work with a transformational impact. It’s time to start moving forward, by removing the barriers that are holding us back. Let’s make it easier to make adjustments in our clubs or start new clubs that suit different needs. Let’s work to strengthen Rotaract and smooth the transition from Rotaract clubs into Rotary. Let’s give all Rotarians the flexibility to serve in the ways that work best for them, so that every Rotarian finds enduring value in Rotary membership.
Truly sustainable service, the kind of service we strive for in Rotary, means looking at everything we do as part of a larger global ecology. This year, I ask all of you to Be the Inspiration for sustainable service by addressing the impact of environmental issues on our work. The environment plays a key role in all six of our areas of focus, and that role is only becoming greater as the impact of climate change unfolds. It’s time to move past seeing the environment as somehow separate from those six areas. Clean air, water, and land are essential for healthy communities – and essential for the better, healthier future we strive for.
Be the Inspiration – and together we can, and we will, inspire the world.