Ian H.S. Riseley
One hundred thirteen years ago this month, the four members of Rotary's first club held their first meeting. Although no minutes were kept, it's unlikely anyone talked about service; the club did not begin focusing on the needs of the community for another few years.
The meeting was held not in a hotel or a restaurant, but in a member's office; there were, so far as we know, no agendas or announcements, no committee reports, speakers, or nametags. The meeting would have failed today's usual standards for a productive Rotary meeting most resoundingly. It was, of course, the most productive Rotary meeting ever held.
Today, as in 1905, many of us come to Rotary seeking what Paul Harris sought: friendship, connections, a place to feel at home. But today, Rotary gives us so much more than it could ever have given its earliest members in those earliest days. The Rotary of today, more than 1.2 million members strong, lets us feel at home not only in a small group of our peers, but also in our diverse clubs, across our communities, and indeed throughout the world. Today, Rotary connects us all in a way that Paul Harris could never have dreamed on that February evening so long ago. Not only can we go anywhere in the world there is a Rotary club and feel at home, but we can reach out to anywhere in the world there is a Rotary club and make a difference.
In the 113 years since that first meeting, Rotary has become far larger, and more diverse, than those founding members could have conceived. We have gone from an organization that was all white and all male to one that welcomes women and men of every possible background. We have become an organization whose stated purpose is service, reflected in our motto, Service Above Self. And we have become not only an organization that is capable of changing the world, but one that has already done so, through our work to eradicate polio.
None of us can know what lies ahead for Rotary. It remains for all of us to continue to build on the solid foundations that were laid for us by Paul Harris and his friends: to forge and strengthen the bonds of service and friendship through Rotary: Making a Difference.
In Rotary, our diversity is our strength. This idea dates back to the earliest years of our organization, when the classification system was first proposed. The idea behind it was simple: that a club with members who had a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities would be capable of better service than one without.
In the years since, the idea of diversity in Rotary has come to be defined more broadly. We have discovered that a club that truly represents its community is far better able to serve that community effectively. Looking ahead, it is clear how essential diversity will remain in Rotary: not only to strong service today, but to a strong organization in the future.
One of the most pressing aspects of diversity to address in our membership is the age of our members. When you look around at almost any Rotary event, it becomes immediately obvious that the age range in the room does not promise a sustainable future for our organization. Our membership is near a record high, and we are bringing in new members all the time – yet only a small minority of those members are young enough to have decades of Rotary service ahead of them. To ensure a strong and capable Rotary leadership tomorrow, we need to bring in young and capable members today.
We also cannot discuss diversity in Rotary without addressing the issue of gender. It is difficult to imagine that just three decades ago, women could not join Rotary. Although we have come a long way since then, the legacy of that misguided policy is still with us. Far too many people continue to think of Rotary as an organization only for men, and that idea has had a detrimental effect on both our public image and our membership growth. Today, women make up just over 21 percent of Rotary's membership. While this is certainly a great improvement, we have a long way to go to meet what should be the goal of every club: a gender balance that matches the balance of our world, with as many women in Rotary as men.
Whatever brought each of us to Rotary, we stay because we find value in Rotary membership and believe that our service has value to the world. By building clubs that reflect that world in all its diversity, we will build even more enduring value in Rotary: Making a Difference.
Seventy-two years ago, the United Nations was founded "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war ... [and] to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors." Despite those worthy aspirations, and generations of investment in achieving them, the "scourge of war" is still with us: Last year, more than 102,000 people died in 49 armed conflicts around the world. Some of those conflicts were in their fifth decade or beyond. Terrorism, intolerance, and extremism; the refugee crisis; and environmental degradation are now global challenges.
Collectively, we seem further than ever from achieving the goals that were set with such ambition and optimism in 1945. Yet hope endures, as long as there are people willing to work for a more peaceful future – not only through their governments, but also beside them and beside each other. Today, Rotary is better placed than ever to have a real and lasting impact for peace: through our peace-focused programs, such as Rotary Peace Fellows, and through every area of our service. Water, sanitation, health, education, and economic development are all interrelated and part of the complex interactions that can lead to conflict – or avert it. To best leverage our service in all these areas, and to maximize their impact for peace, it is essential to understand these interactions and plan our service accordingly.
For these reasons, we have scheduled a series of six presidential peacebuilding conferences between February and June in Canada, Lebanon, the UK, Australia, Italy, and the United States. These conferences will focus not on peace but on peacebuilding: We will share ways that we can work to build peace through the service of our Rotary clubs and districts. Five of the one-day conferences will illuminate the connections between peace and another area of focus. The first conference, in Vancouver, B.C., will explore the link between peace and another sphere of great concern to us in Rotary: environmental sustainability. You can view the full schedule and register at www.rotary.org/presidential-conferences.
The goals are simple: to help Rotarians find new ways to advance peace through their service, to learn from experts, and to strengthen our abilities to build peace. It is my hope and belief that these conferences will help us move closer to a more peaceful world, through Rotary: Making a Difference.
In many ways, The Rotary Foundation is an invisible presence in our clubs. Most of what we do in our clubs and our districts, on a weekly basis, we do without the active involvement of the Foundation. But our Foundation is invisible in our clubs in the same way the foundation of a building is invisible when you're in it: Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not holding you up.
The Foundation that enabled Rotary to take on polio is, in many ways, the foundation upon which our Rotary service is built. For 100 years, since it came into existence with a first donation of $26.50, the Foundation has supported and strengthened our service, enabled our ambitions, and allowed us to be the organization that we are. Because of the Foundation, Rotarians know that if we have the ambition and put in the work, very little is truly beyond us.
It is an incredibly effective model that we have here in Rotary, one that no other organization can match. We are completely local and completely global: We have local skills, connections, and knowledge in over 35,000 clubs, in nearly every country of the world. We have a deserved reputation for transparency, effectiveness, and good business practices, and because we are highly skilled professionals as well as volunteers, we achieve a level of efficiency that very few other organizations can approach.
To put it simply, a dollar given to The Rotary Foundation has a great deal more muscle than a dollar given to most charities. If you want to spend a dollar on Doing Good in the World, you can't do better than to spend it with the Foundation. That is not just me speaking out of pride; it is verifiably true and is reflected in our rankings by independent organizations.
In the Foundation's centennial year, Rotarians surpassed our goal of raising $300 million. If you were part of that achievement, you have been part of something tremendous. Somewhere in the world, someplace you have probably never been, people you may never meet will lead better lives because of you. Ultimately, it is our Foundation that lets us make good on our core beliefs: that we can make a difference, that we have an obligation to do so, and that working together, as well and as efficiently as we can, is the only way to effect real and lasting change.
Some years ago in the Melbourne, Australia, museum where my daughter used to work, an iron lung was on display. For most people my age who remembered the terrifying polio epidemics of the 1950s, that iron lung was a testament to how far vaccination had brought us: to the point where that once-critical piece of medical equipment had literally become a museum piece.
For much of the world, the story of polio is a simple one: After years of fear, a vaccine was developed and a disease was conquered. But for some of the world, the story was different. In so many countries, the vaccine wasn’t available, mass vaccination was too expensive, or children simply couldn’t be reached. While the rest of the world relegated polio to its museums, in these countries, the disease continued to rage – until Rotary stepped forward and said that all children, no matter where they lived or what their circumstances, deserved to live free of polio.
In the years since PolioPlus was launched, the combined efforts of Rotary, the governments of the world, and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative have brought the number of cases of polio down from an estimated 350,000 per year to just a few so far in 2017. But we must reach zero cases, and stay there, to achieve eradication. To do that, we need everyone’s help.
On 24 October, we will mark World Polio Day. It is a day to celebrate how far we have come and an opportunity for all of us to raise awareness and funds to complete the work of eradication. I ask every Rotary club to participate in some way in World Polio Day activities, and I encourage you to visit endpolio.org for ideas and to register your event. Whether you host a silent auction, a virtual reality viewing, a fundraising walk, or a Purple Pinkie Day, your club can make a real difference.
This year, our World Polio Day livestream event will take place at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle; you can watch it on endpolio.org beginning at 2:30 p.m. Pacific time. As many of you know, Rotary has committed to raising $50 million a year for the next three years. This amount will be matched 2-to-1 by the Gates Foundation – effectively tripling the value of all money Rotary raises on World Polio Day and throughout the year. Let’s all make a difference on World Polio Day – and help End Polio Now.
One of the best parts of any Rotary convention is the sheer diversity of the people you see there. Whether you're heading into a breakout session, exploring the House of Friendship, or sitting down for a bite to eat, you'll meet people from every corner of the world, in all kinds of national attire, speaking just about every language. It's a lot of fun, and it's a big part of what makes Rotary great: that we can be so different and still find ourselves so at home together.
That spirit of warm community that is so central to Rotary also defines Toronto, our host city for the 2018 Rotary International Convention. Toronto is one of my favorite cities. It's a place where half the population is from another country, where over 140 languages are spoken by 2.8 million residents, and where no one ever seems to be too busy to be helpful. In addition to being clean, safe, and friendly, Toronto is a wonderful place to visit, with its attractive Lake Ontario waterfront, great restaurants, one-of-a-kind museums, and interesting neighborhoods to explore.
The 2018 convention already promises to be one of our best ever. Our Convention Committee and Host Organization Committee are hard at work lining up inspiring speakers, great entertainment, fascinating breakout sessions, and a wide variety of activities across the city. There will be something for everyone in Toronto, and Juliet and I encourage you to do what we'll be doing – bring your families along for the fun. If you plan early, your convention experience will be even more affordable: The deadline for discounted early registration (there is an additional discount for registering online) is 15 December.
As much as Toronto offers to Rotarians, the true draw is, of course, the convention itself. It's a once-a-year opportunity to recharge your Rotary batteries, to see what the rest of the Rotary world is up to, and to find inspiration for the year ahead. Find out more at riconvention.org – and find Inspiration Around Every Corner at the 2018 Rotary Convention in Toronto.
When someone asks you, "What is Rotary?" what do you say? I think we've all had the experience of being asked that deceptively simple question and finding ourselves suddenly at a loss for words. Even the most articulate among us have a hard time capturing the essence of our organization in just a few sentences.
As an organization, Rotary has always had a difficult time conveying the scope of our work: not just what we do, but how we do it, and the value of what we contribute to the world.
As an accountant, I like numbers. They work in every language, and often they communicate complex information much more effectively than words. That is why, in this Rotary year, I am asking each club to provide Rotary headquarters with two numbers: the amount of money, both in cash and in kind, spent on humanitarian service; and the number of hours of work performed in Rotary's name.
If we want these numbers to be useful, they have to be accurate. That means beginning now to accurately track the hours and the money that our clubs spend on their service.
The simplest way for clubs to provide this information at the end of the year will be by entering it every month on Rotary Club Central – a tool that has been completely rebuilt and relaunched to be significantly more useful, and user-friendly, than it has been in the past. If for some reason (for example, limited internet access) your club is not able to connect to Rotary Club Central, please be in touch with your district governor, who will ensure that your information can be submitted through other means.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the goal of this effort is not getting the largest and most impressive numbers. There is not going to be any competition, recognition, or public use whatsoever of the numbers reported by any individual club. The goal is accurate and reliable numbers that we can present confidently in our public image work, in our membership materials, and to our partners – numbers backed by specific data, on the club level, that answer not only the question, "What is Rotary?" but the question, "What does Rotary do?"
I strongly believe that with these numbers, we will be better able to demonstrate the value of Rotary: Making a Difference – which in time will enable us to make more of a difference, for more people, in more ways, than ever.
There are as many reasons to come to Rotary as there are Rotarians – maybe even a few more. But each of us has stayed in Rotary because it adds something to our own lives. Through Rotary, we are Making a Difference in the world; and the more involved we become, the more of a difference Rotary makes to each of us. Rotary challenges us to become better people: to become ambitious in the ways that matter, to strive for higher goals, and to incorporate Service Above Self into our daily lives.
What kind of difference Rotary clubs and individual Rotarians make through their service will always be their own decision. As an organization, we are guided by the three strategic priorities our Board has set in our strategic plan: to support and strengthen our clubs, to focus and increase our humanitarian service, and to enhance Rotary's public image and awareness.
In the year ahead, our clubs will have the support of a greatly augmented array of online tools, including a refreshed Rotary.org, a simplified Rotary Foundation grant application process, an improved My Rotary experience, and a rebuilt Rotary Club Central. As we look to strengthen our clubs, two specific challenges stand out in our membership: our gender balance and our average age. To keep our clubs strong, we need to build a membership that reflects the communities we serve and that will continue to develop knowledgeable leaders for generations to come.
For many years, one idea has stood at the heart of all our service: sustainability. Sustainable service means our work continues to have a positive impact long after Rotary's direct involvement has ended. We don't dig wells and walk away; we make sure communities can maintain and repair those wells. If we build a clinic, we make sure that clinic has a way to keep running without ongoing support from us. And when it comes to polio, we aren't working to contain it; we're working to end it.
Eradicating polio is the ultimate in sustainable service. It is an investment that will yield not just a long-lasting but a permanent benefit, on a global scale. It is and must remain our No. 1 priority until the job is done.
For 112 years, Rotary has made a difference to more lives, in more ways, than we can ever count or will ever know. Today, each of us bears a torch, its flame lit by Paul Harris, that has been passed forward from generation to generation, in Rotary: Making a Difference.