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.