It’s an organisation of service clubs located all over the world. The stated purpose of the organisation is to bring together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. It is a secular organisation open to all persons regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or political preference. There are 33,976 clubs and over 1.22 million members worldwide. The members of Rotary Clubs are known as Rotarians. Members usually meet weekly for breakfast, lunch or dinner, which is a social event as well as an opportunity to organised work on their service goals.
Rotary’s best-known motto is “Service above Self”, and its secondary motto is “They profit most who serve best”
The object of Rotary is to encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise and, in particular, to encourage and foster:
- The development of acquaintance as an opportunity for service;
- High ethical standards in business and professions, the recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations, and the dignifying of each Rotarian’s occupation as an opportunity to serve society;
- The application of the ideal of service in each Rotarian’s personal, business, and community life;
- The advancement of international understanding, goodwill, and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.
This objective is further set against the “Rotarian four-way test”, used to see if a planned action is compatible with the Rotarian spirit. The test was developed by Rotarian and entrepreneur Herbert J. Taylor during the Great Depression as a set of guidelines for restoring faltering businesses and was adopted as the standard of ethics by Rotary in 1942. It is still seen as a standard for ethics in business management:
Is it the truth?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Will it build good will and better friendships?
- Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
History – The Early years
The first Rotary Club was formed when attorney Paul P. Harris called together a meeting of three business acquaintances in downtown Chicago, in coal dealer Sylvester Schiele’s office in the Unity Building on Dearborn Street on February 23, 1905. Silvester Schiele (coal merchant), Gustave E. Loehr (mines engineer), and Hiram E. Shorey (tailor) were the other three who attended this first meeting. The members chose the name Rotary because they rotated club meetings to each member’s office each week, although within a year, the Chicago club became so large as to transition to the now-common practice of a regular meeting place.
The next four Rotary Clubs were organized in cities in the western United States, beginning with San Francisco, then Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The National Association of Rotary Clubs in America was formed in 1910. In April 1912, Rotary chartered a club in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, marking the first establishment of an American-style service club outside the United States.
In August 1912, the Rotary Club of London received its charter from the Association, marking the first acknowledged Rotary club outside North America. It later became known that the Dublin club in Ireland was organized before the London club, but the Dublin club did not receive its charter until after the London club was chartered. To reflect the addition of the clubs outside of the United States, the name was changed to the International Association of Rotary Clubs in 1912.
During World War I, Rotary in Britain increased from 9 to 22 clubs, and other early clubs in other nations included those in Cuba in 1916 and India in 1920.
In 1922, the name was changed to Rotary International. By 1925, Rotary had grown to 200 clubs with more than 20,000 members.
Rotary Clubs in Spain ceased to operate shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.
In Germany, no club had been formed before 1927, because of “opposition from the continental clubs”. For a while after 1933, Rotary Clubs met with approval of the Nazi authorities and were considered to offer ‘opportunity for party comrades … to provide enlightenment regarding the nature and policy of the National Socialist movement’. The Nazis, although they saw international organisations as suspect, had authorised NSDAP members to be members of the Rotary through the Nazi Party’s court rulings issued in 1933, 1934 and 1936. In 1937, more than half the rotarians were Nazi Party members.
Six German Clubs were formed after Hitler came to power. They came under pressure almost immediately to expel their Jewish members.
Rotary clubs do not appear to have had a unified policy towards the Nazi regime: while several German Rotary Clubs decided to disband their organisations in 1933, others practiced a policy of appeasement or collaborated. In Munich the club removed from its members’ list a number of Rotarians, Jewish and non-Jewish, who were politically unacceptable for the regime, including Thomas Mann (already in exile in Switzerland). Twelve members resigned in “sympathy with the expelled members”. Beginning 1937 however, hostile articles were published in the Nazi press about Rotary, comparing Rotary with Freemasonry. Soon after that, the incompatibility between Nazism and the international humanitarian organisation resulted in two decisions which would jeopardize the existence of Rotary in Germany: in June 1937, the ministry of the interior forbade civil servants to be members of the Rotary; in July, the NSDAP’s party court reversed its previous rulings and declared Party and Rotarian membership incompatible as from January 1938.
Rotary’s cause was advocated before the NSDAP party court by Dr. Grill, Governor for the Rotary 73d district, arguing that the German Rotary was compliant with the goals of the Nazi government, had excluded Freemasons in 1933 and non-Aryans in 1936. Other attempts were made, also by foreign Rotarians, but appeasement failed this time, and, in September 1937, the 73rd district dissolved itself. Subsequently the charter of German clubs was withdrawn by Rotary International, although some clubs continued to meet privately.
Clubs were disbanded across Europe as follows: Austria (1938), Italy (1939), Czechoslovakia (1940), Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Luxembourg (1941), Hungary (1941/2).
Rotary clubs in Eastern Europe and other communist-regime nations were disbanded by 1945-46, but new Rotary clubs were organized in many other countries, and by the time of the national independence movements in Africa and Asia, the new nations already had Rotary clubs. After the relaxation of government control of community groups in Russia and former Soviet satellite nations, Rotarians were welcomed as club organisers, and clubs were formed in those countries, beginning with the Moscow club in 1990.
In 1985, Rotary launched its PolioPlus program to immunize all of the world’s children against polio. In 2005 Rotary claimed to have contributed half a billion dollars to the cause, resulting in the immunization of nearly two billion children worldwide.
As of 2006, Rotary has more than 1.2 million members in over 32,000 clubs among 200 countries and geographical areas, making it the most widespread by branches and second largest service club by membership, (behind Lions Club International). The number of Rotarians has slightly declined in recent years: Between 2002 and 2006, they went from 1,245,000 to 1,223,000 members. North America accounts for 450,000 members, Asia for 300,000, Europe for 250,000, Latin America for 100,000, Oceania for 100,000 and Africa for 30,000.
Organisation and administration
In order to carry out its service programs, Rotary is structured in club, district and international levels. Rotarians are members of their clubs. The clubs are chartered by the global organization Rotary International (RI) headquartered in Evanston, a suburban city near Chicago, Illinois. For administrative purposes, the more than 32,000 clubs worldwide are grouped into 529 districts, and the districts into 34 zones.
The Rotary Club is the basic unit of Rotary activity, and each club determines its own membership. Clubs originally were limited to a single club per city, municipality, or town, but Rotary International has encouraged the formation of one or more additional clubs in the largest cities when practical. Each club meets weekly, usually at a mealtime on a weekday in a regular location, when Rotarians can discuss club business and hear from guest speakers. Each club also conducts various service projects within its local community, and participates in special projects involving other clubs in the local district, and occasionally a special project in a “sister club” in another nation. Most clubs also hold social events at least quarterly and in some cases more often.
Each club elects its own president and officers among its active members for a one year term. The clubs enjoy considerable autonomy within the framework of the standard constitution and the constitution and bylaws of Rotary International. The governing body of the club is the board of directors, consisting of the club president (who serves as the board chairman), a president-elect, club secretary, club treasurer, and several club board directors. In the majority of clubs, the immediate past president is also a member of the board. The president usually appoints the directors to serve as chairs of the major club committees, including those responsible for club service, vocational service, community service, youth service, and international service.
A district governor, who is an officer of Rotary International and represents the RI board of directors in the field, leads his/her respective Rotary district. Each governor is nominated by the clubs of his/her district, and elected by all the clubs meeting in the annual RI Convention held in a different country each year. The district governor appoints assistant governors from among the Rotarians of the district to assist in the management of Rotary activity and multi-club projects in the district.
Approximately 15 Rotary districts form a zone. A zone director, who serves as a member of the RI board of directors, heads two zones. The zone director is nominated by the clubs in the zone and elected by the convention for the terms of two consecutive years
Rotary International is governed by a board of directors composed of the international president, the president-elect, the general secretary, and 17 zone directors. The nomination and the election of each president is handled in the one-to-three year period before he takes office, and is based on requirements including geographical balance among Rotary zones and previous service as a district governor and board member. The international board meets quarterly to establish policies and make recommendations to the overall governing bodies, the RI Convention and the RI Council on Legislation.
The chief operating officer of RI is the general secretary, who heads a staff of about 600 people working at the international headquarters in Evanston and in seven international offices around the world.
According to its constitutions (“Charters”), Rotary defines itself as a non-partisan, non-sectarian and secular organization. It is open to business and professional leaders of all ages (18 and upwards) and economic status.
One can contact a Rotary club to inquire about membership but can join a rotary club only if invited; there is no provision to join without an invitation as each prospective Rotarian requires a sponsor who is an existing Rotarian. Some clubs, though not all, have exclusivity membership criteria: reputation and business or professional leadership may be a specific evaluation criterion for issuing invitations to join, and representation from a specific profession or business may be limited to a percentage of a specific club’s membership.
Active membership is by invitation from a current Rotarian, to professionals or businesspersons working in diverse areas of endeavor. Each club may limit up to ten per cent of its membership representing each business or profession in the area it serves. The goal of the clubs is to promote service to the community they work in, as well as to the wider world. Many projects are organized for the local community by a single club, but some are organized globally.
Honorary membership is given by election of a Rotary Club to people who have distinguished themselves by meritorious service in the furtherance of Rotary ideals. Honorary membership is conferred only in exceptional cases. Honorary members are exempt from the payment of admission fees and dues. They have no voting privileges and are not eligible to hold any office in their club. Honorary membership is time limited and terminates automatically at the end of the term, usually one year. It may be extended for an additional period or may also be revoked at any time. Examples of honorary members are heads of state or former heads of state, famous scientists or other famous people.
From 1905 until the 1980s, women were not allowed membership in Rotary clubs, although Rotarian spouses, including Paul Harris’ wife, were often members of the similar “Inner Wheel” club. Women did play some roles, and Paul Harris’ wife made numerous speeches. In 1963, it was noted that the Rotary practice of involving wives in club activities had helped to break down female seclusion in some countries. Clubs such as Rotary had long been predated by women’s voluntary organizations, which started in the United States as early as 1790. The first Irish clubs discussed admitting women as members in 1912, but the proposal floundered over issues of social class. Gender equity in Rotary moved beyond the theoretical question when in 1976, the Rotary Club of Duarte in Duarte, California admitted three women as members. After this club refused to remove the women from membership, in 1978 Rotary International revoked the club’s charter. The Duarte club filed suit in the California courts, claiming that Rotary Clubs are business establishments subject to regulation under California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, gender, religion or ethnic origin. Rotary International then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The RI attorney argued that “… [the decision] threatens to force us to take in everyone, like a motel”. The Duarte Club was not alone in opposing RI leadership; the Seattle-International District club unanimously voted to admit women in 1986. The United States Supreme Court, on May 4, 1987, confirmed the Californian decision.
Rotary International then removed the gender requirements from its requirements for club charters, and most clubs in most countries have opted to include women as members of Rotary Clubs. The first female club president to be elected was Silvia Whitlock of the Rotary Club of Duarte, California, USA in 1987. By 2007, there was a female trustee of Rotary’s charitable wing The Rotary Foundation while female district governors and club presidents were common. Women currently account for 15% of international Rotary membership (22% in North America).
The change of the second Rotarian motto in 2004, from “He profits most who serves best” to “They profit most who serve best”, 99 years after its foundation, illustrates the move to general acceptance of women members in Rotary.
Rotary and other service clubs in the last decade of the 20th century became open to homosexual membership. Other minorities, in the face of general changes in demographics and declining membership, are also encouraged to join. There have been efforts to reach out to minority communities, such as Oakland, California’s $10,000 scholarships for students in inner-city schools. Another example is the Reynolda Rotary club of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which has partnered with an elementary school with primarily minority students.
There have been some individual exceptions. As early as 1963, a Hindu Bengali, Nitish Chandra Laharry, served as Rotary International’s first Asian president.
The programs of Rotary are so diverse as to all but defy categorisation.
In addition, there are the programs of The Rotary Foundation, which include educational, humanitarian and fellowship and vocational exchanges.
Interact is Rotary International’s service club for young people ages 12 to 18. Interact clubs are sponsored by individual Rotary clubs, which provide support and guidance, but they are self-governing and self-supporting. Club membership varies greatly. Clubs can be single gender or mixed, large or small. They can draw from the student body of a single school or from two or more schools in the same community.
Each year, Interact clubs complete at least two community service projects, one of which furthers international understanding and goodwill. Through these efforts, Interactors develop a network of friendships with local and overseas clubs and learn the importance of: developing leadership skills and personal integrity, demonstrating helpfulness and respect for others, understanding the value of individual responsibility and hard work and advancing international understanding and goodwill.
The first Interact Club met with 23 students at Melbourne High School in Melbourne, Florida in 1960. It has since become one of the most significant and fastest-growing programs of Rotary service; with more than 12,300 clubs in 133 countries and geographical areas, Interact has become a worldwide phenomenon. Almost 290,000 young people are involved in Interact.
The most notable current global project, PolioPlus, is contributing to the global eradication of polio. Since beginning the project in 1985, Rotarians have contributed over US$850 million and tens of thousands of volunteer-hours, leading to the inoculation of more than two billion of the world’s childrn. Inspired by Rotary’s commitment, the World Health Organization (WHO) passed a resolution in 1988 to eradicate polio by 2000. Now a partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) with WHO, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary is recognized by the United Nations as the key private partner in the eradication effort.
In 2008, Rotary received a $100 million challenge grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Rotary committed to raising $100 million. In January 2009, Bill Gates announced a second challenge grant of $255 million. Rotary again committed to raising another $100 million. In total, Rotary will raise $200 million by June 30, 2012. Together, the Gates Foundation and Rotary have committed $555 million toward the eradication of polio. At the time of the second challenge grant, Bill Gates said: “We know that it’s a formidable challenge to eradicate a disease that has killed and crippled children since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. We don’t know exactly when the last child will be affected. But we do have the vaccines to wipe it out. Countries do have the will to deploy all the tools at their disposal. If we all have the fortitude to see this effort through to the end, then we will eradicate polio.”
There has been some limited criticism concerning the program for polio eradication. There are some reservations regarding the adaptation capabilities of the virus in some of the oral vaccines, which have been reported to cause infection in populations with low vaccination coverage. As stated by Vaccine Alliance, however, in spite of the limited risk of polio vaccination, it would neither be prudent nor practicable to cease the vaccination program until there is strong evidence that “all wild polio-virus transmission [has been] stopped”. In a recent speech at the Rotary International Convention, held at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Bruce Cohick stated that polio in all its known wild forms will be eliminated by late 2008, provided efforts in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India all proceed with their current momentum.
Exchanges and scholarships
Some of Rotary’s most visible programs include Rotary Youth Exchange, a student exchange program for students in secondary education, and the Rotary Foundation’s oldest program, Ambassadorial Scholarships. Today, there are six different types of Rotary Scholarships. More than 38,000 men and women from 100 nations have studied abroad under the auspices of Ambassadorial Scholarship, and today it is the world’s largest privately funded international scholarships program. In 2006-07 grants totaling approximately US$15 million were used to award some 800 scholarships to recipients from 69 countries who studied in 64 nations. The Exchange Students of Rotary Club Munich International publish their experiences on a regular basis on Rotary Youth Exchange with Germany. In July 2009 the Rotary Foundation ended funding for the Cultural and Multi-Year Ambassadorial Scholarships as well as Rotary Grants for University Teachers.
Rotary Fellowships, paid by the foundation launched in honor of Paul Harris in 1947, specialize in providing graduate fellowships around the world, usually in countries other than their own in order to provide international exposure and experience to the recipient. Recently, a new program was established known as the Rotary peace and Conflict Resolution program which provides funds for two years of graduate study in one of eight universities around the world. Rotary is naming about seventy five of these scholars each year. The applications for these scholarships are found on line but each application must be endorsed by a local Rotary Club. Children and other close relatives of Rotarians are not eligible.
Rotary Centers for International Studies
Starting in 2002, The Rotary Foundation partnered with eight universities around the world to create the Rotary Centers for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution. The universities include International Christian University (Japan), University of Queensland (Australia), Institute d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) (France), University of Bradford (United Kingdom), Universidad del Salvador (Argentina), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (U.S.), Duke University (U.S.), Chulalongkorn University (Thailand) and University of California, Berkeley (U.S.) Since then, the Rotary Foundation’s Board of Trustees has dropped its association with the Center in France at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and is currently ending its association with the University of California, Berkeley.
Rotary World Peace Fellows complete two year masters level programs in conflict resolution, peace studies, and international relations. The first class graduated in 2004. As with many such university programs in “peace and conflict studies”, questions have been raised concerning political bias and controversial grants. As of August 2006, the Rotary Foundation had spent $18 million on its “peace and conflict” Centers, and the average grant was about $60,000 per enrolled in the two-year program.
In 2004, Fellows established the Rotary World Peace Fellows Association to promote interaction among Fellows, Rotarian’s, and the public on issues related to peace studies.
Rotary Clubs, worldwide, place a focus on increasing literacy. Such importance has been placed on literacy that Rotary International has created a “Rotary Literacy Month” that takes place during the month of March. Rotary clubs also aim to conduct many literacy events during the week of September 8, which is International Literacy Day.
Some Rotary clubs raise funds for schools and other literacy organizations. Many clubs take part in a reading program called “Rotary Readers,” in which a Rotary member spends time in a classroom with a designated student, and reads one-on-one with them. As well as raising funds and reading with children, some Rotary clubs participate in book donations, both locally and internationally.
Rotaract: a service club for young men and women aged 18 to 30 with around 185,000 members in 7,000 clubs in 163 countries. Rotaract clubs are either community or university based, and they are sponsored by a local Rotary club. This makes them true “partners in service” and key members of the family of Rotary.
Rotary Community Corps
The Rotary Community Corps (RCC) is a volunteer organization with an estimated 157,000 non-Rotarian men and women in over 6,800 communities in 78 countries.
Individual club efforts
While there are numerous Rotary-wide efforts, Rotary clubs are also encouraged to take part in local ventures; In a more unusual twist, Rosalie Maguire, a Batavia, New York, Rotarian, taking a cue from Calendar Girls convinced fellow members (a man for each month and a male cover) to pose for a “nude” calendar sold as part of a $250,000 fundraiser for a local hospital.
Members are occasionally assessed mock “fines” for minor infractions as a way of raising funds: these fines could, in 1951, range from 10 cents to $1,000. Some clubs have “Happy Dollars” or “Happy Bucks” which include paying a dollar for the right to tell a story to the club.
Weekly Club Meetings
Rotary Clubs usually meet weekly at a set location and time and are an opportunity for Rotarians (members) and visitors to enjoy a meal together, discuss community affairs, engage in networking and socialize. Most of the original Rotary clubs met at lunchtime (midday), but evening/dinner clubs became popular in many countries, and beginning in the 1970s, a number of Rotary clubs were started as breakfast clubs.
Meetings are led by the club president and usually start with the ringing of a bell. Some clubs continue the tradition of group singing, with members singing patriotic, local theme, holiday-theme, and/or Rotary-specific theme songs. Many clubs have a group prayer, invocation, or thought for the day, followed by a meal. Announcements about upcoming activities are typical of these meetings, and in some clubs, members contribute money to the club service fund by way of “fines” for accomplishments or special occasions. Most clubs have a featured speaker, usually a guest, and quite frequently, a prominent figure, government official, or interesting personality. The president usually closes the meeting with a final ringing of the bell.
A long-standing Rotary tradition is to encourage all members to attend meetings every week, or at least as often as possible. Rotarians get credit for attending meetings of other clubs (called “make-ups”) at any time during the week preceding or following the missed meeting of his/her own club. When travelling, Rotarians will often exchange miniature club banners with the presidents of the clubs being visited.
Official and regional Rotary magazines
Rotary International’s unique communications media are the official monthly magazine named The Rotarian published in English language by the headquarters, and 30 other regional Rotary World Magazine Press periodicals that are independently produced in more than 20 different major languages and distributed in 130 countries.
The first official magazine The National Rotarian, predecessor to The Rotarian, was started in January 1911. The first regional magazine was issued 1915 in Great Britain and Ireland.
There is another official magazine of the Rotary Clubs for Great Britain and Ireland called Rotary Today. This is a bi-monthly publication distributed to each of the 60,000 Rotarians in Great Britain and Ireland at the members’ meetings.
The official and regional magazines are circulated to Rotarian and non-Rotarian subscribers. The combined circulation is more than 700,000 copies.
Rotary Clubs issue a regular bulletin full of Rotary news from recent meetings. Aside from meeting information and the name list of club directors and officers, the club bulletin contains club president’s message, a summary of guest speaker’s presentation, club projects and service activities, upcoming events, announcements and reminders for the members. It is circulated to the club members in printed form, however more and more clubs go paperless by publishing the club bulletin electronically.
District governor’s newsletter
District governors publish monthly a newsletter reporting service activities conducted by the clubs within the district and various district level meetings. The newsletter contains also district governor’s message and lists also the membership and attendance figures of all district clubs. It is circulated to every Rotarian in the district.
Official Postage Stamps
Rotary International has been honoured by more than 130 countries through more than 2,000 commemorative stamps, souvenir sheets and special cancellation marks throughout the years. The latest Rotary stamp issue marks the 100th Anniversary of Rotary International in Canada.