Rotary International is global network of people who are passionate about community service. The motto of the organization “Service Above Self” speaks to the fact that a shared desire to improve the world transcends linguistic and cultural differences, allowing members to accomplish more by serving together than could be done individually. Rotary International is a leader in promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, saving mothers and children, supporting education, and growing local economies. To understand what Rotary is now, let’s look at where it has been – where did it start and why?
Rotary International exists today due to the vision of Paul P. Harris. Harris was originally been born in Racine Wisconsin, but was raised by his grandparents in Wallingford, Vermont from a young age. Years later, when Harris was an attorney in Chicago, he dreamed of forming a professional group that possessed the same friendly communal spirit that he had experienced in the small towns of his youth. This was the motivation for creating the first Club which first met on February 23, 1905. This meeting consisted of Harris, Silvester Schiele, Gustavus Loehr, and Hiram Shorey. The group met in Loehr’s office, located in the Unity Building in downtown Chicago, and eventually called the club “Rotary” because they consistently rotated meeting locations.
Paul P. Harris was elected the third president of the Rotary Club of Chicago in February 1907. During his presidency, he created the Executive Committee, a section of the organization that met during lunch and was open to all members. The Executive Committee was later called the Ways and Means Committee. Near the end of his presidency, Harris made efforts to expand the Rotary Club beyond Chicago. There was some opposition from members who did not want to take on the risk of an increased financial burden for an expanding club, but Harris pressed on regardless, working hard to expand the organization.
With those efforts, what began with a single humble meeting of four men in an office soon became a national organization. In just five years after that first meeting, clubs began popping up all across the country, and by 1910 Rotary had expanded to many other major U.S. cities. In August 1910, the first convention of Rotarians was held in the club’s birth city of Chicago. At the time, 16 clubs existed, and they united to create the National Association of Rotary Clubs.
By 1912, clubs in other countries had been added to the association and as the result, the name was changed to International Association of Rotary Clubs. Ten years later, in 1922, the name Rotary International was adopted. Buy July of 1925, just twenty years after the first meeting, Rotary had grown to over 2,000 clubs and about 108,000 members on six continents.
Throughout the years, Rotary’s reputation has attracted a number of presidents, prime ministers, and other leaders to join its ranks. As it expanded, members of the organization began to join their resources in order to best serve their communities and others around the world. That has continued to this very day.
In the United States, membership in rotary is still strong although it is not what it once was. Like many organizations, Rotary Clubs can be slow to change. Women were not officially allowed to be Rotarians until 1989. This is hard for me to understand given that many of the strongest leaders in my club have been and continue to be women. Some clubs are diverse and innovative. Others are quite traditional. Membership dues for some clubs like my own are very modest while for other clubs they are considerable. Regardless of differences across clubs, they are all committed to making a difference in the United States and abroad.
Rotary is growing rapidly overseas – especially in urbanizing countries where people are moving to cities, feel disconnected, and are looking for ways to network and give back to their new communities. Rotary Clubs are not immune from political tensions and conflict – but Rotarians are often well placed to do something about it. For example, Rotary International President K.R Ravindran is a Sri Lankan Rotarian. His country endured a devastating 26-year civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and an insurgency by members of the Tamil minority. President Ravindran was able to leverage his position as a respected business man, a Rotarian, and a Tamil to negotiate “days of tranquility” during which there would be a cessation of hostilities so that children living in conflict zones could be vaccinated. Looking even further back to World War II, rotary clubs in Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, and Japan were forced to officially disband, but many of these clubs continued to meet informally, and after the war Rotary members worked hard to put their clubs -and their countries- back together.
On a personal note, Washington DC is a very transient city, and Rotary has given me a way to feel connected and to give back – not just here but in other communities around the world. When I travel overseas, I often meet other Rotarians – and while we grew up speaking different languages, in different cultures, in countries with different histories – we understand and appreciate each other, knowing that service is more important than self. Thanks to Rotary I have experienced places both domestically and internationally that I would not have otherwise known. Similar, I have met and worked with people who I would not otherwise have met. Being a part of Rotary has been very positive and meaningful and I hope many others will be able to have that experience too. Still, Rotary needs to evolve to remain relevant. If it does, and continues to to promote service around the world while developing new leaders, Rotary should have a bright future.