by John Borst, Director Communications, District 5550
Rotary includes all kinds of people. It is an example of diversity in action. As a result you would think Rotary would have no trouble attracting new members. Yet for years, now, it has been a struggle to do so.
We seem to think if we just work harder, and “get our ‘ask’ in gear” we will be successful. Certainly, getting out and promoting what Rotary is and what it does at every level is way better than doing nothing. As the data proves this has at best maintained a static state.
The question that needs asking is has society changed so fundamentally that the values of Rotary are no longer congruent with society at large. And that this rather than a lack of effort may be the real issue.
The roots of Rotary are quintessentially the embodiment of American culture. And no matter how much we may bemoan the worse features of American exceptionalism, there is no denying that as a collective society none has ever been as dynamic or in such a state of perpetual social and political turmoil. This is not new; it is older than Rotary itself. In fact one can justifiably make the claim that Rotary was created as one response to the turmoil that existed in the first decade of 20th Century America.
When Rotary was created the world was changing at a rate unparalleled in the history of man. As the Guggenheim Gallery has demonstrated with its touring exhibit “The Great Upheaval,” even the world of art was forever changed.
But that upheaval resulted in the horrors of two “World Wars” as the power of mechanization was harnessed for evil ends by megalomaniacs coupling themselves to the aggrandizement of State power.
As Rotary grew into an International body it promoted a different story. Both America and the World were receptive to an organization which “encouraged and fostered an ideal of service…” particularly “the advancement of international understanding, goodwill and peace…” Communitarism, both local and international found expression politically and a period of progressive legislation ushered in old age security, government pension plans, social welfare programs, public education, universal health insurance and in the USA,medicare. With the two philosophies in line Rotary grew to its present size.
However, as always happens in society countervailing forces espousing other principles competed for the hearts of people. Beginning in the 1970’s neo-liberal ideals based on individualism, the personification of human rights, economic Libertarianism, and consumerism coupled with the idea that government had gone too far resulted in the era of Thatcherism and Reaganomics.
Since then the Left and Right in the USA and much of the rest of the world have moved steadily to the right such that the centre is now further right than the right was during the Barry Goldwater and Reagan years. The result today is a Tea Party according to some pundents, bent on the destruction of the Republican Party and a Democratic Party which looks more like the Republican Party of the 1990s.
Rotary on the other hand, has moved steadily in the other direction. Just as neoliberal forces took hold, Rotary International began its first great International project: the elimination of the polio virus. As its Charity Foundation has grown and with the phenomenal success of the polio eradication campaign uniting the world’s governments, International agencies, and philanthropists around this goal, Rotary grasped the opportunity to extend the principle of “service above self” to six new “areas of focus”. Today under the umbrella of its “Grants” model, its International aspirations may even be threatening to upset the delicate balance which finds Rotary Clubs funding community endeavors at least 10:1 over International projects.
Compounding this dilemma, is a recognition that we are living through a period we could call “The Second Great Upheaval”. This one, built on the digitization of everything, is moving us into realms of the unknown so fast it could be just as easily be called “The Era of Mystery”.
Rotary, buy and large is made of individuals who are conservative in their personal values, but who recognize that no man is an island. Put another way by-and-large they subscribe to the adage, “I am my brothers keeper.” Thus in Rotaryese, they buy into the credo of “Service above Self”. They wish for world peace and they want to bring a basic level of education to everyone; they want to see everyone with access to clean, safe drinking water; they want all people to have access to health services, especially maternal; they want equality for women and girls and being business people want everyone to have the advantages of a fair wage and access to economic entrepreneurship.
Yet when I see a response in a discussion on Rotary and literacy, in which the writer says he isn’t interested in any international literacy project but only his own local American one, and states that there are 36000 other clubs that can do it and that his club isn’t going to play “Santa Claus” to the world’s nearly 900,000,000 illiterate citizens then I and all Rotarians come face to face with the same neoliberal attitudes which bedevil our many National political landscapes.
That is why I have titled this piece “Under the Influence”. Like it or not, we all, as Rotarians, are under the influence of the political, economic and social philosophies within which we live. Issues of consumerism, concepts of government, ideas about the role of the individual verses the state or community, all influence the institution that is Rotary. Is the very idea of a “Service” club anachronistic in America’s current political environment?
As we strive to maintain, let alone grow our membership, this is a question we simply are not addressing. Until we do all the promotion and all the “asking” isn’t going to grow the organization. Even though there are darkening clouds of ever more extreme right lurching movements, there is considerable evidence that more people are cognizant of a need for a return to a more balanced society, one which is more open to a more progressive form of community service, one which is more congruent with the principles upon which Rotary is built.
It is time to admit we live “under the Influence” and build a membership campaign accordingly.