The implications of exporting an idea like a service club

by John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

When I put on my jeans this morning, I noticed a tag which said “Made with American cotton”. That is something you do not see too often when it comes to clothes.

The role of manufacturing has changed drastically in America during the past 50 years with the advance of globalization, international trade agreements, just in time delivery systems and the maximization of investor returns as the driving force winning out over the concept of capitalism for the common good.

There is, however one dominant economic activity of the world where America still leads and excels over other national economies. This is the area of intellectual innovation.

I use that term because it includes innovation in the areas of technology, research and services.

In particular, I want to focus on one of America’s most important intellectual “service” creations, the concept of a volunteer service organization. Such organizations had their genesis in the first quarter of the 20th Century.  During the remainder of this most dynamic century in the history of humankind, the big three, Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis became one of America’s most significant exports.

The idea of voluntary service to the community was not knew, however, America changed it from a narrowly focused, sectarian, and often religiously focused activity into a nonsectarian, secular concept with the local community as its focus.

In 1985, Rotary even took the idea of community service one step further. It had the audacity to conceive of the World as one community. In retrospect, it was nothing short of a revolution in thought when it was decided to rid the World of the Polio virus.

By the final quarter of the 20th C, perhaps inspired by Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon and the creation of an international space station, Rotary’s  leaders were primed to take their “internationalism” to an entirely new level.

A lot like the fictional international crew of the Starship Enterprise, they set out on a voyage of discovery like no group of volunteers before them. In doing so, everything about Rotary has been altered, it’s mission, its organizational structure and to a large degree its relationship with its founding nation, America.

This last alteration of course was to be expected. As in any interstellar travel where voyages take 30 years or more the crew will not find the place they left the same upon their crafts return.

The PolioPlus campaign took Rotary from a loose worldwide network of local clubs doing local projects to a globalized institutional powerhouse much akin Goldman-Saks, IBM, Apple or Nike. This new Rotary International began, by building its foundation on raising money, enough money to immunize every child on the planet. When that wasn’t enough it sought out partners, big partners with big pockets such as governments and private philanthropic organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and that of the Aga Khan.

“Doing good in the World” took on a whole new meaning as did “Service Above Self”. Both grew to mean more than just building the local Rotary Park or funding an upgrade to the local hospital’s MRI machine. Now Rotarians openly discuss, a world where everyone has safe,  drinkable water, a world where every Earthling is functionally literate or a world without malaria.  No problem is too big to tackle.

The simultaneous introduction of women, and advances in the computerization of data gathering and networking introduced both new ideas and new organizational controls permitting an ever more centralized system of controls over such things as image, branding, promotion and networking.

The upshot was a truly international board of directors, one no longer dominated by Americans and one influenced by Women.

In the meantime America itself was changing. The post war years of economic growth, progressive social programs and civil rights activism was giving way to a consumerist society, built on libertarian capitalism, anti-unionism and an increasingly fear driven response to big government, all antithetical to the values espoused by Rotary.

Some American Rotarians, who accept and support these trends in America are now using social media to decry the new trends in Rotary. This has surfaced as a reactionary stance to such RI initiatives as the redesign of Rotary’s logo and the restrictions placed on where the brand can be used or not used. In the most recent issue, that of the introduction of Policy 2.100 RI has been described as out of touch with its clubs, of little value to clubs or more seriously intentionally creating policies which are not consistent with America’s values or rights.

At some point it was inevitable that Rotary would become truly international in its scope and begin to institute policies which reflect an international perspective of Rotary’s lofty goals. It is, after all, those made in America goals, which have stood the test of time.

Hopefully, it is only a vocal minority of American Rotarians who will need to accept that as Rotary’s demographic mix has changed America’s role too will have to change. I would hope that for the good of Rotary those Rotarians currently opposed to Policy 2.100, the changes in branding both in its design and execution and the growing influence of the RI Board of Directors will not cause a significant number of American to expect some sort of special exception to the rules or abandon RI, just because America may have a unique perspective on what for them is a political issue.

Rotary is now much like the cotton foundation of those new jeans. Americans can stand tall and proclaim it is a foundation built on their ideas of how citizens can take collective action to make their country and world a better place to live. It is also time, however, to accept that just as other nations can and do influence the design, manufacture and quality of jeans the same is now happening to our beloved organization.