by John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden ON

The recent re-zoning of Rotary has highlighted as nothing before the need to consider America’s place within Rotary.

I would argue that for its entire history American Rotarian’s have held a privileged place within the Rotary family of nations. Just the fact alone that Rotary as a service movement was founded by Americans is enough to give the organization special consideration. There are, however, more compelling reasons to do so in the not so distant future.

For those who are new to Rotary or simply haven’t paid attention to their existence Zones are the geopolitical entity by which Rotary determines the size and worldwide distribution of its board of governance.

There are 34 Zones spread across the Globe. Each zone is paired with another zone. This results in 17 pairs of Zones. And, more importantly, this is how the number of directors is determined for Rotary International’s Board of Directors. Although Zones have evolved to become an appointed body of volunteers who provide training and advice to district and club leaders, it’s primary function is to nominate the individual who will set on the Board to represent the District and Clubs within its geopolitical boundaries.

The drawing of a Zone’s boundary is a profoundly political act. It is based on just two fundamental factors, the number and distribution of individual Rotarians. The goal is to draw on a map, Zones of approximately the same number of members. The number is + or – 35,000. As a result, the boundaries of Nation-states are a minor consideration in the drawing of Rotary zones. Yet for practical and cultural reasons National boundaries are not entirely ignored.

All of this means that global shifts in the number and distribution of members are extremely important from a geopolitical perspective. To maintain an equality of members in each Zone requires that the boundaries be redrawn about every 10 years. This is what had been happening during 2016 so that this past January, the Board of Directors approved a new arrangement of Zones to take effect in 2020.

What this new arrangement revealed was just how drastic the decline in membership has been in North America and how dramatic the growth has been in South East Asia.  This was made concrete with the loss of 2 zones either all or primarily within the United States of America and the creation of two new zones, one in India and one in South Korea.

This also means that SouthEast Asia will see one more director from their region and the USA/Canada will see one less.

Unless North America can reverse its decline in membership, it is entirely possible that in another two decades Rotary will see a further consolidation of zones with its concomitant loss of a directorship. Projecting out farther than that is too unsettling to even contemplate but it is just such a scenario which we should try to imagine.

Should we as an International organization ever let the number of Rotarian’s from America on the Board fall to one? Should we even let it fall to two? Mathematically, when one contemplates the growth rate of Rotary in India with its population of over 1.2 billion and further still postulate a future replication in China along with Rotary’s current growth rate in the African continent then one is a distinct possibility, maybe even as early as 2075.

Options to maintain a strong American influence on Rotary.

  1. freeze American representation at four and add more representatives to the BoD as Asian and African growth expands. In effect, a net increase of 70,000 members results in the addition of two zones and one director.
  2. create a formula whereby the number of bodies is not the only demographic which is counted. Place into the formula a factor which represents giving to The Rotary Foundation. Such a formula would ideally exist on a sliding scale. The base would start off at one to one with no giving but climb to 2:1 for a hypothetical member who contributed $10,000 per annum for 10 years. The average could then be calculated for the current USA/Canada Zones and a factor between 0.1 and 10 could be determined and added to the base of one. Since American’s currently give at a rate higher than average it would maintain their numbers over a longer period of time while inspiring the rest of the world to reach the same plateau of giving.
  3. freeze American representation at three, while maintaining the status quo in terms of the number of Board members.
  4. implement either a and b or c and b at the same time.

There are likely other combinations and/or factors which could be considered but the above should get the discussion started.

Rotary has been well served by its American-centric philosophy and focus. As the rest of the World’s nations catch up to the economic status of the USA and grow Rotary at the same time, it is only logical that Rotary will change and the dynamic of it will change with it.

I would argue, however, that something precious would be lost if US Rotarians became just another nation among equals. I think we need to seriously consider conserving the historical roots of the on-going “Paul Harris” story.