by John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

For the past three decades, Rotary as an organisation has been imploding throughout most of the English speaking world. America, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand dominate this geographical space.

Growth throughout the Asian and African continents has masked the true extent of this implosion until now. In 2017, reality intervened when the USA lost two Zones and directors while Asia and Africa gained.

Rotary is not the only organisation facing this dilemma. Other service organisations and many Christian churches are wrestling with the same problem. None more so than the Roman Catholic Church, the last bastion of Imperial Monarchy.

Last July, Robert Mickens, an American Vaticanologist from Cleveland, Ohio wrote about this implosion and outlined four key sociological principles which Pope Francis is using to deconstruct the current organisational system while building a new foundation. I couldn’t help but notice how relevant those four sociological principles are for Rotary to consider.

  • Time is greater than space
  • Unity prevails over conflict
  • Realities are more important than ideas
  • The whole is greater than the parts.

Rotary’s crisis of membership is nowhere near that of the Catholic Church. However, the patterns are similar in their Geography, and even though the opposition to structural change is less intense, it is a significant factor.

It appears to me that Rotary ought to draw two important directions from these principles neither of which are currently on the table.

  • Open more space for dialogue and discussion involving all Rotarians
  • Build the foundation for a more decentralised system of governance

Increased Dialogue and Discussion for all Members

Although in principle Rotary is democratic, the reality is a closed system of competing elites. We need to find ways to:

  • Create forums for all voices from which action can flow. The discussion groups at My Rotary are a move in the right direction. They do not, however, go far enough.
  • Create electorial processes by which new and younger members can fast track through Rotary’s many layers.
  • Diversify the means by which groups of members can petition the Board of Directors and submit legislative proposals to the Council on Legislation.
  • Make the Council on Legislation an annual gathering of elected “senators” with three-year terms with whom all members can communicate.
  • Build the first e-Service organisation akin to the first e-Nation as Estonia is already on the way to implementing.

Decentralisation

All of the above liberalisation processes assume an organisation with a centralised structure. Rotary’s problem of membership and the nature of its actions in addressing the areas of focus and the concomitant distribution of grants are significantly different in different parts of the world. Hence we should:

  • Build on our experience with Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland (RIBI) by opening up space for Continental Conferences

One organisational arrangement of Continental Conferences might be North America including Mexico, South America & Central America, Europe including all of Russia, Australia & the Pacific Archipelagos and South-east Asia and its Archipelagos.

If the whole is really greater than the sum of its parts, then Rotary has much to gain from permitting creative and innovative solutions in order to be more closely aligned with the unique problems and cultures throughout its domain.

Conclusion

Although time is greater than space, something Rotary’s management has ably demonstrated, and we are clearly in it for the long run, we simply can not ignore the fact that over three decades we have not been able to reverse membership trends in our Anglophone nations.

Fortunately, a great strength of Rotary is its unity of purpose. This unity is something all areas, nationalities and cultures support.  During the past year, however,  small grumblings of discord occurred,  the most notable instance being the issue of a ban on Rotary’s association with weapons.

In closing, Rotary is facing the reality that it is a mature organisation with long traditions in a World embroiled in a technological revolution we cannot control nor stop. We have no option but to turn it to our advantage. Rotary grew and thrived through the industrial revolution of the 20th Century. We will only survive the 21st C if we adapt to the technological revolution underway.

Only time will tell!