Part I of 2

There are two “i”s in Rotary. What don’t you see them? You will if you look at the word “international”. The word international made them visible, but they were already there when Rotary began as a club.

The two “I”s are the I of imagination and the I of imitation. Sometimes the “I”s work in concert and occasionally in conflict.

When Paul Harris and his three friends met, they were trying to imagine a better Chicago. Harris imagined a big city could be like a small town, based on communitarian values and it being America in the early 20th Century those values had their foundation in Christianity.

Rotary grew because others liked what they saw and they wanted to imitate what Harris initiated. It wasn’t long before the neighbour nation to the north wanted in and so the Chicago of the North as it was known then, Winnipeg formed a club, followed almost immediately by London, England and those “I”s in International became visible.

For the next 75 years, even though Rotary grew internationally, imagining projects and putting “Service Above Self,” occurred at the club level. One of the most visible manifestations of imitation is the idea of a Rotary Park. Fort-Worth-Rotary-Park-c1936-200pxPerhaps the idea of a Rotary Park was first conceived by a member of the Rotary Club of Fort Worth. In 1912 they donated $1000 to create a park at the corner of  W. Seventh and Summit and named it Rotary Park. Today I am astonished at the number of communities including my own, which have a Rotary Park.


According to Rotarian Cliff Dochterman, before 1978 “Rotary had never undertaken a corporate or worldwide project.” In that year, however, R. I. President Clem Renouf, wanted to set Rotary on a new direction. He formed a committee and called for proposals. The one chosen came from Dr Benny Santos in the Philippines who wrote that “if Rotary could provide the vaccine, they would mobilise all the Rotarians in the entire Philippines and immunise all the children.” In 1985 this became Polio Plus. Back then the goal of eradication was pegged at 2005. We are indeed “This Close”, and now we can imagine the end of Polio.

Our imagination has now taken flight, and we can imagine a World:

  • without poverty,
  • without hunger,
  • with clean, safe drinking water,
  • where everyone is literate, and all children can attend school,
  • where everyone gets health care and last but not least
  • where we are all at peace.

This year R.I. President  Riseley’s Peace Conferences have imagined both peace and the environment as integrating forces across all six areas of focus. The series will culminate with the Rotary Peace Building Summit (June 22-23, 2018) in Toronto just before the 2018 RI convention.

As Rotary International broadened our imaginations and concentrated our focus, it restructured how we would accomplish projects on a global scale. It did this by restructuring The Rotary Foundation and the way it would approve Grants. The result is clubs now imitate each other not only with local projects but also multi-national projects.

None of this has occurred without controversy. The transition has been largely successful and is for the most part, now complete.

There is, however, one aspect that is a scaffold over and above this new structure. Jean Polak summarises it nicely; “As I have commented before, I am well aware how important it is for our organisation to be able to say we are not partisans of any political stripe. That fact alone makes Rotarians welcome in many places where other well-intentioned service providers are not.”

Of the six area of focus, Peace holds the greatest challenge to this traditional constraint yet Rotary has found a way to succeed and move beyond platitudes. It is this feature of Rotary within which I want to explore the concepts of Imagination and Imitation in Part 2.