by John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden

What words would you use to describe how change occurs in an organisation as large as Rotary International? Slowly? Quickly? With difficulty? Thoughtfully? Haphazardly? Or perhaps subversively?

Given our diversity,  you can find some members who can provide examples for each of those positions. But today, I want to dwell on what I think are some examples of rather subversive ways of bringing about change or at least stirring the Rotary International pot a little.

During the past couple of years, Rotary has made a couple of major announcements which caused considerable blow-back. The first was the redesign of the Rotary logo, a step taken after much study and announced with considerable fanfare. Traditionalists, however, resisted the change, particularly the blue band under the words Rotary International. To this day there are websites and clubs still using the pre-2013 design.

More recently, a negative reaction to Rotary’s ban on the use of its image on any activity involving armaments, such as a gun raffle seems not to have been anticipated by Rotary’s leaders until the emotional outcry from American second amendment fanatics forced it to make a hasty and unfortunate retreat.

How then should Rotary’s elected and administrative leadership respond to such reactionary stances from many of its members?

I would submit that they are responding in rather subversive ways. I would also submit that such a tactic is not necessarily bad or immoral but rather a practical necessity give our diversity of cultures and geography. As the “gun” advertising issue demonstrated Rotary’s leading donor and member country has an identity crisis which doesn’t make changing the International organisation’s practices or culture any easier.

As everyone knows, Rotary’s biggest crisis is its stagnant growth rate. Looking, however, at only the rate of growth hides an unpleasant reality. Rotary is growing exponentially in the developing world while contracting rapidly in the rich developed world. To solve this decline in the “western” big donor countries, Rotary has commissioned considerable research and has a good idea of the kinds of actions it needs to take to attract younger Rotarians in the most economically advantaged nations.

After the “new logo’s” release, I recall reading that Rotary was considering revising its Motto: “Service Above Self.”. Nothing has come of this. But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

Look carefully at Rotary’s website; it begins by pitching Rotary to a youthful audience. Studies of the Millenial’s attitudes and interests have informed Rotary that young people today are interested in action and results not the more intrinsic “Service Above Self.” So the site’s opening words are “People of Action”, overlaying a ten-second video showing five, 2-second clips of ways in which we act for a better world. Although I did not review every page, I did not find the motto “Service Above Self” on any page.

I suggest this is one subversive way of putting into play a “new” Rotary without disturbing the status quo.

Another way for a leader to prep members for change is to use tools at their disposal to deliver messages which they deem important but which many members may not find favourable to their way of thinking. Our 2017-2018 President Ian Riseley was bolder than previous presidents with this rather subversive form of communication during his tenure.

His first foray into a new field for Rotary was the six Presidential Conferences built around our six “Areas of Focus”. Riseley rather smartly linked “Environmental Sustainability” to our Peace area and in an earlier piece, I proclaimed a New Rotary was born. However, I do recall in response to the conference announcement there was grumbling from some quarters on LinkedIn, that the topic was too political and besides not everyone agreed that the “environment issue” was even real.

To demonstrate, how subtle but completely Rotary had conceptualised its move to “environmental sustainability”, I discovered that the commercial vendors at the Toronto conference had been invited to display their wares according to their low-level environmental impact. Pots and pans, beauty products and even an online banking system for emerging economies were some products on display.

For me, however, it was two plenary presentations which solidified how completely Riseley used the convention to send us a message about where we need to change. The first of these was his interview with the Honorable Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. The second presentation was a speech by Xavier Ramey, CEO of Justice Informed and a young Black from Chicago.

Helen Clark provided another opportunity to expand on the issue of Rotary’s need to consider the environment as a result of her work as administrator of the United Nations Development Program.  But, it also gave Riseley the opening to discuss gender equality, and the breaking of the glass ceiling as Clark was the first woman to be a member of a Parliamentary cabinet, and eventually to hold the position of Prime Minister in New Zealand. Twice he gave Clark the opportunity to draw parallels between Rotary and other traditionally dominant male institutions like the New Zealand Legislature and the United Nations and the need for them as Clark said: “to look like the body it represents and so that means women should be at the top.”  You would have had to be pretty dense to miss the message, that it was time for Rotary to elect a woman as its president because as Clark quoting Hillary Clinton said, “it was the smart thing to do”.

Here is an excerpt from the RI video of Helen Clark’s comments to Riseley as it relates to Rotary and Gender Equality.

Ramey’s presence was considerably more subtle than Clark’s.  He is Black, young, an activist, bold, progressive and a Rotarian from Chicago.  By his being on that stage, I have little doubt Riseley knew Ramey would symbolise how Rotary’s demographics in America do not correspond to the Nation’s demographics for people of colour. District Governor’s in their training know Rotary wants them to address that imbalance. I was impressed too with  Ramey’s description of the concepts of “probability and possibility” and how they interconnected with white privilege and the privilege of being a Rotarian.

Rotary International based stories are already using terms such as probability and possibility to describe and distinguish the uniqueness of their actions.

Rotary International is like a giant cruise liner trying to turn around in a small harbour. It requires a couple of tugboats to help move it away from the dock and turn it around. Being a Rotary leader, whether at the Club, District or International level often means providing a subversive tug or two, to get the good ship “Rotary” moving in the right direction.