John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

The issue of climate change and the melting of the polar caps is everywhere at this moment in history. However, according to one former  Rotary International director Rotary also has its ice cap. Rather than being found at either end of Rotary’s linear structure, it is according to the director found in the middle of its structure or to use a quote from a comment on FaceBook the “Frozen middle”.

I can only conclude the past director was referring to leadership within Rotary Districts. Later this year I will mark the 10th anniversary of joining The Rotary Club of Dryden. Even though the District Governor changes on an annual basis, there is a core of individuals who were doing a job when I arrived and are still doing it today.  A significant number are past-district governors. Then too there are other portfolios which are still managed by non-district governors who are the same individuals who were doing the job when I arrived. I suspect it is this feature of Rotary to which the director was referring.

Now I am sure most incoming DG’s are happy that someone is in place to keep programs like Rotary Student Exchange or  Friendship exchanges going, however, over time, it has a built-in mechanism to stifle change. New committee members soon learn that new ideas go nowhere because it is not the way “we have always done it.”

At the same time, because former District Governors are known entities with proven track records and likely a friend of the active DG, it is they who are approached to take on new or serious portfolios such as grants or a significant fundraising initiative.

So how does Rotary melt this iceberg in the middle of its ocean?

I think three principles are involved: diversify, break down barriers and innovate. Each principle interrelates with the other, and none can happen without the other.

Diversity

As things stand now, in Rotary responsibility is built on a hierarchy of experience. One place I believe would benefit from diversity is the appointees to the Council of Legislation (COL). Now that it is to become an annual event (something I advocated in 2017), although I have no data, I would speculate that by far the majority of representatives to that gathering are past District Governors.  How can we expect innovations and the demise of barriers if these are the same individuals who come from the “frozen middle”.

We need to make it possible to create a body that has a wide range of ages. All decades from the twenties to the seventies need representation. Those individuals should also possess a wide range of years of service: under five, between 5  and 15 and over 15 would be a good start. Similarly, we should strive for a wide range of experiences. Inexperience can be an asset, not a liability. Too much experience can be a liability, not an asset. Women also need to, at the very minimum, be proportional to their numbers in Rotary International. When innovative ideas make it to the floor of a COL, with that degree of diversity in its member make-up, it may be possible to accelerate change in a direction that better represents the thinking of the next generation.

Another area where greater diversity is needed is a “term in office.” Some need to lengthen; others need to be subscribed. For example, the representative to COL should be limited to one three year term. On the other hand, changing DG’s every year is a disaster if RI truly wants to melt the iceberg in its middle. Lacking any real authority, a DG needs time to identify and then persuade new younger members to take on District responsibility all the while encouraging the old guard to hand over the reins to others for the good of the organisation. The lack of continuity year to year is a sure way to keep the frozen middle frozen. At the very least Rotary needs to set the District free to innovate and be flexible too.

Break Down Barriers

For the above scenario to happen, we have to eliminate the rules which currently govern our structure. I have written about this in the past, especially in the piece “Its Time for a More Democratic Rotary.”.

The rules under which we currently structure the organisation ensure that people with young fresh and unusual ideas are forced to wait and climb each rung of the ladder in the same systematic process across the globe with no deviation at a pace only a tortoise would find appealing. Is it any wonder that retention is a problem? Do we know or care if our youngest, brightest and most unorthodox are those most likely to leave?

If we continue to fear risk, we will not grow. Democratic countries often risk far more than Rotary ever does. They frequently elect young leaders, with minimum experience who grow into the job. Canada’s Justin Trudeau is a good example as was Stephen Harper before him. In the USA both Barak Obama and Donald Trump were for all intense and purposes fliers on the part of the electorate. Each in its way was a rebellion by its citizens against the “frozen middle”.

Similarly, corporations which cannot tolerate risk, are left behind by those who innovate and adapt or create new technologies.  Those companies so trapped or frozen are doomed to die the slow death of bankruptcy.

The incrementalism of the past thirty years simply has not worked. As our General Secretary John Hewko so eloquently told our 2019-2020 District Governor-elects at this year’s International Assembly “Innovation and Flexibility” have to become our bywords.

Innovation

Recent innovations in membership and club types bode well for the future. It is not so much the actual changes themselves but in the underlying message that the rules are discarded and that clubs driven by individuals are free to experiment with still newer and even more innovative forms. To borrow a term from the late sixties and the revolution instituted by Pope John XXIII in the Catholic Church, Rotary may have initiated its “aggiornamento” or “bringing up-to-date to meet its current needs”. To paraphrase the great phrase of John XXIII, have we finally, “Throw(n) open the windows of (Rotary) and let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through?”

The two decades that followed set off a flowering of ideas at the bottom, but it never dislodged the “frozen middle” of the Church, and eventually, they reasserted control. Those same forces exist within Rotary. If Rotary is to thrive throughout the remainder of this Century, it has to continue to thaw out the frozen middle until it has melted away. Let’s call it, creating the “River of Hope”.