Until you become a Rotarian, you may never truly understand and appreciate the guiding philosophy of Rotary and what it stands for. This explains why frequently asked questions include: What is Rotary? Who are Rotarians? How can I become a member? Is Rotary an exclusive club of rich people? What do I stand to gain when I join Rotary? Over the years, these questions and many others have created mixed messages and enduring myths which continue to affect Rotary’s brand image.
Rotary is an international organisation of service and fellowship; it is non-political and non-religious but membership is open to everyone. Rotary started with the vision of one man, Paul P. Harris, a Chicago attorney, when he formed the Rotary Club of Chicago – the world’s first service club — on February 23, 1905. Harris and three friends — Gustavus Loehr, Silvester Schiele and Hiram E. Shorey — met in Loehr’s office on that historic day in Chicago, USA, for what would become known as the first Rotary club meeting. Initially, the vision was for professionals with diverse backgrounds to exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendship but over time, Rotary evolved into humanitarian service. The only thing that is constant in life is change, so Rotary keeps evolving and adapting to changes taking place in the world.
Are you already wondering if I am a Rotarian? Yes, you guessed right; I’m a Rotarian. I joined the Rotary Club of Lagos during the 2011-2012 Rotary year. As global citizens, Rotarians do not discriminate on the basis of colour, race, religion, creed, region or status in society; we are happy working together promoting peace, goodwill and friendship around the world. Rotarians are worried about conflicts and the underlying causes, as you would find out at Rotary International website (www.rotary.org), include poverty, inequality, ethnic tension, lack of access to education and unequal distribution of resources.
Rotarians also abhor domestic violence in any form and we take a step further to foster understanding among communities by training them on how to resolve conflicts. We equip them with economic management and conflict resolution skills. This process cascades down to Interactors and Rotaractors – they are also taught how to resolve conflict at a young age. For example, Interactors are taught how to carry out anti-bullying campaigns in secondary schools to raise awareness on resolving conflict. Interact clubs focus on international service for youths 12 – 18 years old while Rotaract clubs are for youths 18 – 30 years old. Interact and Rotaract clubs are youth organisations created by Rotary International in secondary schools and tertiary institutions respectively so that they can learn basic skills that would help them succeed in life.
Information also available at Rotary International website indicates that each year, Rotary awards up to 130 fully funded peace fellowships for dedicated leaders with work experience in peace and development from around the world to study at Rotary peace centres. Since the programme started in 2002, the Rotary Peace Centres have trained more than 1,300 fellows who now work in more than 115 countries. Many serve as leaders in government, NGOs, the military, education, law enforcement and international organisations like the United Nations and World Bank. The Rotary Foundation gives up to 50 fellowship awards for master’s degree and 80 for certificate studies at premier universities.
The guiding philosophy in Rotary is that the world can become a better place when Rotarians take action in their communities to create lasting change. The core values of Rotary are: service, fellowship, diversity, integrity and leadership. Rotarians express their commitment to these values through the “Object of Rotary”, the “Four-Way Test” and the “Avenues of Service”. The Four-Way Test is a strong pillar of Rotary, and it is an important test used by Rotarians worldwide to serve as a moral code for personal and business relationships in the things we think, say or do. This test refers to Truth, Fairness, Goodwill and Friendship.
Another important principle is Rotary’s motto, “Service above Self”, which Rotarians activate through the five avenues of service: club service, vocational service, community service, international service and youth service. Rotary clubs serve communities selflessly around the world based on a needs assessment for each community and Rotarians respond to those needs by executing a range of sustainable projects in six areas of focus: basic education and literacy, maternity and child health, disease prevention and treatment, water and sanitation, economic and community development, and peace and conflict prevention/resolution. A new area of focus — supporting the environment — has just been added by Rotary International.
There are more than 35,000 clubs clustered in about 535 Districts in over 200 countries and geographical areas. These Districts are organised into 34 Zones and Nigeria has four Districts under Africa Zone 22 with over 35,000 Rotarians. The Districts in Nigeria are 9110 (Lagos and Ogun states); 9141 (South South states); 9125 (Abuja, Northern and all the South West states except Lagos and Ogun states) and 9142 (South East sates). Each District has a “District Governor” who superintends over Rotary clubs in the District while clubs have “Presidents”. Rotary clubs are largely autonomous but club presidents work with their District Governors seamlessly for the work of Rotary to be meaningful and impactful.
Rotarians form a global network of 1.2 million business and professional leaders, all volunteering their time and talents to serve in their communities and the world. Nigeria has had the distinction of producing the first and only African till date to serve as Rotary International (RI) President. He is Jonathan Majiyagbe and he was RI President in the 2003-2004 Rotary year — 17 years ago.
The other African who was set to become the second African RI President (for the 2018-2019 Rotary year) was Sam Owori from Uganda. After giving his acceptance speech as President elect at the Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, USA three years ago, Rotarian Owori died of complications arising from a surgical operation in the United States shortly after the convention. Rotarians gather every year for global fellowships at Rotary International Conventions. After the 2017 convention in Atlanta, Toronto, Canada hosted in 2018; Hamburg, Germany hosted last year but the 2020 in-person convention that was planned to hold in Honolulu, Hawaii, from June 6 – 10, 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, a virtual convention held last month that attracted 60,000 registrants and 175,000 viewers. The next convention will hold in Taipei, Taiwan from June 12 – 16, 2021. RI President, Holger Knaack – he was RI President elect last month when the virtual convention held but assumed office as President from July 1, 2020 – said clubs must continue to respond and innovate during these uncertain times.
“Let us seize this moment and value it for what it is, the opportunity for Rotary to build on what we’ve learned, to embrace this new reality, to embrace new faces, to find new and better ways to shine and to have a continuing impact on the world,” Knaack stated at the virtual convention. Mark Maloney is the immediate past RI president and host of the convention; his tenure ended on June 30. Officially, the Rotary year runs from July 1 – June 30 the following year; the tenure for club presidents, district governors and RI presidents lasts for one year only – second term is not allowed except circumstances dictate otherwise. Indeed, there’s so much the political leadership can learn from the succession planning format in Rotary – it is always seamless and thoughtful.
Rotarians are essentially volunteers who are willing to offer selfless service in different communities to meet their needs. You become a Rotarian when you are invited by an existing member to join a Rotary club. First, the member inviting you will discuss your interest in Rotary. Second, you should attend a club meeting to know the club and be formally introduced to its members.
You could also witness a social event or serve as a volunteer for a service project. Membership in Rotary makes one a better community citizen and through volunteering, you will be able to imbibe the spirit and essence of Rotary. Rotarians wear their Rotary pins – an emblem of Rotary International — with pride wherever they go. Being a Rotarian is actually an honour and priviledge but every priviledge, as we say in Rotary, comes with corresponding obligations which includes regular attendance at meetings – it is the basic method of fulfilling the principle of fellowship as well as a way of representing your vocation. We also have honorary members who share the values of Rotary – these people would have earned the distinction of meritorious service in previous or current roles. Some of them are actually worthy friends of Rotary because of their service to humanity.
In Rotary, there are multiple travel opportunities where you get the chance to meet Rotarians in other parts of the world. Rotarians are happy to serve humanity because the joy of touching lives without expecting any reward knows no bounds. Rotarians win together; help each other and collectively help others. In addition, Rotary develops your leadership, speaking, social, business and vocational skills as well as improving cultural awareness. The icing on the cake is that you can tap into a global professional and business network to expand your reach and connections.
When you join a Rotary club, you are required to serve in different committees and engage with members. The good thing in Rotary is that membership is diverse but there are certain values such as speaking the truth; promoting fairness and upholding high ethical standards that must be adhered to. New members are mentored by older Rotarians who have gone through different leadership positions up to serving as club presidents. Each club holds a monthly board meeting and because Rotarians learn from each other’s diverse experiences, board meetings may be rotated to enhance the experience further and promote the spirit of friendship.
Beyond club responsibilities, Rotarians can also serve in different roles at the District level upon approval by the District Governor. Rotary recognises and rewards outstanding performance. For example, at the club level, the highest honour a club president can receive from Rotary International after meeting specific goals and targets is a presidential citation with platinum distinction. District Governors at the end of their tenures also recognise clubs that were outstanding with awards.
Rotary encourages constant learning for members before they assume office. – it is like taking mandatory courses in a university before you can graduate. The training programmes are compulsory for club officers who attend the District Training Assembly (DTA); club presidents attend Presidents Elect Training Seminar (PETS) while District officers attend District Team Training Seminar (DTTS). There are also different training modules organised for Rotarians by each District to improve their leadership skills. Certificates of participation are presented at the end of each training programme.
Two years ago, I attended the historic Lagos Rotary Institute for Zone 20A (as it was then known) which held from September 11 -15, 2018 at Eko Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. Nigeria was hosting the event for the first time and former Director and Rotary International Vice President, Yinka Babalola of the Rotary Club of Trans Amadi, Port Harcourt (District 9141), was the convener while Vice President Yemi Osinbajo declared the Institute open.
Some of the leadership lessons I took from the Institute were from presentations made by Prof Olanrewaju Fagbohun, Vice Chancellor, Lagos State University (LASU) and Rotarian Hisham El Bakry, a past president of the Rotary Club of Kasr El Nile (District 2451, Egypt), which I captured in my column in Issue No 11 of September 19, 2018 of The Lagos Rotarian, the weekly bulletin of the Rotary Club of Lagos, when I was the 58th President.
Prof Fagbohun explained that “inspirational leadership” was an important requirement for effective governance which will ultimately build strong institutions otherwise, the outcome would be “monumental poverty”. In addition, the LASU vice chancellor said leaders experience challenges but in order to avoid what he called “echoes of crisis of humanity”, a common sight in developing countries, leaders must be fair and transparent in their actions and decisions to succeed.
Rotary leadership training programmes are designed to help Rotarians succeed in life and their businesses. According to Prof Fagbohun, leaders are expected to motivate others to move with passion towards a common goal. In his presentation, Rotarian El Bakry encouraged distinctive contribution by team members. He explained the “Whole Person” paradigm, a concept developed by Franklin Covey, a world leader in consulting and training, which describes the four parts of human nature as the “body, mind, heart and spirit”.
Leadership is not about “control” any more, El Bakry told an attentive audience. Instead, a leader should unleash the “whole person” comprising the four human conditions. For example, a leader should not see his/her employees as “subordinates” but as “volunteers and partners”. El Bakry concluded his presentation with this message: “Without character and competence, leaders cannot be credible and trusted”. In Rotary, we build great leaders and when they get the chance to serve in public office, they usually make a difference.
We also build and mentor future leaders through youth programmes. In the Issue No 10 of September 12, 2018 of The Lagos Rotarian, I made the following observation on building future leaders in my column: “In today’s world, there are numerous sources of distractions for our youths. So it is fitting that “Youth Service” is one of Rotary International’s five avenues of service. In building a global community of Rotary volunteers, Rotary has a long history of working with young people – from providing scholarships, encouraging youth leadership and exchange programmes to sponsoring youth based service clubs.” Under Rotary Youth Exchange programmes, students learn new language, discover another culture and truly become global citizens. These exchanges, according to Rotary International, are for students ages 15 – 19 sponsored by Rotary clubs in more than 100 countries.
These youth clubs work side by side with Rotarians to take action through service. Rotaractors exchange ideas with leaders in the community; develop leadership and professional skills and have fun through service in communities worldwide. Rotaract is one of the largest youth organisations in the world with about 175,000 members in 7,500 clubs in 156 countries in the world. The Rotary Youth and Leadership Awards (RYLA) are also designed as a training programme for young people aged 14 – 25 years old. RYLA emphasises leadership and citizenship development aimed at grooming future leaders. In District 9110, RYLA holds every year at the Sea School, Apapa with over 500 participants sponsored by Rotary clubs. Having been certified fit by a team of doctors, participants embark on endurance tests and take part in Man-O-War training, talent hunt, swimming and diving lessons as well as motivational lectures spanning over one week.
The arm of Rotary International responsible for transforming your “gifts” into service projects around the world is the Rotary Foundation. The Foundation was created in 1917 by Rotary’s International’s sixth President, Arch C. Klumph, as an endowment fund for Rotary “to do good in the world”. Since it was founded more than 100 years ago, the Foundation has spent more than $4 billion on life changing sustainable projects. With your donation, Rotarians can make lives better in your community and around the world.
In terms of giving and doing good, Rotary has been working hard for more than 30 years to kick out polio from the world. Polio or poliomyelitis is a crippling virus and deadly infectious disease, causing paralysis and it mostly affects children under the age of five. The virus spreads from person to person through contaminated water or food and it can attack the nervous system.
Rotary is a leading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; World Health Organisation (WHO); US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF, the success rate of the “End Polio Now” global campaign has been phenomenal. At 99.9%, this is a fantastic scorecard by any standard since the first vaccination of children began in 1999 in the Philippines. Until recently, only three countries of the world still had polio – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. However, the good news is that Nigeria is now off the endemic list leaving only Pakistan and Afghanistan. WHO recently certified Nigeria polio free because polio is no longer endemic in the country.
Rotary has immunised more than 2.5 billion children in 122 countries with a contribution of more than $1.8 billion towards the eradication of polio. Even if the world becomes polio free today, Rotary will not stop fighting polio because if that happens, within 10 years, as many as 200,000 children would be paralysed each year and that would be a monumental tragedy.
–Braimah is a Rotarian and Past President of the Rotary Club of Lagos, District 9110. He works as a PR and marketing strategist in Lagos.