Few there are who do not recognize the good work which is done by Rotary clubs throughout the free world.

– Winston Churchill

Paul H. Harris had it all, in some ways. He was a respected, successful businessman, in a city bursting with opportunity.

But that wasn’t enough.

Harris had grown up in small-town New England. But after completing law school he had moved to Chicago, opening a legal practice there in 1896. Although he found Chicago’s brash “I will” spirit (as he described it) invigorating, he found that it could also be a lonely place.

He missed the simpler, quieter charms, personal connections and friendly camaraderie he had grown up with in the small towns of his youth. So he resolved to do something about it.

On February 23, 1905, he invited three of his business acquaintances to a very special dinner. It was to be the first meeting of a unique, non-denominational club for professional and businessmen based on increasing “friendship and fellowship”.

They decided to call it the “Rotary Club”, for the simple reason that the initial plan was for meetings to rotate among members’ offices. This idea was dropped within the first year as the club’s membership expanded, but the name remained.

The initial intent of the club was largely social: it provided a valuable opportunity for connection, conversation and fellowship among businesspeople.

But 2 years later, when Harris himself was elected as club president, he decided that serving club members’ interests wasn’t enough; there was so much more they could be doing.

At his suggestion, club members agreed to pool their resources and contribute their talents to help others.

With a new motto, “Service above self”, the club took on its first community project: the construction of public toilets for downtown Chicago.

This new focus on doing good works helped the Rotary concept to gain wider popularity. A major endowment was created to help fund projects and provide grants. New clubs sprang up in cities across the US, in Canada and even in Europe. The organization counted among its members presidents, prime ministers, respected artists and humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer.

By 1925, there were over 2000 branches and 108,000 members, on six different continents; and the organization had been renamed Rotary International.

The mission of Rotary International is to provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through its fellowship of business, professional, and community leaders

Rotary’s growth since then has been steady, despite some setbacks. During WWII and the Cold War, clubs in much of occupied central Europe were forced to disband for many years. The first Russian club, for example, had to wait until the fall of the Berlin wall before receiving its charter.

The organization has not been perfect. The one obvious huge blemish on the history of Rotary is that it took until the late 1980s until it admitted women! That is staggering. But today, hundreds of thousands of women worldwide serve Rotary up to the board level.

I guess “better late than never”. And that blemish does not overshadow the incredible good work the organization has done.


Today, over 1.2 million people belong to 34,000 Rotary clubs – in just about every country and region on Earth.

They have identified six areas of focus as priorities:

  • Peace and conflict prevention/resolution
  • Disease prevention and treatment
  • Water and sanitation
  • Maternal and child health
  • Basic education and literacy
  • Economic and community development

And the list of projects they support grows longer by the day. Here are just a few recent examples…

  • Rotary volunteers have brought medical care to over 9,000 people in remote Mexican villages.
  • A Florida chapter packaged up 1.3 million meals for local food banks.
  • In Austria, a local club raised thousands of euros to buy emergency medical equipment for the Red Cross.
  • A joint project between clubs in Kenya and the US has provided a remote Kenyan village with two desperately needed solar-powered irrigation pumps.
  • In Toronto, Rotary purchased two “Health buses” which serve as mobile medical clinics for people living on the fringes of society.
  • A club in Australia has raised over a million dollars, with a focus on helping rural students get access to medical training.

Everything they do is evaluated against “The 4-way Test”… a code of ethics which Rotary adopted in the 1940’s. The test asks four simple but crucial questions about any plan of action…

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

I think anyone would have trouble coming up with a better or more altruistic yardstick than that!

Besides its thousands of individual projects, Rotary has also taken on some huge, global challenges over the years. In 1985, for example, it launched PolioPlus… the most ambitious program in Rotary history, with an equally ambitious goal: the complete global eradication of polio.

As of 2011, this program has helped to immunize almost two billion children worldwide. It has also recently received $355 million in “Challenge grants” from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation (matched by another $200 million raised by Rotary volunteers), to continue its work.

Here’s another example: in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, in 2002 the Rotary Foundation created Rotary Centers for International Studies at eight universities around the world. Over 590 Peace Fellows have already graduated from the program, having earned a master’s degree in international relations, public administration, sustainable development, peace studies, conflict resolution, or a related field.

Today, those graduates are out there finding peaceful solutions to problems in communities around the world… settling border conflicts in West Africa, protecting exploited children in Brazil, and mediating neighborhood disputes in New York City.

So, what can we take from the story of Rotary International?

Our premise at The Mark of a Leader is that leadership is ultimately about helping others to be their best. That means putting others above self.

And that is the basic foundation of Rotary International.

As Paul Harris understood over 100 years ago when he invited some friends to dinner, when you get a lot of people working together and believing in service, anything is possible.

 

 

 

You can find out more about Rotary International at www.rotary.org.