Rotary, World Community Service, and the local community

Promoting international service projects in small communities, it’s time to take the risk!

April 3, 2011

By John Borst, Rotary Club of Dryden

When President-elect Kaylan Banerjee defined his “Reach Within to Embrace Humanity” theme and 2011-12 agenda he created two areas of focus:

  • Find more Rotarians to do the work of Rotary (and)
  • Tell the story of Rotary to the world.

As they say in politics, all politics is local. The same can be said about Rotary.

Rotary International does not get new members, Rotary clubs do. With modern technology RI can certainly create International public relations campaigns in a way it has not been able to do in the past, however, it is still first at the club level that Rotarians must tell their story.

I joined Rotary because my local club had done a good job of publicizing its donations to the local community. Contributions to the local hospital for a CT scan machine, a contribution to a first ever community performing arts centre and the development of “Rotary Park” were the big ticket items of which I was aware.

What I have come to understand since joining, however, is the extent to which international humanitarian service projects are equally important to the Rotarian experience.  This aspect of our work, I regret to say appears to get much less public exposure and not only in my own community of Dryden.

You can imagine how I felt, after having taken on the role of club chair of The Rotary Foundation, and while attending my very first training session when District TRF chair, Robert Fisher, told us, “If all your club is doing is raising funds for local projects, it’s little more than a social club.”

Since that October 2010 in-service, I’ve had more time to learn just how extensive is our international service record. Certainly, District 5550 is to be applauded for its leadership in the areas of the Ripple Effect Program in Guatemala; its support of ShelterBox, Canada especially during its period of reconstruction, and its Peace Partnership with the Canadian Human Rights Museum and four Manitoba universities. Rarely, however, does this part of the Rotary story get much mention at our community level even if the local club has contributed to the project.

I raise this issue because for the past month, the Rotary Club of Dryden stumbled into a precedent setting fund-raising project which put international service up-front and centre-stage.  The event was a dinner, billed as “An Evening to Support Literacy in Bangladesh”.

The goal was to raise $2,500.00 for the Canadian charity, The Amarok Society and their “Mothers of Intention” Literacy Project. As a member of the organizing committee, I do not think any of us had any appreciation for how novel it was to promote literacy in a remote country, one few even knew about, let alone cared about their illiterate mothers and children.

Our goal was 100 plates at $50.00 with an aimed for $25.00 for the charity as a tax deductable donation. We only reached half that total but we did something else. We placed on the registration form a check-marked line which said, “I regret that I cannot be there but I would like to make a contribution.”  This brought in an additional $725.00 or the charitable equivalent of 29 plates.

In terms of public-relations and promotions we did something else which was new. We entered into a formal partnership with District 35-Dryden of the Retired Teachers of Ontario to co-sponsor the event. Attendees were split approximately a third, Rotary, retired teachers, and community of neither group. Clearly, Rotary’s literacy project benefitted from the partnership.

That partnership also likely had a hand in ensuring that all three local media outlets, radio, newspaper and cable TV covered the event by interviewing the Munro family members who founded the program and were in attendance.

In 2011-12, President Eva Vida has established as one of our District wide goals, the creation of a new and more visible public relations and communications campaign through the creation of a new committee structure.

As we role this initiative out, if Dryden is any example, it is time we as small town or big city Rotary clubs stopped hiding our International projects under the proverbial barrel within our fund raising projects.

As Kaylan Banerjee says, we want more members. We know from the research young and old alike are looking to support international projects about which they can have a high level of trust and feel secure. Rotary International and local Rotary clubs provide those characteristics.

It is time for us to tell our full story and trust that our local community will understand. Like Dryden’s Rotarians, we may be presently surprised by the result.

John Borst joined the Rotary Club of Dryden in December 2009 and is its chair for The Rotary Foundation. In July he will become the Public Relations and Communications chair for District 5550.

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