Age: Can it be a Barrier to Leadership Opportunities in Rotary?

by John Borst, Communications Director, District 5550

I doubt very much when Rotary International finalized its “nomination process” in 1995 it ever imagined that it was establishing a system of governance which would inadvertently raise the average age of presidents while at the same time virtually guaranteeing that someone who joined Rotary late in life could ever attain a senior “elected” position.

The average age of presidents for the past two decades has climbed to 75 years of age and length of service to 35 years . This certainly is the antithesis of the first two decades of the organization where the average age of a president was just 45.

Senior-RotariansYet there is a more insidious and perhaps unfortunate side to Rotary’s rules of promotion. As they currently stand Rotary’s rules of succession are not sufficiently flexible to permit a person who joins at a senior age from ever moving through the ranks.

Let me first say right up front, this is also a personal story because I joined Rotary when I was 70 years of age. This doesn’t mean I want to attain positions of higher office, it just means I have become conscious of the barriers and want to share them. As a republican who believes all members should have an equal opportunity to serve at any level, I now see Rotary’s rules as unnecessarily restrictive, closed to opportunity and ultimately lacking in democratic principles.

Certainly the most accessible position, as it should be, is that of Club president. This is likely even more true of Clubs which are small or even large if in need of re-invigoration.  One can with a bit of luck, even in a dynamic club like my own, become a president in less than five years, something that happened to me because a vice-president’s life circumstances changed and I was asked to fill in the pending vacancy. So as it stands now, I will be president as I celebrate my 74th birthday in July 2013. As an aside, it will also give me the distinction of being the oldest president in the club’s 76 year history.

After that things get dicey. Should I have ambitions to become a District Governor, and I will put up front a past club president did ask me to consider it, the issue of age and the process really begin to collide.

As the rules now stand I could not even be considered until the year after which my year of presidency is complete. That would be 2015-16. In our District the District Governor Nominee Designate is announced in the late fall so the earliest I could be named DGND is November 2015. Theoretically then I could be a District Governor in 2017-18, which just happens to correspond with the seven years of minimum service required for the position.

But other barriers exist, not in legislation but in practice. When the past club-president inquired as to my eligibility, he learned that it was expected that a candidate would service three years as an Assistant Governor working with three or four clubs on behalf of the D.G. Clearly, should such criteria become mandatory then I’d be 81 rather than 78 as in the first scenario.

There is another, perhaps just as big, a cultural barrier. Rotary puts a great deal of stock in District Governors being portrayed with a spouse. In my case, my spouse passed away in July 2011. Frankly, I now see the lack of a spouse as a handicap. Perhaps, it isn’t on paper but I would not be the Rotary norm and that too is an increasingly likely component of age.

Life beyond District Governor becomes even more remote. It is literally impossible to comprehend why Rotary has a clause requiring a District Governor to wait three years after completing a term as District Governor before being eligible to be nominated to the R.I. Board of Directors. That would put a person in my circumstances even at the earliest point possible as 2022-2023 or at age 83. Granted the current Chair of the Rotary Foundation is in that age range but given the current route to such a lofty position a person starting off at 70 would be well into the 90’s before achieving such a position.

The point of all of this is that Rotary needs to do two things, not only for those like myself who become Rotarians late in life but because they need to do it because Rotary needs a much younger president if they ever hope to achieve a younger membership.

No doubt the thinking behind the years of service provision was to educate and train members for positions of responsibility. Today we live in an age of hyper-learning for those who wish to fast track to positions of responsibility.

In my case it was thrust upon me. Eleven months into my tenure as a Rotarian I was asked to redesign and reorganize the district website with its 5 years of accumulated site pages. After sixty hours of charting the relationship of all Rotary programs and then reordering all those pages into pull down menus I probably had a better grasp of Rotary’s many facets than many Rotarians who had spent the better part of a lifetime of service. Now with nearly two years of experience on the District Board, attendance at three consecutive PETS workshops as a presenter, three consecutive  Foundation workshops  and as the first Rotarian in the district to complete the Rotary Leadership Institute Certificate  I am still not as qualified to serve as District Governor as a past club-president with none of that experience.

The result is I have come to the conclusion I will not strive for a higher office than Club president, but will continue to serve Rotary as a niche writer of editorials to prod Rotary into reconsidering some of its now outdated policies. I cannot however, escape the conclusion that Rotary’s rules, as they now stand constitute ageism.

The bottom line is Rotary has many policies and practices which mitigate against woman, young members and new senior members from becoming participants on senior governing bodies in a timely manner. At the very least Rotary needs to review their written and unwritten rules and practices. It needs to build in alternative qualifications and routes which recognize modern opportunities for learning and experience. In other words members should for a variety of reasons be able to fast track their way to the top.

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