Going Boom: The Changing and Challenging World of Rotary!

Earle-Newton-100pxBy Earle Newton, Rotary Club of Saskatoon North

Saskatoon is booming! Reports of top companies all over the Prairie Provinces reflect good times and optimism. There are new products, new processes and new markets worldwide. With a background in organizational development and a return to my home on the prairies, my question is, “Is Rotary also booming?” My quick response is “No!”

As I see it, Rotary is a complex organization. I’d even say it is organizationally challenged. Taken together this makes its growth and improvement very difficult to achieve.

Consider for a moment how a Rotary District or Club is different to a business. A business is profit driven with clear goals and a strategy for achieving them as its survival is by no means assured.

I see Rotary as more like a school system or a large hospital as they are pretty much assured of survival. Each work with no profit motive and often may have multiple unclear goals. This means success is difficult to see, let alone measure.

To further complicate matters, Rotary, is a volunteer organization. This has important ramifications because Rotary is working more and more with governments and large corporations. For example, in 2011 I was doing monitoring and evaluation of a Canadian Rotary Collaboration for International Development (CRCID) program in Africa. This  involved U.S. Aid which had 200 full time employees in the area, Coca Cola, Emery University and various Rotary groups including clubs in Canada and Saskatoon-Boom-300pxAfrica, CRCID, TRF, and Rotarians for Fighting Aids in Africa. There was no way that Rotary was able to keep up with organizational processes like communication, decision making and problem solving.

We are too slow as volunteers. Often we, may or may not get to a meeting.  Did we really have to we wait 3 years to finalize agreements for the program while partners are frustrated and children were dying of AIDS/HIV?

So what to do?

I have found it useful to think in terms of organizational health. The root word is organ.   Some organs such as hearts and kidneys are healthy and some are not. Leaders in organizational development over the last several decades have identified characteristics of healthy organizations and I have used some to provide a framework for taking a closer look at Rotary.

  1. Healthy organizations are in harmony with the external environment. Rotary’s proud history over 100 years indicates that, in large measure, it has been in harmony. A big change in this regard was the admission of women to membership. Additional challenges are the inclusion of First Nations, immigrants and CEO’s. Last spring PDG, Tanya Wolff, stated in Rotary Canada that the future of Rotary lives in Facebook – how are we doing there?
  2. Strong informal relations are also an indicator of health. My experience in Rotary is that we do enjoy one another’s company and support one another in various ways. But in some Clubs are we more impressed with who we are than with what we do?
  3. Strong organizations are focused. They know what they do and what they do not do. Rotary International appears to have focus, for example, on Polio Plus and on “Peace Through Service”. Some clubs are very focused on local projects. Others however, appear to jump from project to project depending on what comes to them rather than being proactive and having a signature project; that is a project to which they have a long term commitment and of which they can be justifiably proud.
  4. Another indicator of health is a balance between stability and change. It has been interesting to watch Rotary become more flexible regarding attendance. I have heard that some Rotarians were about to resign without more flexibility while some others are ready to do likewise with more flexibility. Certainly this is an interesting challenge for leaders!
  5. Internal processes like communication, decision making and problem solving require not only skill but also some stability. Rotary Clubs in cities, for example, have a special challenge to problem solve when unhappy members can simply go to another Club. One solution is to not address the problem – have you seen this happen?

The test of leadership in Rotary is to address such organizational challenges through the process of strategic thinking/planning. “Strategy” is a military term implying that there are obstacles to overcome and strengths upon which to build. Many Clubs I know are into strategic thinking processes and that is where I see hope for the future of Rotary.

In my view, Rotary and its clubs need to make some fundamental changes ranging from the opportunities presented by social media to realizing that working with governments, corporations and celebrities is about more than providing large amounts of money. Our major role as Rotarians may be to provide the “human touch”. If we do not want to go down the track of Blockbuster video, we need to think long and hard about our changing and challenging world in Rotary.

The challenge is: can we make Rotary “Boom” like the Canadian prairies?

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About John Borst

John Borst’s career in education spans the years 1960 to 1996. During those 36 years, he spent an equal amount of time working int he English language, Public and Catholic school boards. Borst taught in both elementary and high school environments. Positions of responsibilities held included department head in Geography, curriculum coordinator of Social and Environmental Studies, Principal, Education Officer with the Ministry of Education, Superintendent of Schools, and Superintendent of Student Services. Borst retired in 1996 as Director of Education for the legacy Dryden Board of Education. During this time, Borst has lived in the Ontario communities of Brampton, Toronto, Newmarket, Thunder Bay, Aurora and Dryden. Currently, Borst splits his time between Dryden and Toronto. Since retirement, Borst has served as a Supervisory Officer with a remote School Authority; been a freelance writer of articles on education in particular for Education Today, the magazine of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA); founded and edited from 2006 - 2010 the Education blog Tomorrow’s Trust: A Review of Catholic Education; and from 2003-2010 was a trustee of the Northwest Catholic District School Board.
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One Response to Going Boom: The Changing and Challenging World of Rotary!

  1. Jim Thompson says:

    Great analysis. Thanks for sharing.

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