Social Media and the Democratization of Rotary

by John Borst, Communications Director, District 5550

With the invention of the Internet, society is going through the most profound change in the history of humankind. It is a change even bigger than the one ushered in by the printing press.

Until the current era, leadership and change were in the hands of the few. This has been true of Rotary too. Although begun as a grassroots organization of local clubs, over time RI changed into an organizational pyramid based on a corporate industrial model.

Corporately, each member is a none entity. It is a club that has a vote. It is only the club which can present a petition, called a memorial, to the Board of Directors. Only a club through a District can put forth a resolution for the Council on Legislation.

This traditional model of governance creates a system of overlapping elites where fewer and fewer Rotarians gather more and more influence. It is however, a model under siege!

Just as the power wrought by technology associated with the Internet has toppled leaders throughout the “Middle East”, in a process dubbed the “Arab Spring”, we are beginning to see signs where the traditional forms of authority within Rotary are being challenged by individual Rotarians.

20131017-122645.jpgForums such as FaceBook, LinkedIn and Twitter, provide opportunities for individual Rotarians to express their support for or dissent to changes or rules under which Rotary is managed or governed . Before such high level forums, social discussion groups such as those provided at Yahoo Groups were created by Rotarians on the Internet (ROTI) and Rotarians on Social Network Fellowship (ROSNF).

Most often such forums provide an opportunity for Rotarians to exchange everything from idle chatter, to the promotion of local club initiatives and even matters of serious national or international concern to Rotary. Every once in a while, however, an issue emerges, usually born in dissent, which may cause a real problem for Rotary’s leaders. In 2012-13 the issue was the need for a Woman as President. This year the issue has been the elimination of RI grants for Group Study Exchange (GSE) and this fall, the new design and colors of the Rotary Logos.

These issues although briefly discussed at ROTI and ROSNF are occurring or have occurred outside of these official “fellowship” networks.

What you see are frustrated and often angry Rotarians. This is most in evidence at some of the Rotarian discussion forums at LinkedIn.

For some Rotary “central” is changing too much, too fast and losing sight of “real” Rotarians. Rotary’s leaders they believe, have forgotten the importance of the local club and that a “two Rotaries” model has emerged. On the other hand there are Rotarians such as those who want a female as president sooner rather than later, who feel that Rotary isn’t changing fast enough.

Such issues as those described above have resulted in new forms of engaging Rotary which generally fall outside of currently accepted norms of the organization. Whether it be creating dedicated websites to promote an issue, finding a club or clubs to support a petition (RI reply) written by an international team of Rotarians, or simply bombarding members of the Board of Directors with e-mails RI leadership must contend with these new “voices” within Rotary.

This is likely not quite what RI president Ron Burton had in mind when he created his 2013-2014 theme “Engage Rotary, Change Lives”. None-the-less we are likely seeing the start of a new form of engagement available to individual Rotarians, one that is grounded in the principles of democratization.

How Rotary responds to this growing grassroots “democratization” may forecast how it evolves or even survives the 21st Century.

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