Editor’s Note: The following commentary is from a post at the Rotarians on the Internet (ROTI) Discussion Group
Past District Governor Doug Vincent posted on the ROTI message board an excellent piece describing the relationship between Rotary and the United Nations. The thrust of that report is that Rotary is currently in a state of transition from a large NGO of service clubs to a bigger organization on the world stage. I thank him for that report. It has explained much of why The Rotary Foundation has implemented its Future Vision Program and the change of emphasis it promotes. It has also solidified in my own mind an issue that has been festering there for a number of years, the fact that there are Two Rotary’s.
Now I don’t mean any disrespect to Doug or to any of our Rotary leaders; but yes, there are two Rotary’s. There is the top tier Rotary that Doug describes. This is the Rotary that is striving to be a more visible player on the world stage; a Rotary that is re-positioning itself so that it may be favorably compared to large philanthropic and governmentally funded organizations including the Gates Foundation, UN and WHO. Then there is the rank and file Rotary that consists of local clubs and individual Rotarians who do service above self though more hands on efforts. This is the Rotary that RIP Ron Burton promotes with his “Engage Rotary, Change Lives” theme, and it is the Rotary that he promotes in the video of him flipping pancakes at a local project. This is the Rotary that every Rotarian first experiences, and it is the Rotary to which the overwhelming majority of Rotarians currently belong (disclaimer, I have no personal experience with Rotary outside of the USA, so if this does not apply in your community, I will gladly stand corrected; but please consider that by our very presence in this discussion, all of us have extended our Rotary participation beyond the club level).
While every Rotarian experiences (and hopefully participates in) rank and file Rotary, very few rise into the top tier. The door is certainly open to any Rotarian who is willing to devote the time and effort to rise through the ranks. Nevertheless, only a small percentage serve beyond the club level, and a miniscule percentage of Rotarians serve beyond the district level. I submit that very few have the desire to do so. I have the utmost respect for those who do.
It is unclear whether the two Rotary’s can exist without each other. The top tier Rotary depends on the work of the pancake flippers, raffle ticket sellers, silent auction bidders, and local club leaders to raise the funds and awareness to enable its effort; but this may become less important if efforts to attract third party support are successful. The rank and file Rotary depends on Rotary leadership to provide inspiration, guidance, services and branding that enable local clubs to exist; but this may become less important as Rotary goals shift into areas that are beyond the reach of autonomously operating clubs. It seems to me that the two Rotary’s are slowly drifting apart.
Linking the two Rotary’s has been an ongoing effort for years, and it is most visible at the district level. District conferences and PETS meetings I have attended featured, without exception, significant presentations on the international aspect of Rotary and mission of The Rotary Foundation. GSE Teams are given prominent spots on the program, and Ambassadorial Scholars are often invited to speak (Please set aside the inconvenient fact that both of these programs have been phased out under Future Vision!). Each district conference features the RI President’s representative who speaks to the state of Rotary International, and the District Governor’s official club visit also works towards this end. These activities are important because without them there is no way that club level Rotarians can know about the good works of Rotary beyond the club level; and without that knowledge they have little incentive to do projects beyond their own community or contribute to The Rotary Foundation. Unfortunately, such efforts tend to utilize a one way channel of communication. While district leaders may hear about the problems and concerns of their local clubs, they often find it difficult to communicate these in a candid manner to the higher ups. To do so risks branding themselves as individuals who are not team players; the kiss of death for anyone who desires to move higher in the organization.
As Doug has reported, Rotary is currently in a state of transition from a large NGO of service clubs to a bigger organization on the world stage. This is certainly true for top tier Rotary, but has rank and file Rotary bought in to this notion? I submit the rank and file Rotarian is completely unaware that such a transition is in progress, and for those who do there is another set of issues. While some local Rotarians are in a position to advocate or otherwise participate in efforts to become a bigger organization on the world stage, most are not. Should the work they can do be marginalized? Can they be expected to embrace changes that adversely affect their own projects in favor of work that is far removed from their own personal experience, ability and interest? Should they be criticized if they fail to embrace such changes? Should they be demonized if they dare to express their opposition?
Fellow Rotarians, I have known for several years that there was something bothering me about the direction of Rotary. I have always recognized that Rotary has a management structure that has developed over the years, a structure that has served it well. I respect our Rotary leadership. As an assistant governor, I saw first-hand how more and more control was being exercised from Rotary headquarters. With the implementation of the new grant model, I have seen a further shift in that direction. Only now have I realized the true extent of how top tier Rotary is drifting away from the rank and file Rotary that I know and love. This saddens me.
In this post, I have spoken in general terms. If you are interested in specific problems that I and some of my friends have with the implementation of Future Vision and the transition it supports, I invite you to visit the Rotarians Matter Most website at <http://www.rotarians-matter.org/>.