Not-for-Profit Service Organization
Donations: $172 million (1998)
NAIC: 81341 Civic and Social Organizations
Rotary International is one of the largest not-for-profit service organizations in the world, with more than one million members actively participating in thousands of local clubs spread across 161 countries around the world. From its headquarters in Evans-ton, Illinois, Rotary International provides its members with the opportunity to address such issues as AIDS, homelessness, polio, lack of education, hunger, and other national and international problems. Rotary International Foundation contributes nearly $100 million every year toward humanitarian programs in which Rotary members participate and voluntarily raise funds. More than any other membership organization throughout the United States, the members of Rotary International have been able to claim that they put “Service Above Self.”
The founder of Rotary International, Paul Harris, grew up in the small town of Wallingford, Vermont, attended law school, traveled extensively after he graduated, and then journeyed in 1899 to the city of Chicago to establish a law practice of his own. Unfortunately, Harris found it difficult to find either clients or friends in the large metropolis, and he slowly began to realize that success in business went hand-in-hand with the ability to cultivate a network of the city’s social elite. As his law practice struggled to establish itself, Harris came upon the idea of forming a club whose members would be businessmen in much the same circumstance as his own. By meeting once a week to have lunch and develop a fellowship among themselves, Harris also intended for the men to trade or do business with each other, thereby forming both a social and a business network at the same time. The first meeting, held in 1905, was an immediate success and the Rotary Club, named because of the rotating meetings held from office to office of the members, was off to a grand beginning.
What was unique about the Rotary Club was that Paul Harris had modeled it, not on the organization and professionalism that one found at the highest levels of the corporate sector and in the boardrooms of the most successful firms in Chicago, but on the spirit and boosterism of small businessmen who banded together for the benefit of their community and for their individual gain. Harris’s ingenious adaptation of this spirit and boosterism that he found in small businessmen throughout Chicago was to argue that it was the common pursuit of one’s own individual benefit that ultimately served as a foundation for a community club. In keeping with this vision, the Rotary Club stressed a jaunty informality at its meetings, where members would loudly greet each other with backslapping familiarity and anyone who said “Mister” or “Sir” was fined immediately for breaking club rules.
Within a short time, however, members of the club who originally thought it beneficial to do business or trade within the membership began to chafe at the unremitting pressure to trade only with other members of the Rotary Club. When some members began to resign, and when other businessmen balked at joining the Chicago Rotary Club, Harris came up with a brilliant idea.
He de-emphasized the backslapping business networking of the club and began emphasizing the notion of public improvement as one of the main activities of membership. Thus the Chicago Rotary Club teamed up with the Chicago Association of Commerce to fund and arrange for construction of the first public toilets in the city’s burgeoning business district. By 1910, at the first annual Rotary national convention, Harris was able to persuade the majority of delegates to de-emphasize business dealings among the membership while at the same time wholeheartedly concentrating on a “spirit of fellowship.” When a Chicago Rotarian named Arthur Sheldon, who gave the banquet address at the first annual convention, ended his speech with the phrase, “he profits most who serves best,” the entire audience burst into roars of approval, and soon thereafter the phrase was voted the official slogan of the Rotary Club. From this time forward, Harris and his fellow Rotarians pursued programs that focused on community service and business ethics.
By 1910, Rotary was growing by leaps and bounds, with clubs organized in San Francisco, New York City, Boston, and the first international club established in Winnipeg, Canada. Soon, new clubs were operating in London, Dublin, Belfast, and Glasgow. The name was formally changed to “International Association of Rotary Clubs” in 1912, and one year later the organization embarked on its first full-scale relief effort, the collection of donations from all the clubs, both those based in the United States and those in other nations, to assist flood victims within the states of Indiana and Ohio, where flooding had left thousands of people hungry and without homes. With the advent of World War I in 1914 in Europe, Rotary Clubs throughout Ireland and England provided services to soldiers at home and at the front, including raising combat battalions, organizing special constabulary companies, and entertaining wounded soldiers. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Rotary Clubs across the country jumped into action by mobilizing school boys for farm work, organizing Liberty Loan drives, and implementing highly effective campaigns for food, books, and tobacco for use by those men who recently had entered army training camps.
Expansion, War, and Recovery: 1920s-50s
By the end of World War I in November 1918, Rotary had granted charter number 500 to the Rotary Club of Fremont, Nebraska, and by 1921 the organization counted more than 1,000 clubs worldwide. The following year, the organization changed its name from “International Association of Rotary Clubs” to “Rotary International.” Throughout the 1920s, Rotary continued raising money from clubs around the globe for disaster relief, including thousands of dollars donated to the Rotary Club of Tokyo for the destruction caused by a devastating earthquake. During the decade, expansion continued uninterrupted with new clubs starting in such diverse countries as Guatemala, Portugal, Sweden, Pakistan, Korea, Greece, and a host of others. By 1929, there were more than 3,000 chartered Rotary Clubs, with membership amounting to more than 100,000.
With the onset of the worldwide depression in the autumn of 1929, most national economies were severely affected. This economic effect was seen in the loss of nearly 20 Rotary Clubs, which disbanded because of lack of funding and the personal financial troubles of its respective members. Yet this loss was more than offset by the continued expansion of Rotary Clubs throughout the world, including new charters for clubs in Lebanon, Kenya, Siam, Algeria, Hong Kong, Iceland, Tunisia, the Fiji Islands, Syria, Venezuela, and The Netherlands. But storms on the horizon caused by the Nazi rise to power in Germany resulted in the disbanding of almost all of the Rotary Clubs in Germany and, later, in Austria and Italy. In contrast, the clubs throughout the United Kingdom braced themselves and organized for the coming onslaught of World War II. Rotary Clubs across Britain provided funds to take care of refugees from Eastern and Western Europe and for food parcels to be sent to Allied prisoners-of-war in Germany. Near the end of the war, Rotary Clubs in Sweden and Finland implemented projects to take care of thousands upon thousands of children orphaned by the hostilities during the international conflagration.
The postwar years was a time of unprecedented growth for Rotary International. The organization held its first international conference in 1948 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with members from all over the world in attendance. Rotary Clubs were established once again in Germany and Japan, as well as in other countries such as Tanganyika, Macao, and North Borneo. Thousands and thousands of food packages were sent to Rotar-ian families living in war-devastated areas, while Rotary International continued its tradition of raising money from clubs around the world to meet the needs of disadvantaged people. The first Rotary Foundation Fellowships, created in memory of founder Paul Harris, who died in 1947, were granted to 18 students for the 1947–48 school year. By the mid-1950s, total contributions to the Rotary Foundation exceeded $5 million, and Rotary’s membership in North America alone amounted to nearly 270,000 individuals. Rotary’s North American membership continued to increase slowly during the late 1950s and early 1960s, but Rotary International, like all service clubs in the United States, was about to experience a new era.
Change and Transition: The 1960s-90s
As the decade of the 1960s unfolded, club members throughout the United States began to observe the growing racial disturbances, student unrest, and political dissatisfaction with alarm, since these events were shattering the national consensus that Rotary Clubs had supported for such a lengthy period of time. In trying to renew the commitment to personal, nonpo-litical interaction, however, the deep divisions caused by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the shift in sexual morality, and a changing economy prevented Rotary Clubs in the United States from bridging both generational and cultural rifts. As a result of these trends, Rotary International began to emphasize and promote world community service more strongly. Rather than emphasizing home-town solutions to local problems, the Rotary membership began thinking of itself as world members and made a commitment to provide resources wherever it was most needed around the world.
The object of Rotary is to encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise and, in particular, to encourage and foster: 1. The development of acquaintance as an opportunity for service; 2. High ethical standards in business and professions; the recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations; and the dignifying by each Rotarian of his occupation as an opportunity to serve society; 3. The application of the ideal of service by every Rotarian to his personal, business and community life; 4. The advancement of international understanding, good will, and peace throughout a world fellowship of business and professional men united in the ideal of service.
During this period in its development, Rotary International slowly expanded its membership to include both African Americans and women. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, more and more African-Americans were allowed to join Rotary Clubs throughout the United States. Previous to the 1960s and 1970s, individual Rotarians had argued that the inclusion of African-Americans would disrupt the camaraderie of white businessmen. The admittance of women members in Rotary Clubs was delayed even longer. It was not until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that all-male service organizations had to accept women as members that Rotary International opened its doors. From that time onward, women have joined Rotary Clubs throughout the world and have been at the forefront of the organization’s efforts to provide necessary resources to disadvantaged people. By the mid-1990s, nearly 20 percent of the organization’s entire membership was composed of women. In 1996 Rotary International reported that the number of clubs with women presidents grew 50 percent during that year, amounting to more than 1,700 female presidents of local clubs within the organization.
The participation of women in Rotary International has resulted in clubs across the world giving more attention to and raising more funds for women’s issues, especially domestic violence, education for young girls and women in developing countries, and the need for basic health care for poor women and children around the globe. In fact, by the middle and late 1990s, Rotary International and its not-for-profit foundation were at the forefront of addressing many health care and educational issues, such as AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, polio vaccination and immunizations in Africa and Asia, and the lack of education provided most girls of primary school age in Latin America. With this kind of active intervention, Rotary International was able to attract 70,000 brand new members in fiscal 1996, an impressive number considering the organization was able to sign up barely more than 15,000 members the previous year.
At the end of fiscal 1998, Rotary International counted more than 29,000 clubs in 161 countries, with new Rotary Clubs springing up throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Block countries.
Rotary International had approximately 1.2 million members worldwide, and donations amounted to slightly more than $170 million by the end of fiscal 1998. If Rotary International can maintain its membership list and can continue to encourage the members of Rotary Clubs throughout the world that they can make a difference in the lives of people less fortunate than themselves, then Paul Harris’s idea of the businessman’s involvement in community affairs will be more successful than he ever envisioned.
- First Rotary meeting is held in Chicago.
- First national Rotary convention is held.
- The name Rotary International is adopted among the organizations more than 1,000 chapters worldwide.
- First international convention is held in Rio de Janeiro.
- Rotary headquarters moves to Evanston, Illinois.
- Organization’s focus broadens to include such global issues as poverty and hunger relief.
- U.S. Supreme Court rules that all male service organizations must accept women as members.
- Rotary International includes more than 29,000 clubs in 161 countries.
Charles, Jeffrey, Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions, Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Harriman, Jarvis, The Man from the Hills: A Biography of Leland Davidson Case, Oklahoma City, Okla.: Westerners International,1994.
Harris, Paul P., My Road to Rotary, Chicago, Ill.: A. Kroch, 1948.
——, This Rotarian Age, Chicago, Ill.: Rotary International, 1935.
Nicholl, David Shelley, The Golden Wheel: The Story of Rotary, 1905 to the Present, Plymouth, Mass.: MacDonald & Evans, 1984. Rotary International, 1955.
International Association of Rotary Clubs, 1998.
Wolf, Alan M., “Gearing Up for Growth, Rotary Woos Women, Targets Finances,” Crain’s Chicago Business, September 9, 1996,p. 26.
J. A. Cannon