At the zone institute in Bengaluru, in the session Frankly Speaking conducted as always by PRIP KR Ravindran, there were several googlies, as the moderator himself called them, pitched to senior RI leaders such as RI President Gordon McInally, RIPN Mario de Camargo, Trustee Larry Lunsford and RI director Raju Subramanian. At the session Ravindran asked President McInally why Rotary was yet to reach humanitarian aid in the Israel-Palestine conflict zone in Gaza. It had done so with great speed in Ukraine, he said.
President McInally clarified that Rotary was able to quickly step in and help Ukraine as that country has a “strong Rotary presence,” and infrastructure on the ground to facilitate the distribution of aid material was available. But this could not be done quickly where strong Rotary infrastructure on the ground was missing since there are no Rotary clubs in Gaza.
He added, “In the Middle East conflict, we all know that on Oct 6 there was a terrible incident that started the present conflict. On Oct 13 there was a joint meeting of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Directors, a group of about 34 people and that joint forum came out with a statement of fact based on what had happened on Oct 6 and the following seven days.”
There were different reactions to this statement from different sides. But what was important was that Rotary did want to step in with humanitarian aid in the worst affected areas where innocent civilians were suffering and was exploring ways to do this as soon as possible. “Overall, the call for Rotary clubs around the world is to do what we do best — take action as soon as we can,” he said.
The practices, and at times the intimidation, that go on are not fair. We have to show Rotary as a shining example of an organisation that has ethical standards.
– Gordon McInally, RI President
Trustee Larry Lunsford added that a couple of days before the inaugural of the institute, both he and TRF vice-chair Bharat Pandya had attended a TRF Board meet. One of the matters discussed was how TRF could extend some humanitarian aid in this crisis situation. “We noted that while this is not one of the new disasters of magnitude, and does not merit a specific disaster response from us, that does not mean that Rotary does not want to be a part of the humanitarian effort there. The trustees are working on this issue even as we speak here,” he added.
Discontinuation of the presidential theme
Interspersing the session with his characteristic humorous quips, Ravindran began the session saying he “wanted to ask simple questions like who started Rotary” but instead would ask questions, including the one on the “reasoning behind the RI Board’s decision to do away with the presidential theme.”
President Gordon said the Board had taken the decision to discontinue the presidential theme from 2025–26 onwards, but not the annual message. “We removed the responsibility from one individual to set the annual message, and believe me, having myself gone through the process, it is a big responsibility on one individual to set the annual message. When I was nominee I was told: ‘Remember it will be on your gravestone… it is such an important decision you are going to make.’”
So in the interest of both consistency and continuity, from 2025 onwards, the incoming president “will work with the strategic planning and communications committee to develop a message which will be consistent going forward.” The attempt was to move away from a particular year belonging to a particular individual. “For eg, this is not ‘my year’; during this year, I am simply moving Rotary forward and Stephanie (Urchick) will do the same next year and hand it over to Mario. In the future, the president nominee will work very closely with the team to develop an annual message which has focus on continuity.”
Diversity, equity inclusion
Ravindran next raised a query on the DEI mantra and said that even though in essence it included “race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc, we seem to be focusing only on women. What are we going to do to include the others? Also what are we going to do if we have an RI president who is gay?”
De Camargo’s response: “The largest company in the world, Apple, is worth $3 trillion and its CEO Tim Cook is gay. He wasn’t elected CEO of Apple because he was gay but because he was competent. That he turns out to be gay is absolutely nobody’s business. For the Apple shareholders what is important is Cook’s professional competence and skill. So if we ever have an RI president who happens to be gay, my question to him or her will be: How are you going to increase membership, raise funds for TRF and so on.”
He added that for the first time in RI’s history, his wife and he had decided to have a female aide for them. “She will be the first ever woman to be aide to an RI president. I chose her not because she was female but we decided she was the best person for that position.” Competent women do not need any quotas; “Rotary is slowly tending towards equality, and if you have competence, talent and skill, we will find you… woman, man, older, younger, black, white, Hindu or Christian. You may come from US, Brazil, Scotland, we are going to search for you.”
The next question addressed to RID Subramanian was that in many places the Rotary membership was being quoted as 1.4 million, including the 200,000-odd Rotaractors. Was this fair, to include those numbers and quote Rotary membership as 1.4 million? And those numbers were already down; after they had been asked to pay membership fee the Rotaract numbers had fallen from 209,000 to 130,000 or so.
Subramanian said he believed that after the CoL decision to make Rotaract a part of Rotary, it was acceptable “to add the Rotaract membership to Rotary membership but not group the two together. That will give a true picture of where the Rotary and Rotaract membership is.”
He added that the dilemma was also that institution-based Rotaractors drifted away once their education was over, whereas community-based Rotaractors tended to stay on. “Institution-based Rotaractors don’t generally get assimilated into community-based clubs. That is a loss we need to address.”
Rotary is slowly tending towards equality, and if you have competence, talent and skill, we will find you… woman, man, older, younger, black, white, Hindu or Christian, from US, Brazil or Scotland.
– Mario de Camargo, RI President-nominee
McInally raised a question mark on the accuracy of the number of Rotaractors that had been “lost” after we started charging them membership dues. He suspected that numbers were never accurate to begin with because without dues being charged there was never any way of ascertaining the correct number of Rotaractors.
Paul and Jean Harris Home
Ravindran then quizzed trustee Lunsford about the Board of Trustees turning down the request of a Taiwan club which wanted to make a donation towards the Paul Harris home, but through TRF, in order to get points for its members.
Lunsford replied that there was no question that all Rotarians had a lot of reverence for the Rotary founder and respected the “collective efforts around the Rotary world to maintain that home of Paul and Jean Harris as it was back in 1947 when they were living there.” A foundation called the Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation had been set up for this purpose.”
But there are complicated and different tax systems in the US and other countries for donations coming to such foundations. “So even though the trustees are interested in supporting such an effort (for the Paul Harris home), they don’t really see TRF as a conduit to give money to other foundations.” Some would argue that an exception should be made in this case, “but at the moment the Board has decided not to make that exception because this would create a precedent as there are many Rotary-affiliated charities both at the local, club, district and international levels.” So the trustees had decided to continue to look at TRF as “a set up to receive its own contributions and spend them in TRF programmes and not serve as a pass-through for other foundations.”
A similar query had now come from India too, and the matter will once again come up before the trustees at their next meeting, he added.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
Election blues in India
At the Frankly Speaking session moderated by PRIP K R Ravindran, RI President Gordon McInally was asked to comment on the “strong letter” he and RIPE Urchick had addressed to Indian Rotarians on election complaints, going to court etc. “I have a suggestion, why don’t we allow electioneering and canvassing just like Lions and other organisations,” said Ravindran.
McInally responded: “Rotary is above that; we are an ethical organisation and should behave in that manner. We did not select India as our target but we have to be honest and say that this does happen in this country. While Heather and I have seen the most wonderful projects being done in India by the most wonderful Rotarians in India, we also know that a cloud hangs over Rotary in India in the behaviour and practices of some of the leadership.”
He, along with Rotary’s future leadership, was “determined to make inroads into that by identifying that behaviour and calling it out. You cannot say that because we do such great work you have to tolerate such behaviour. Rotary is above that and better than that, probably everybody in this room is above and better than that. The practices, and at times the intimidation, that go on are not fair. We have to show Rotary as a shining example of an organisation that has ethical standards.”