In a session packed with punches and counterpunches, wit, hum-our, repartee, friendly banter and some hard talk as well, Past RI President K R Ravindran gave the delegates at the Chennai Institute their money’s worth.
In a repeat of last year’s KL Institute session, the second instalment of Frankly Speaking lived up to its star billing, opening to a packed hall. As is the norm at most Rotary events in India, the session was running late and the moderator Ravindran waved away the bouquet — mercifully he had also asked for the elimination of the AV introductions as everybody in the audience knew the participants — being offered to him saying: “Take away the flowers; I don’t need them!”
At the outset he said: “Here we’re trying to bring you an RI Boardroom environment and give you a feel of the kind of things that Board members discuss,” adding wryly, “We won’t have questions like when are we going to have a woman president, why not a Five-Way Test and others related to elections. We’ll have a dialogue on more mature, informative and philosophical issues…”
Throughout the session Ravindran kept pitching googlies, flippers and the odd bouncer to the participants — RI President Barry Rassin, PRIP Rajendra K Saboo and TRF Trustee Mike Webb — with the prelude… ‘this is a very simple question’!
Unfortunately, said Ravindran, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee was not able to make it this time and he would be missed.
Two major points that emerged from this dialogue pertained to an admission of the shortcomings in the organisation, articulated by none less than President Rassin himself. While answering a question on the need to bring in more flexibility in conducting meetings, the classification system etc, Rassin said forcefully, “I talk a lot about change, but the one thing I don’t think we should change are our five core values — fellowship, leadership, integrity, diversity and service. That’s who we are as an organisation. Diversity, I believe, is our weakest point; we are not diverse enough in age, gender, classification and race. So we need to really focus on diversity, and without being rigid, every club should represent all professions and different areas in our community. Then we will succeed in knowing what the real needs of that community are.”
Diversity, I believe, is our weakest point; we are not diverse enough in age, gender, classification and race.
— RI President Barry Rassin
Another “shortcoming” of Rotary was thrown up when Ravindran asked a pointed and blunt question on why awards to DGs are being based only on two criteria… “today our DGs seem to be recognised only on the strength of the money they collect for the Foundation and the members their clubs bring in, even though some of those members may be more comfortable to sit in a roadside garage somewhere.”
Agreeing with him, Rassin said that criteria such as public image, creating the right kind of leadership at the club-level, and service projects should be included in measuring governors’ performance. Ravindran intervened sharply to say: “But Mr President, even at this Institute we didn’t have anybody recognised on the basis of the humanitarian projects they did.”
To this PRIP Saboo expressed his concern that when the performance of DGs was measured only on the two criteria of TRF donations and membership, “this leads to malpractices. There must be some other way of measuring the performance of DGs, such as the hours they spend in the activities of the districts, how punctual they are in bringing out the monthly letters, etc.”
Agreeing, TRF Trustee Mike Webb said apart from the hours spent in service to the community, another measure of the DGs’ performance should be the amount or percentage of the DDF (district designated fund) they spend during their year, as also how seriously they engage with My Rotary, and the number of hours given in Rotary service to the community. “They need to use 100 per cent of the DDF amount in their year, because that money was given to be used, it’s not meant to be in the savings bank or to be left to your successor.” Also, the performance of the DGs should be measured in terms of member retention as it was “far more important to do that than get new members,” added Webb.
A barrage of ‘simple questions’
When Ravindran began the session saying he was addressing a “very simple question” to President Barry, the latter said, under his breath, “No question from you is ever simple, my friend!”
Ravindran outlined the preamble to his question thus: first “35 per cent of Rotary membership is now in Asia which includes India, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Philippines, and 23 per cent of TRF giving comes from Asia. Each year Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) predicts the largest economies in the world by 2050. The present top rankers, based on the size of their economies in terms of GDP, are US, Japan, Germany, France and UK.”
PWC’s projection for the top five economies by 2050 is: Japan at the fifth slot at $6.8 trillion; followed by Indonesia ($7.3T); India ($28.3T); US ($34T) and China at the top slot at $50T.
Governors need to use 100 per cent of the DDF amount in their year, because that money was given to be used, it’s not meant to be in your savings bank or to be left to your successor.
— TRF Trustee Mike Webb
Why then, he asked “don’t we move Evanston… our headquarters… to Asia?”
Amidst laughter and applause, Rassin responded: “Thank you for that simple question. We are a corporate entity functioning in over 200 countries of the world. If we only looked at Foundation giving and membership then you will have a valid point. But the reality is that when you are a corporate entity operating in so many countries you have to look at the best country which can handle operations in so many countries.” The other criteria were the availability of the best legal services, ease of moving funds from around the world to a central location, and the best tax base.
In a lighter vein, he added, “In fact the Bahamas would fit very well; there is no income tax, and there are laws that allow you to be very flexible with how your funds flow. Maybe the Bahamas is the best place to have our headquarters!”
Trustee Webb added that in an era of such technological advances it didn’t really matter where the Rotary headquarters was located. And moving the headquarters would have financial repercussions in terms of a “huge tax bill because of capital gains on disposing the property we own in Evanston.” Also, Rotary occupied only half of the building at Evanston, the other half was let out and those entities paid a “significant part of the overheads in running that building.” And, the tax benefits that Rotary gets under the Illinois State laws would disappear too.
PRIP Saboo suggested that just as multinationals have autonomous offices in different regions of the world, similarly the Rotary office in India “can have more autonomy rather than becoming just the post office of the headquarters. I see more autonomy coming in the years to come.”
Another problem, added Rassin, would be akin to what the Toastmasters International encountered when they shifted their headquarters from California to Colorado. This was done to save cost in taxes and other operations but what they didn’t factor in was that they “lost half of their staff in their move, and it took them a significant time to get back to where they started.”
Culture of giving
Ravindran then addressed Trustee Mike Webb, “When you look at the top 20 giving countries to the Foundation last year, with USA at $181million at the top slot and Belgium at $1million, only five European countries have made it to the top 20. This does not gel with the decidedly better standard of living in these western countries.” On the other hand, he added, there were several Asian countries in that list including India (in the second position, having contributed over $19 million).”
Why can’t the European countries with robust economies give more, he asked.
Trustee Webb responded that part of the reason was totally different cultures and different types of tax breaks for donations to charities in different countries. “I’ve made a number of trips to India and Africa; here people can see for themselves what is being done with the money they donate and what difference it is making to the community. Borewells, hospital equipment and the rest that grants do.” In the UK, for example, Rotarians did many global grants with clubs and districts around the world “but unless you make a personal trip you never get to see the results of what your money is doing. And clubs say: ‘Oh, we’re putting more money into the Foundation?’ So linking the GDP to the quantum of giving might not really work!”
Saboo, agreeing with Ravindran, suggested another factor to remember, which was being the purchasing power. “What we are giving is much more compared to the developed countries. We are proud of the fact that we have now become a net giver and are no longer a receiving country. I do hope our friends from Europe will follow our example.”
But this was not to say that there was no generosity among individual Rotarians in Europe, he added, and related a story of how a couple of years ago “I asked a Rotarian friend in Germany to donate $100,000 for Polio and he said, ok, I will give the money but on two conditions. One, stop pestering me to contest for the DG’s post, and my name should not come anywhere. These are cultural differences.”
Not changing fast enough
Ravindran’s preamble to the next question was that over the last 20 years, technology giants such as Google, Apple and Amazon had come to dominance through the digital marketplace. “In such a scenario is Rotary still stuck in the Paul Harris days?” Saboo said while this might be true, “Rotary will always be relevant with its values”, and gave the example of Japan and South Korea. Both are technology giants and yet “have retained their own culture and traditions.”
Webb responded that he did find Rotary “stuck in Paul Harris days.” He said at one of the Institute tea-breaks an Indian Rotarian had told him he had recently visited a club in the UK “that had 12 people, the average age was mid -70s and the club president was in his 80s. It had no lady members. Now that club will die; it is still meeting as a friendship club in the same way as it had come together many, many years ago.”
Why do we need a past president as TRF Chair; why can’t we let the best person to do that job?
— Past RI President K R Ravindran
Rassin added that in the last two years while we added 300,000 members, we also lost the same number of Rotarians. “Statistics say that less than four per cent Rotaractors join Rotary clubs and that is because they don’t find us relevant for today. In too many places we’re still operating in Paul Harris days and that has to change.” For example, it took four years to even effect change; “most of us don’t have cell phones that old! We need to change much faster.”
There was also a discussion on why Trustees should not be elected just like Directors. “And why do we need a past president as TRF Chair; why can’t we let the best guy to do that job,” asked Ravindran.
Disagreeing, Rassin said the zones were run by the Directors who were elected, “and I believe that the Trustee should be part of the Director’s team.” And yes, a past president need not necessarily become the Trustee Chair; the best man for the job should be selected, opined Rassin.
“So you support such a proposal,” prodded Ravindran, with a twinkle in his eye.
“I would support the discussion on such a proposal,” shot back Rassin.
Trustee Webb felt that Trustees should be appointed and not elected because Trustees needed to have different sets of skills such as finance, HR, technology, etc for the Trust to operate effectively.
Saboo recalled that there was a proposal in 1992 to elect TRF Trustees and it was “defeated and defeated substantially. Because this is The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International. And it is the RI President who is recognised as the spokesman of the Foundation and the No 1 in the organisation.”
Quality of membership
Ravindran said that last year at the KL Institute he had asked PRIP Kalyan Banerjee about the quality of Rotarians we are getting and he had responded that the really top people, such as CEOs of big companies, were not seen in Rotary in India. “What if we increase our dues to $100; membership might actually drop but we would have elite members,” asked Ravindran.
“I would totally disagree with that; and we need to be cautious with it. It is not the (quantum) of dues that cause individuals to lose their integrity; it’s their nature. I would keep the dues as low as we can, allowing us to provide adequate support to the Rotary clubs,” said Rassin.
If we realise the importance of classification that we are neglecting now, and get the senior people and leaders in our community, there will be a line-up of people wanting to get into Rotary.
— Past RI President Rajendra K Saboo
Saboo’s response: “Your question is loaded; we all realise that it is not the money, but eligibility which is the issue. Our constitutional documents specify eligibility. The problem comes when we are in such a rush to get members, that only after getting them, we start looking at classification! But if we realise the importance of classification that we are neglecting now, and get the senior people and leaders in our community based on the eligibility criteria, there will be a line-up of people who will want to get into Rotary. It is this obsession of increasing membership and get recognition that is wrong.”
He added that diversity, which RI advocated strongly, came through the classification system. On flexibility in meetings, he said Rotary was about relationship and person to person contact which comes through physical meetings. “Just think of having an Institute like this on your computer and trying to reach people, do you think that will generate such unity or solidarity? That comes only through touch, a tap on the back and looking each other in the eye. This relationship is extremely important and it is our strength.”
A certificate for Basker
Was Director C Basker doing a good job, was Ravindran’s next tongue-in-cheek salvo, fired at Rassin. “The honest answer,” Rassin responded, “is what I said earlier to the DGEs. I told them Director Basker represents you extremely well and he stays the course where he needs to, and brings in new ideas when required. So I am very glad to serve on the Board with Basker.”
When Saboo intervened to say that while Rassin still needed Basker’s support on the Board for the rest of the year, “I can honestly say that we are proud that Basker is our Director”, Rassin replied: “Not to disagree with my mentor, but I don’t look for loyalty from my directors, I look to them for making recommendations that are in the best interest of our organisation. And if that means they have to disagree with me, so be it!”
Webb added that as Chair of TRF’s Finance Committee, he represented the Trustees and “I sit on Board meetings and can vouch that when Basker speaks, it is worth listening to because words of wisdom come out.”
Pictures by K Vishwanathan
Best and worst of Rotary
Responding to PRIP K R Ravindran’s query on the best and worst of Rotary that he had seen during his year so far, President Barry Rassin classified it into three different parts — the good, bad and ugly.
- The good is the service projects and what we are doing to change the world. Esther and
I visited two human milk banks run with Rotary support, where mother’s milk is given to infants who don’t have that benefit, so that they can get nutrition. Then there is a Rotaract project in one of the islands where waste is recycled and sold to tourists, and this is creating entrepreneurs. It is fantastic work. Those are the great things I love to see.
- The bad is when I talk to Rotaractors they say that there is no Rotary club that wants them.
- The ugly part that hurts the most is when I see reports that need to be investigated about funds that we have provided for projects that didn’t get to the project or individuals siphoned off the money. We have to ensure there is adequate punishment for such people. Those elections where we spend hours because somebody was unhappy he didn’t get elected or clubs which don’t exist. Clearly in some places we are not functioning in accordance with the ethics of Rotary. Those are the things that hurt me the most and keep me up at night, and I can’t sleep because I believe that every Rotarian should be ethical at all times.