With 1.2 million Rotarians around the world, getting to the top is a reasonably big deal. But when Ian Riseley joined as a 31-year-old in 1978 his intention wasn’t to climb the ranks.
“I’d just started my own accounting practice and I was invited to speak to a club on the fascinating topic of current developments in income tax. They seemed like a nice bunch of people, so when they started another club nearby they invited me to join,” says the current International President of Rotary.
Like many Rotarians, Riseley joined partly for the business networks and partly for the chance to give back, and he’s been widely acknowledged for the latter.
Over the years, honours for his volunteer work include the AusAID Peacebuilder Award (in recognition of his work in East Timor), the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to the Australian community, the Distinguished Service Award and the Regional Service Award for a Polio-Free World (from The Rotary Foundation).
His rise through Rotary followed an increasingly prominent path. In 2000 he was a district governor (there are about 540 zones around the world, each with a district governor at the helm), then he played various roles on the board of directors before being elected to the international president’s role – a one-year position that’s just now coming to an end.
“It’s a volunteer role in every sense,” he says, laughing. “It’s been a bit over two years, because from the time you are nominated the whirly gig starts.”
For the past year, that gig has meant ongoing travel to connect with as many Rotarians as possible.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to visit 50 or 60 countries so far, encouraging Rotarians continue to do the work that they do,” he says.
Riseley used his time at the top to focus on two things. First, he worked hard to get the word out there about Rotary, and second, he advocated for its ongoing community work.
“The sheer volume of great work Rotarians do (is impressive). Those 1.2 million people form themselves into 35,000 clubs in just about every country you can think of … to see the standard and level of work they do is positively moving,” he says.
Most people will know Rotary clubs are committed to helping those in their local area, or perhaps they’ve heard of its scholarship programmes which allow young people to complete cultural exchanges. But most are likely unaware Rotary’s volunteer work has a global focus too, particularly in its efforts to eradicate polio.
“It all started in 1979 where one of our programmes (allowed us to) immunise 6.6 million children in the Philippines. As a result, polio was eradicated there, so after significant debate we took it on as a global project,” he says.
This meant joining with WHO, UNICEF and the CDC, and later the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to play a fundraising and advocacy role. Rotary International estimates it will have contributed $1.5 billion by the time it’s successful.
“We’ve been at it ever since and we’re getting really close. Last calendar year there were 22 cases, down from 1,000 a day when we started,” Riseley says.
Polio is still endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, although the latter hasn’t had a case for almost two years, but it takes three years without it to say it’s clear.
While it will be an achievement worth celebrating, Riseley says education and encouragement for immunisation will continue long term to ensure polio remains a disease of the past.
As for Riseley? He knows exactly what he’ll do when his year at the top is completed.
“I’ll be straight back to my local club in Sandringham,” he says.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald