Largest Rotary Club outside USA

PDG Sam Movva.
PDG Sam Movva.
Sam Movva the Rotaractor in action addressing a meet.
Sam Movva the Rotaractor in action addressing a meet.

Sometimes when he is introduced as an illustrious, senior PDG, “I find it strange and wonder if they’re talking about me. Somehow, I still feel like the kid around the block.”

At the MDPETS in Colombo, PDG (2002–03) of District 3020 Sam Movva sat down with Rotary News after cutting a cake to celebrate the 30th anniversary of RC Vijayawada Midtown that he founded with a bunch of Rotaractors. Today, with 450 members, it is the largest Rotary club not only in Asia but the rest of the world bar the United States.

The club was born in 1985 because the Rotaractors in their early or mid-

PDG Sam Movva and PRIP Kalyan Banerjee at a TRF event.
PDG Sam Movva and PRIP Kalyan Banerjee at a TRF event.

20s, were considered too young to join Rotary … “yes, that is hard to believe today, isn’t it?” Also as most of their fathers were members in the two existing clubs in Vijayawada, they never thought of joining those. “Nor did our dads invite us,” laughs Movva.

But they were missing the fellowship of Rotary, its inspiring leaders, great speeches and the privilege to rub shoulder with bigshots in town who were Rotarians. The then DG suggested forming a new club and the 33 ex-Rotaractors — average age 25 — formed it.

On the 30-year journey he says for 20 years they were stuck with 60–70 members. In 2000, he became DGN, but was distressed at the poor attendance of 14–15 members. They decided they couldn’t continue like that and wrote to all the members that they had only two options. Either disband the club which had a DG-nominee, who’d have the option to join another club, or merge it with one of the two senior clubs. “We wanted to send shockwaves and to our surprise it worked.”

Brekker meet at swank hotel

Those who cared to reply said most of them as young businessmen or professionals had to work late hours and couldn’t make it to a Wednesday 6.30 p m meet. So the club meet was shifted to a Sunday morning breakfast meet, with the marketing point being if the wife came along she would escape the hassle of making breakfast! They shifted the venue from a non-descript non-AC hall — a Rotary property — to the fanciest hotel in town, a Taj Hotels property. “By now each of us was driving an AC car, had ACs in our homes and offices; why would anybody want to leave that comfort and drive through traffic to meet in such a place,” muses Movva.

These two decisions worked; within a year they had 100 members, added another 100 in two years and soon hit the 400 mark. Meanwhile, the club successfully hosted the District Conference. “This taught us that you need to change the way you do things to keep interest alive,” he says. To the critics and sceptics who said he was trying too many changes he said: “I am not wrong all the time so I can’t be right all the time. But how do I find out? By trying; if I fail, we’ll change it. We changed the whole format of the conference and made it more sexy, if I may use the word. And people loved it! We threw out all that we had been handed since joining Rotary and did it differently.”

Members flock in

More members, specially youngsters, came in without canvassing or membership drive. “When people ask me what is the secret I say I wish I knew. It’s just a combination of factors; if you’re growing it becomes unstoppable. Unfortunately, if you’re declining, even that becomes unstoppable.”

But the main reasons for their growth, he says, are numerous family meets and great fellowship. The average age of the club still remains 45; “at 59, I am a ripe old man in the club. There are only 4 or 5 older than me.” Of the 33 original members, only 10 are left. While a few have passed on, some relocated and others drifted away for some reason.

Major strengths

On important projects, Movva says a significant project began with the passing away of the mother of a member. As he didn’t own a car he had to run from pillar to post to transport the body. “The rates were usurious … he narrated the story much later. He felt sensitive about asking one of us to give our cars because of the stigma of carrying a dead body.” He suggested a hearse car service, and 20 years back the club began with a second hand vehicle that cost Rs 75,000. “We had 70 members and thought if each one gave Rs 1,000 we’d have a vehicle.” Movva and the bereaved member gave Rs 5,000 each. With one member saying how much do you expect, and another saying don’t worry, collect whatever you can and I’ll make up the shortfall, “we realised the streak of generosity in our members.” Two years later a new vehicle was bought at Rs 6.5 lakh with a matching grant. They still run the service and as the vehicle goes around the city 2–3 times a day, with RC Vijayawada Midtown logo, and people say ‘Call Rotary’ whenthere’s a death, our brand strengthens.”

The club is also the strongest contributor to TRF in the district with 67 clubs; about $100,000 last year. “The next biggest contribution would be around $20,000,” he surmises.

Challenges

The biggest challenge is to find a place for family meets; they need a kalyana mandapam as about 1,000 people participate.

So of the 400-odd members, how many are women?

“Just 6 or 7. I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that!”

On Rotary failing to attract more women Movva thinks it might be its image as a boys’ club. “We made a sincere effort, and had a female president and some board members too. Everything is right with our club to attract more women members. But in a club of 450, with only 6–7 women, at a time you have to induct at least 15–20 at one go to make them feel comfortable.”

Women can bring a lot to Rotary, he says. “Unlike many members who don’t know what’s happening in the club, the few women we have are contributing members. That’s the reason they stayed in a predominantly male club. I find the service focus of Rotary attracts women.”

So how has Rotary changed him as a person? “You can’t answer that question honestly because you can never assess yourself. Somebody who knows you well, has to,” says Movva, a veterinary surgeon by training, but now in financial services. Two business associates, also his classmates, “who must have often wondered why Sam spends so much time in Rotary tell me I have evolved considerably. They say you are much more open minded and your grasp of things, business and otherwise, has improved considerably.”

Huge debt to Rotary

To Rotary, Movva owes a lot. “I can never ever repay the kind of debt I owe this organisation. I’ve met some great and outstanding people, Rotary has opened doors that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise and helped me to see so much of the world.”

He still remembers the time he met Past RI President Kalyan Banerjee; “he was then a Past District Governor, hoping to be an RI Director. I heard him speaking at a seminar in Kochi; I was Club secretary and told my president: ‘Look at this guy, he is a class act.’ And I thought if Rotary has people like him it must be truly a great organisation.”

Similarly, the first time he met RI President K R ­Ravindran, the latter was in the run for RI directorship. “I wasn’t even a DG, but met him as I was the district polio chair and he was polio chair of Sri Lanka. Again, when I heard him speak I said: ‘Oh my god, he is a real class act.” While dropping him to the station, Movva was too bashful to compliment Ravindran on his speech. “But to my shock, Ravi said: ‘Sam, young man, you have a great spark and I enjoyed your speech. I see a great Rotary leader in you.’ And I wasn’t even contemplating becoming a DG!”

Movva adds he owes much to Ravindran for shaping his attitude towards retractors. “I keep telling my Rotary friends, you may not be able to stand somebody but focus on the organisation and work with him. That is the kind of professionalism I’ve learnt from Ravi.”

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