It was the first session of the day but on the dot — 9 a.m. — the huge hall at the Chennai Institute was packed to capacity as RIDE Manoj Desai in a brief intro of RI President-elect K R Ravindran, described how he brought his business acumen to his Rotary activities. He also recalled how he had negotiated a ceasefire with the LTTE to continue polio vaccination in the troubled region of Sri Lanka and helped rebuild the Tsunami-devastated schools in 2004.
Delivering an extempore speech with ease and elan, Ravindran said both the RI President Gary C K Huang and he were businessmen, and wanted Rotary to be run as a business. “I realised long ago that if I produced 100 million labels a day at 99 percent quality, that would mean one million labels poor in quality. So 99 percent was just not good enough.” Even a 99.9 percent rate left a reasonable number with inadequate quality. “So if we talk of efficiency, low costs and transparency in our business/professions, why don’t we bring this to bear in our Rotary activities? Is it not our responsibility to do so?”
Not pulling his punches, the President-elect asked the audience of DGs, PDGs and RI officials and senior Rotary leaders to consider if they had run a business with “stagnant growth for 10 years,” as was happening with Rotary, “by now you’d have been fired.” But fortunately most Rotary terms lasted for only a single year and blame for poor performance or mess-up went to the next candidate.
At the outset he asked his audience to introspect on an organisation “where the budget is rising every year without proper results,” and large investments were not getting suitable returns.
Only the best
“I believe that Rotarians and the community deserve only the best. We are too valuable an organisation to do anything but the best for our community, and the people who support us with their money. You need to understand that every cent we spend in Rotary comes from Rotarians. They pay for us to be here, they pay for the President, Directors, Trustees and Governors. Nothing we do should be wasted even a little bit.”
As he and President Gary had “the same wavelength,” Rotarians should expect big changes during this and the next year. As he had promised the Nominations Committee while seeking election, he would endeavour to “bring meritocracy into appointments, which won’t be done on the basis of friends, or some old boys club;” and two, he would drive costs down.
Had you run a business with stagnant growth for 10 years, you’d have been fired.
While the RCs and RPICs would be appointed purely on merit by an independent committee of “people who are completely impartial,” co-ordinators would be picked to “perform; not for prestige.” Similarly the Trustees were being selected by a committee of two second year Directors, and two first year Directors. “I did not put in one name and didn’t even speak to them on one occasion. We just gave them the parameters and said you pick the people you think are best.” From 90 names he had sought three names for each region from which he would pick one.
“It so happened that I agreed with the names they gave and the priority too. It may not be the best system but there is some transparency in what has been done. I am happy to tell you that President-nominee John Germ will also follow the same path next year as well. There is a feeling that I have given up my power, I have abdicated my responsibility, but it is better that I do that for the benefit of Rotary than hold on to power because I want to emphasise that I am the President.”
Nobody calls me
On a lighter note Ravindran added: “The advantage is I get very few telephone calls lobbying for positions. Nobody calls me. I am at peace.”
He announced he was doing the same with the RIP’s representatives. “I’m going to ask past presidents, directors, trustees to recommend names; the condition being they must be very good speakers, very good in their Rotary and wouldn’t have been there before. “I am going to keep 15-20 percent for myself, maybe for my friends or past presidents but that is something you will grant me and my wife.”
As the spellbound audience hung on to every word, Ravindran waved the red flag to the coordinators and said their work was being reviewed on various parameters and even if they had a multi-year term, they’d be removed if they weren’t performing. Automatic renewals would end.
RI Directors too
Next Ravindran warned RI Directors that they too would be evaluated on key performance indicators (KPIs) once in three months. “Every director is expected to visit his districts.”
There’s a feeling I’ve given up my power, abdicated responsibility, but it is better that I do that for Rotary’s benefit.
To do all this, four annual RI Board meets would be held; “we’ll see how the directors, general secretary and the committees perform. The directors are expected to do the same with governors. The RI President is responsible to the directors, the directors to the governors, governors to their presidents, and the presidents to the Rotarians.” If this chain could work down the line, “then you will have Rotary functioning like a machine as it should. That’s the goal, to succeed. Will we, I don’t know, but we can make the effort,” he said.
The higher cost of more Board Meets would be curtailed by reducing the days from 5 to 3, longer working hours, shorter lunch breaks and spouses remaining home, “so that Rotary doesn’t have to pay for them.”
Another major cause of concern was the dramatic rise over five years in the cost of both volunteers (42 percent) and staff (17 percent). “Today governors are costing more than $10 million; RCs, RPICs and RRFCs cost
$2.4 million a year. In three years the coordinator should bring in at least 40,000 new members just to break even —
our membership was going up before we spent so much money … now we spend money but don’t see the returns. Earlier, membership was going up. Some tell me if we didn’t spend this much it would go down. But I have no evidence to support that.”
The mantra, added Ravindran, was clear: Perform or Perish.
Then there was the ridiculous cost of parking and visa fees, hotel stay, etc. for the RIP’s reps, which last year was a whopping $93,000. In future, “I hope you’ll be honourable enough to pay your own expenses. If you don’t, that’s fine. We’ll find somebody else to do that job. And there are plenty of volunteers.” (Huge applause).
Another ridiculous cost was $97,000 spent last year “on hiring lawyers in India to defend ourselves against lawsuits filed by Rotarians against RI. Can you think of a more criminal waste than enriching the legal community in India?”
Making his irritation amply evident, Ravindran thundered, “Here we are thinking of cutting costs and some of you are forcing us to spend money — Rotarians’ money, not your money — to protect and defend ourselves against these lawsuits.”
Paying $97,000 a year to lawyers in India is a criminal waste.
Apart from the cost there was the other irritant of RI officers and staff being implicated by such lawsuits, and pulled up for contempt of court.
In a recent case filed in India the General Secretary was drawn in and now he is “in violation of India’s civil or democratic rights! Why should the staff be put at risk for an election problem,” he asked.
In the United States, a candidate for a post of public importance had to declare before the FBI of any criminal complaints filed against him. “Now imagine him sitting before a jury and saying this was filed against me in India and there is nothing I could do about it. Why should they be subjected to this? It is irresponsible.”
Election petitions should be handled by review committees and those Rotarians who insist on going to courts should be treated as outcasts and not allowed into such conferences and even Rotary club meets, he thundered.
There was stunned silence as he said, “People like this are defiling our name, all the good work we do is being spoilt by them. The General Secretary now says, ‘why don’t you people resolve all your issues; don’t even come to us. You file action against each other. We don’t care. Why are you harassing our staff?’ He is right. It is time each one of you took responsibility for this instead of being silent spectators. What I am saying may not be popular but it has to be said.”
He added: “Our money must be used judiciously. Our greatness is only measured by what we do for the community. Are we doing sustainable projects? Are we doing good work that uplifts the community?”
He recited the story of a hospital in Gaulle, Sri Lanka, built with Rotary money where he saw a tiny baby which could fit in both his palms, with tubes running all over its body. The sight made him say instinctively: “Fight, baby fight. Your mother and father are out there; they don’t have the money but we have it …”
Ravindran concluded his speech to standing ovation with these words: “That’s our mission, our goal, our productivity … and our product is livelihood and hope.”
A new mantra
Most DGs and PDGs I talked to, endorsed RIPE Ravindran’s proposals and the tone and tenor of his speech. But they also felt that mere intent was not enough, implementation would be a challenge.
Said PDG Dr Ulhas Kolhatkar, District 3140, “Our President-elect has laid down brilliant principles. But many people here feel that it should be implemented strictly and religiously. Only then we can get good results not only for 2015–16, but also subsequently, because the trend would have been set.”
DG ISAK Nazar, District 3230, was all admiration for the “powerful address with the right content, at the right time and the right forum. He rightly touched upon the urgent need to control costs, bring in tangible results in every Rotary position and the never-ending menace of taking Rotary to courts for simple issues, spoiling Rotary’s image.”
PDG Sambasiva Rao Patibandla, District 3150 said, “What was said today is badly needed in the Indian Rotary scenario — both performance indicators and cutting costs. This would be the first step in making Rotary effective.”
Congratulating him for his “straight talk,” DG Dr Vyankatesh Metan, District 3132, said he liked best the RIPE’s intent to “recognise and reward intelligent people; people who have worked hard; they are usually, though not always, neglected. Perform or perish was the key line.”
PDG Deepak Shikarpur, District 3131, said the speech was bound to resonate with many Rotarians. “Most of us are entrepreneurs or professionals and the objective of any industry/profession is to create wealth, increase turnover and reduce cost. That he wants to instil the same values in charity is remarkable. Earlier we said charity with a smile; now I’ll say charity with smile and professionalism. That is a new mantra.”
On litigation he said India was not the only country though the percentage here was high. “It is a black mark against us and done by some people who go to courts not to get results but only to cause problems and give Rotary a bad name. But there is no easy solution.”
DG Ramesh Agarwal, District 3052, said those present were “inspired and motivated by the address to re-pledge and re-dedicate ourselves to Rotary. The content was just right for today’s needs and requirements.”
A smitten DGE Sibabrata Dash, District 3262, said, “After long years I’ve heard such a speech which clearly lays down the principle of perform or perish. The message that ‘every penny you spend is Rotarian’s money, so be careful how you spend it,’ was great. I’ve been in Rotary for 20 years, this is the first time I am hearing a speech like this.”
On litigation he added that there were some culprits in his own district, but the solution given by Ravindran to ostracise such people was excellent.
PDG A Subramaniam, District 3230, called it a “brilliant speech. It is time somebody went up on the stage and said what he said. It increases my confidence in Rotary as an organisation. It is time we looked at our cost; and I agree with him about wasting money on litigation.”
DGE David Hilton, District 3080 said, “RIPE K R Ravindran’s perceptive and forthright message of stressing on performance (KPI) by Rotarians at all levels, cutting operational costs and superfluous expenditure and resolving all disagreements within the ambit of the Rotary structure without litigation, is most welcome and urgently needed for the welfare and future of Rotary.”