I love sports… in many ways it’s a metaphor for life. You can’t always win, especially if it happens to be a team I am supporting! But sports emphasises the importance of teamwork because when we work together, we achieve more than the sum of our individual efforts.”
With these words RI President Ian Riseley began his inaugural address, laced with humour, quips and some plain home truths, at the Rotary Zone Institute in Kuala Lumpur. Posing a question on the greatest sporting victory in 2017 — (“and no, it isn’t the Indian cricket team’s victory over Sri Lanka!”), he said if he asked this to the DG of D 1360, “I know what his opinion is and I would agree with him. He would say it is the Iceland football team qualifying for the World Cup finals. This is a country of 330,000. That team has qualified for the final 32 in the World Cup, whereas football powerhouse nations such as the Netherlands with a population 50 times more, or the US, or a bigger shock, the Italian team, did not qualify.”
Numbers can communicate ideas, they are straightforward, work in just about every language and sometimes you can get an idea across much more clearly by using numbers than words.
— RI President Ian Riseley
They could achieve this feat because “Iceland plays as a team. There is a message here for all other teams as well as a large and great organisation such as Rotary. Teamwork is critical to maximising the impact of our efforts,” said Riseley.
Just as who would have imagined the Iceland team would make it to the final 32 for the football World Cup, “who would have thought that the scourge of polio could be eliminated, but after 30 years of effort, Rotary and our partners are on the verge of success.”
A challenge we took on
The RI President recalled a quote from former US President John F Kennedy, who said while making his famous speech about sending a man to the moon. “He said we choose to do such things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energy and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, unwilling to postpone and one we intend to win. He could have been talking about Rotary’s polio eradication campaign!”
Similarly, Rotary was on the brink of success on polio eradication because “we worked hard, had persistence and good partners. But it is also teamwork… right down to the club level. When we work together we achieve great things.”
Riseley said he was an accountant and hence very fond of numbers as “numbers can communicate ideas, they are straightforward, work in just about every language and sometimes you can get an idea across much more clearly by using numbers than words.”
For long, the two numbers used about Rotary are that it has a membership of 1.2 million and 37,500 clubs. But while these numbers could communicate the size of the organisation, they couldn’t explain who those members were or what they did. Also, Rotary, despite being a huge organisation, was “unusually decentralised. As the RI President I have far less control over what an individual Rotary club does compared to the president of that club.” Ultimately the way each club functions is decided by that club and “that is as it should be because it is precisely this system that allows Rotary to be as effective as it is.”
Strength in diversity
Rotary’s strength lay in its diversity and this was enshrined in its classification system which ensured that the clubs were vocationally diverse, with a whole range of skills and abilities which enabled them to be so effective in the work they did for the community. Diversity brought strength and this was true of not only different vocations, but also different interests, languages, backgrounds, cultures and ideas.
As RI President I have far less control over what an individual Rotary club does compared to the president of that club, and that’s as it should be because it is precisely this system that allows Rotary to be as effective as it is.
— RI President Ian Riseley
“But the two areas where diversity is especially vital is in age and gender. It’s not enough to have just a big membership; we need to ensure that the members we bring to Rotary will stay long enough to become leaders. That is not something that is happening enough now and we need to work on it and make it happen.”
President Riseley expressed his apprehension that the membership figures in Rotary tended to be “rubbery.”
“There is a reported dishonesty in membership figures and it is up to the leadership in Rotary to rectify the situation. I was asked by one of the DGs yesterday what RI is going to do about that problem. And I told him that the solution, like the problem, lies with you. It is up to all of you to embrace that challenge.”
Also, he added, a large number of qualified women “who are business and professional leaders, are our biggest membership opportunity, and this applies in India as well as most parts of the world, so I urge you not to lose sight of that opportunity.”
It was well-known that a community with a Rotary club was much better off than one without it. But that club would have to be a good one with diverse membership and well-connected to all parts of the community to know its problems and in a position to help. “Such a club enriches a community in a way few other institutions or organisations can.”
Riseley explained why it was always a pleasure for him to be with Rotary in this part of the world; “Kalyan (Banerjee) was president when Juliet was DG and he nominated me as a Trustee. Ravi (PRIP K R Ravindran) was the President’s Rep at Juliet’s District Conference and of course he asked me to be co-chair of his Convention in Korea. Ashok Mahajan and I worked as sergeants at the 2003 Convention in Brisbane and Trustee Elect Gulam (Vahanvaty) was the President’s Rep to our District in 2007.”
A sterling tribute
Addressing the inaugural session, TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel said that at the 2007 Convention in Salt Lake City, Bill Gates Senior, the father of Bill Gates of the Gates Foundation, who addressed the Convention said he had spent the last decade travelling around the world looking at monstrous problems. “And it boggles the mind to try to make sense of how dramatically you Rotarians have changed millions of lives around the world.”
That is precisely what Rotarians had been doing from the beginning of Rotary and the evolution of TRF — changing lives. “Gates was focussing not exclusively but heavily on what he had discovered about Rotary’s work with polio at that point. And this was just before the Gates Foundation established their official relationship with Rotary and the TRF and provided major funds to advance our work.”
Netzel said Gates Senior had validated “what we had been working on for a number of years and he was acknowledging that our impact was far greater than we had any idea.”
At the Salt Lake City Convention, Bill Gates Sr validated what we had been working on for a number of years and he was acknowledging that our impact was far greater than we had any idea.
— TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel
Rotary’s work in polio had shown what we can achieve by striking partnerships. The Trustee Chair then gave out figures to show the magnitude of Rotary’s work in polio eradication. In 1988, the world was seeing 1,000 polio cases a day, and 350,000 a year in 125 countries. “Last year there were 37 cases of polio in three countries, and this year, till Nov 30, 16 cases have been reported — 11 in Afghanistan and five in Pakistan.”
The numbers he listed on Rotary’s battle against polio were impressive enough — 20 million volunteers; 2.5 billion children immunised; 16 million cases of polio prevented; 1.5 million deaths averted. “So many children and adults are living, walking, breathing and doing so many different things because of immunisation thanks to Rotarians. Overall, $14 billion have been invested and Rotarians have been responsible for raising $1.7 billion for this initiative and this is fantastic and we need to keep in mind that the finish line is in sight. Perhaps the last case of polio was reported yesterday (from Afghanistan); we don’t know,” he added, amidst thunderous applause. Institute Chairman PDG R Theenachandran welcomed the gathering and Secretary PDG Deepak Shikarpur delivered the vote of thanks.
Pictures by Rtn Sridhar Bharathy
How Rotarians made a difference to Syrian refugees
At the inaugural session of the KL Institute, RI President Ian Riseley described a heart-warming project that he had seen as President Elect at a Rotary club in Skane in southern Sweden, which has a large and growing population of the refugee community, many of them fleeing from the civil war in Syria. “That war is a crisis all of us have been hearing about for several years. But what can one person do for something that is at such an overwhelming scale, you may ask. Well, in Rotary, you are not just one person.”
Together, the Rotarians of Skane found what they could do; they built a huge warehouse to help the new refugees to settle into their new lives. “They accepted donations of, let’s say, gently used items from the community — everything from kitchenware to coats.” The store is staffed not only by the Rotarians but also refugees who have been in Sweden for some time and who donated their service for this cause. New refugees who had just arrived and have nothing, could help themselves to what is kept here before setting up their new homes. “It’s a win-win across the board. In this place Rotary has made a huge difference to people who have lost everything. There is so much value in a project like that.”
But the trouble is that “when we see our organisation globally, it is very difficult to communicate that value when talking to others about Rotary, whether they are prospective members or partners. It’s a challenge to convey the soul and scale of what Rotary is doing. I am sure I am not the only one here who, when asked what is Rotary, has responded with a long pause and an open mouth. It is not that we don’t know what it is and what it does, but it is so large and does so much that it is just about impossible to compress it in one or two sentences.”
This was a problem not only because it gives Rotarians a few awkward moments but also a challenge in communicating “our roles and values in the world and that is why, through the DGs, I’ve asked club presidents to provide, at the end of the year, just two numbers —
number of volunteer hours during the year put by Rotarians and their families and the value invested in service in cash and kind… money and hours.”
Riseley said his goal at the end of this Rotary year was to aggregate those numbers and “shout from rooftops that not only is Rotary an organisation with 1.2 million members and 37,500 clubs, but we also contribute to our communities an annual value of perhaps $1 or 2 billion or even $3 billion!”
But the only way to aggregate that number was for each club to add it up themselves. “I think we will all be surprised when we tally the value of the difference Rotarians are making in the world.” Individually, Rotarians would vouch that Rotary had enriched their lives by the skills acquired, the connections made and the satisfaction gained. “For my own part, it is true that beyond anything else that Rotary has done for me personally, being a Rotarian has simply made me a better person, I now think more carefully about the things I do and why I do them. It’s had a positive impact on the way I interact with others and it has not only made me care about others but to also turn that care into action.”
He added that Rotary had also given him a way to make a difference in other people’s lives and “made an incalculable difference in his own life by adding to it a value that no numbers can ever measure.”