In this abridged extract from Mana Tangata People of Action: Rotary Clubs in New Zealand and the Pacific, author Stephen Clarke outlines how Rotary is celebrating its centenary and contemplating its future.
Rotary's Looking Forward
Rotarians have been looking forward to 2021. The centenary of Rotary in New Zealand and the Pacific is not just about looking back and backslapping, however, but building a better future with significant centenary programmes. A milestone anniversary also provides the opportunity to take stock and look forward.
Rotary at 100
One hundred years on, the founding members that established the Rotary Clubs in Auckland and Wellington in June 1921 surely would never have imagined that Rotary would have more than 250 clubs and 7000 Rotarians throughout New Zealand and the Pacific Islands by 2021. Its century of service is both tangible in community activities and amenities (playgrounds, reserves and walkways) as well as intangible in the many charities and organisations established (CCS Disability Action, Cure Kids and Outward Bound, to name just a few). Rotary has supported the learning and grown the talent of generations of young New Zealanders and Pasifika. And on the global stage, it has partnered on international development projects, from mountain villages in the Himalayas to freshwater programmes throughout the Pacific Islands and, significantly, the near eradication of polio. On reaching 100 years, Rotary deserves recognition for its contribution in our communities and to society.
Covid-19 impacted planning for centenary celebrations as online gatherings became more in favour than large face-to-face events. What has not been impacted are Rotary's centenary projects planned long before the pandemic: Rotary Give Every Child a Future is a vaccination programme against life-threatening diseases across nine Pacific Island countries and in New Zealand the Rotary 100 Forests of Peace and Remembrance harnesses communities to plant native trees and enhance the environment. The immediate future has its projects, but what is the longer-term future for Rotary in New Zealand and the Pacific?
During the past decade, Rotary membership has declined by 25 per cent but this slow, downward trajectory could continue for decades. With each club closure comes a loss of a community in ways that can never be fully measured. The survival of Rotary in New Zealand should not be taken for granted. Many will remember that Jaycee was once a part of the landscape, but today its emblem is missing from the welcome sign into many towns. If Rotary ceased to exist, what would society lose? Would Rotary be missed? So, what of the future?
A recent Victoria University of Wellington MBA project identified one of the challenges for Rotary was "the perception of being only for old men", some 30 years after women were admitted to Rotary in 1989 and who today play a leading role in many clubs and districts. The "generation gulf" and the need to engage with a younger and more diverse community was also the clear message at What Next, an online focus group conducted with Rotarians from all six New Zealand Rotary districts in 2020. One past district governor pointed out the dilemma for Rotary: "Most Rotarians, especially older ones, are very comfortable with things as they are and do not see beyond their own club experience. So the club experience is vital to engagement but is, in many cases, what is least attractive for young potential members". A Rotaract member (the youth arm of Rotary for 18- to 30 year-olds) confirmed this, "Not everyone has the time to commit to lunchtime or breakfast meetings, and not everyone has the resources to make a real positive financial contribution. Everyone (or at least almost everyone), however, would like to make an impact in the way that they can — and for them, Rotary opens up a network through which to bring about meaningful change." This begs the question is the fundamental core of Rotary for a century — the club — now its Achilles heel?
Rotary is in a transformational phase but what might the Rotary experience look and feel like in the future? This generated wide-ranging discussion and potential scenarios at What Next, but boiled down the view was there would be less bureaucracy and structure, and more flexibility and fluidity; also the focus would be more on cause over clubbing. There were a number of references to the Student Volunteer Army and its model of cause-related connection over membership ties. It was best summed up in this comment from a past district governor, "Clubs are where Rotary happens, but in the future I don't think we will see clubs as they are now but rather collaborative groups that come together for projects or causes and may even be fluid".
Looking to the next generations. Rotary youth programmes, organisations and individual awards have always been viewed as a social investment in the future. "For Rotary, the biggest 'untapped market' is youth," argues a Rotaractor. "Rotary must be seen to be inclusive of, and open to, people of all ages and backgrounds. Greater youth engagement has the potential to improve long-term membership and, therefore, impact for years to come." Certainly, Rotary's decade of youth programmes during the 1970s had a flow-on effect for membership and leadership in the following decades. Interact (13- to 17 year-olds), Rotaract and the Rotary Youth Leadership Award programmes remain potential areas for future recultivation. Rotary also looks forward to the post-Covid resumption of the life-changing international study experience of Rotary Youth Exchange enjoyed by thousands of New Zealand students over the past 50 years.
Flexibility will be key in the future. Technology already supports innovation and certainly supports more global skills-based and cause-specific clubs (such as an e-club brought together around the global issues of water, sanitation and hygiene). It is already accepted that clubs do not have to meet every week or always face-to-face to be Rotary, although this may become more valuable as more people work from home all day on their screens. One of Rotary International's current priorities is to "increase our ability to adapt" (the other priorities are "increase our impact", "expand our reach" and "enhance participant engagement"). The reality is that organisations that do not evolve are destined to dissolve. The general secretary of Rotary International recently touted the family-friendly and flexible Next Rotary Generation Invercargill club as an example of the disruptive innovation that is required in the Rotary of the future. The New Zealand character and sense of identity prides itself on its No. 8 wire' mentality — after all, Rotarian Sir Edmund Hillary modified Massey Ferguson farm tractors to reach the South Pole in 1958. Rotary now needs to put its pole in the ground.
The history of Rotary in New Zealand and the Pacific reveals that it has constantly evolved from a male occupation-classified organisation to one that is open to those seeking to connect and serve their communities. The ability to flex with the challenges posed by Covid-19, when online meetings, as well as virtual social interaction, became the new normal, is a positive indication that Rotary can adapt to future challenges. The pandemic has also brought to the fore the importance of community as well as service.
Rotary's seven major areas of service are promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, saving mothers and children, supporting education, growing local economies and supporting the environment. Whatever the area of service, participants at What Next felt strongly that Rotary needed "to adopt a large project or cause — co-operative and collaborative large projects nationally supported by all clubs — that will be branded 'Rotary', and publicly recognised". Rotary has always operated as a social capital incubator, building networks of adaptive, innovative and resilient leaders. Is there an opportunity, therefore, to take Rotary's social capital, its history of social enterprise, and the tradition of the weekly speaker, and upscale it to provide a new "town hall" space to discuss the big issues of the day? As a respected and non-political organisation of business leaders and professionals, a set of valuable networks that span government, business and the not-for-profit sector nationwide, and, not insignificantly, with international legs, Rotary would be well placed to re-enter the marketplace. As its history has revealed, when Rotary has been needed to step up to serve — whether during the Great Depression, World War II or other occasions of national and regional need — it has stepped up.
Rotarians realise the challenges ahead and are taking action in their clubs, districts and the region. "We can't lose sight of who we are and what we stand for across the whole organisation as we strive to position ourselves for the future," says a past district governor. "The global pandemic has presented us with not only an opportunity but also a compelling reason to effect change within our own organisation in order to remain a force for effecting global change for good."
Pakuranga Rotarian and only the second New Zealander to have been president of Rotary International, Bill Boyd, and Wellington Rotarian and former Governor-General, Sir Anand Satyanand, both believe that it is time for action: "In just the same way as Rotary gave purpose to those lost in the social upheavals of the Great Depression, or those who needed a new start after World War II, Rotary needs to move forward in the future with the same confidence, competence and commitment to make positive social change. This is our wero, our challenge, to our fellow Rotarians.'
The future is in the hands of Mana Tangata: People of Action.
Rotary in numbers
Rotary International: 35,000 clubs and 1.2 million members in more than 220 countries.
Rotary in New Zealand/Pacific Islands: 255 clubs and 7000 members.
Rotary's Centenary Gifts
Rotary Give Every Child a Future is a combined Australian and New Zealand Rotary centenary programme, in partnership with Unicef, to save lives by vaccinating 100,000 children in nine Pacific Island countries (Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu) against three life-threatening diseases (rotavirus, pneumococcal and human papillomavirus), and to establish sustainable vaccination programmes in each country. This programme was informed by Rotary's enduring campaign with Unicef to end polio.
Rotary 100 Forests of Peace and Remembrance is a partnership with Te Uru Rakau Forestry New Zealand and the One Billion Trees Fund. At its heart is the power of harnessing communities and volunteers at all ages to enhance the environment by planting native trees as living memorials. The initiative builds on the success of environmental activities such as Rotary's Trees for Survival programme (2 million trees planted since 1990) that has engaged communities in planting native ecosystems and contributing to a sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand.
Mana Tangata: People of Action is available in bookshops nationwide, RRP: $69.95. Rotary host a centenary celebration at Auckland's Aotea Centre on Friday, June 25, tickets are available here.