Rotary Club International

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Rotary International is an organization of Rotary Clubs (service clubs) located all over the world (more than 32,000 clubs in more than 200 countries and geographical areas). The members of Rotary Clubs are known as Rotarians. The stated purpose of the group is to bring together business and professional leaders who provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. Members meet weekly for breakfast, lunch or dinner, which is a social event as well as a time to organize work on their service goals.

Their best-known motto is "Service above Self." Another motto is "They profit most who serve best".[1] The resolution to remove gender specific terminology from secondary motto was taken by Rotary International Council of Legislation in 2004.


A Rotary International club marker in Araranguá, Brazil. Numerous Rotary clubs were established across the globe. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Eugenio Hansen, OFS)

The first Rotary Club was founded in 1905 in Chicago by attorney Paul P. Harris and three other businessmen. On February 23, 1905, Harris held the first meeting with three friends, Silvester Schiele, coal merchant, Gustave E. Loehr, mines engineer and Hiram E. Shorey, tailor. The members chose the name Rotary because they rotated club meetings to each member's office each week.

The National Association of Rotary Clubs was formed in 1910. That same year, Rotary chartered a branch in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, marking the first establishment of an American-style service club outside the United States[2]. This was followed in 1911 by the founding of the first outside North America in Dublin, Ireland. Other early international branches were Cuba in 1916 and India in 1920. The name was changed to Rotary International in 1922 because branches had been formed in six continents[3].

As of 2006, Rotary has more than 1.2 million members in over 32,000 clubs among 200 countries and geographical areas, making it the most widespread by branches and second largest service club by membership, behind Lions Club International.

Other Rotary sponsored organizations include: Rotaract — a service club for young men and women aged 18 to 30 with around 185,000 members in 8,000 clubs in 155 countries; Interac — a service club consisting of more than 239,000 young people aged 14–18 with over 10,700 clubs in 108 countries; and Rotary Community Corps (RCC) — a volunteer organization with an estimated 103,000 non-Rotarian men and women in over 4,400 communities in 68 countries.


According to its constitutions ("Charters"), Rotary defines itself as a non-partisan, non-sectarian organization. It is open to business and professional leaders of all ages and economic status. Its membership tends towards the middle-aged and wealthy.

Active membership

Active membership is by invitation from a current Rotarian, to professionals working in diverse areas of endeavour. Each club can have up to ten per cent of its membership representing each business or profession in the area it serves. The goal of the clubs is to promote service to the community they work in, as well as to the wider world. Many projects are organized for the local community by a single club, but some are organized globally.

Honorary membership

Honorary membership is given by election of a Rotary Club to people who have distinguished themselves by meritorious service in the furtherance of Rotary ideals. Honorary membership is conferred only in exceptional cases. Honorary members are exempt from the payment of admission fees and dues. They have no voting privileges and are not eligible to hold any office in their club. Honorary membership is time limited and terminates automatically at the end of the term, usually one year. It may be extended for an additional period or may also be revoked at any time.

Female membership

From 1905 until the 1980s, women were not allowed membership in Rotary clubs, although Rotarian spouses, including Paul Harris's wife, were often members of the similar "Inner Wheel" club. Women did play some roles, and Paul Harris' wife made numerous speeches. In 1963, it was noted that the Rotary practice of involving wives in club activities helped to break down female seclusion in some countries[4]. Clubs such as Rotary had long been predated by women's voluntary organizations, which started in the United States as early as 1790[5].

After years of debate, women were admitted in 1989 and now make up a little under 12% of the membership. Previously, women were able to join a linked organization for the wives and daughters of Rotarians, the Inner Wheel. Many Inner Wheel groups still exist.

Gender equity in Rotary International was first publicly raised by the Duarte RI club affair. In 1976–78, the California Rotary Duarte club allowed three women to join. Official Rotary International representatives expressed alarm at the presence of women in the Duarte club. Requests by Rotary International to terminate the women's memberships were rejected by the club, and as a result Rotary International revoked the club's charter in 1978. The Duarte club filed suit in the California courts, claiming that Rotary Clubs are business establishments subject to regulation under California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, gender, religion or ethnic origin. Rotary International then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The RI attorney argued that "... [the decision] threatens to force us to take in everyone, like a motel". The Duarte Club was not alone in opposing RI leadership; the Seattle-International District club unanimously voted to admit women in 1986.[6] The United States Supreme Court, on May 4, 1987, confirmed the Californian decision at the unanimity of its members. Since that time, women have been allowed to join Rotary.[7] But the Duarte club's move was only an early step towards the inevitable in a climate of falling service club membership: the Elks, the final holdout among service clubs in prohibiting female membership, voted in 1995 to allow women[8]. By 1997, there were 12 female district governors and 1,500 female club presidents in the United States, and they accounted for 13% of membership, with new female memberships outstripping new male memberships by a factor of ten to one. This still remains well below the corporate level of female representation, which stood in 1997 at 40%.[9]

The change of the second Rotarian motto in 2004, from "He profits most who serves best" to "They profit most who serve best", 99 years after its foundation, illustrates the move to general acceptance of women members in Rotary.

Minority membership

Rotary and other service clubs in the last decade of the 20th century became open to homosexual membership.[10] Other minorities, in the face of general changes in demographics and declining membership, are also encouraged to join. There have been efforts to reach out to minority communities, such as Oakland, California's $10,000 scholarships for students in inner-city schools[11].

There have been some individual exceptions; as early as 1963 a Hindu Bengali, Nitish Chandra Laharry, served as Rotary International's first Asian president[12]. The past tendency to favor the "old boys club" has also passed; so it is no longer just legislation or membership pressures driving these trends: A study has shown that only 2% of middle aged men interested in joining a club were interested in joining exclusive male-only clubs.[13]


The declared objectives of Rotary are to encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise and, in particular, to encourage and foster:

  1. The development of acquaintance as an opportunity for service;
  2. High ethical standards in business and professions, the recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations, and the dignifying of each Rotarian's occupation as an opportunity to serve society;
  3. The application of the ideal of service in each Rotarian's personal, business, and community life;
  4. The advancement of international understanding, goodwill, and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.

These objectives are further set against the "Rotarian Four-Way test", used to see if a planned action is compatible with the Rotarian spirit. The test was developed by Rotarian and entrepreneur Herbert J. Taylor during the Great Depression as a set of guidelines for restoring faltering businesses and was adopted as the standard of ethics by Rotary in 1942. It is still seen as a standard for ethics in business management[14]:

  • Is it the Truth?
  • Is it Fair to All Concerned?
  • Will it Build Good Will and Better Friendships?
  • Will it Be Beneficial to All Concerned?



The most notable current global project, PolioPlus, is contributing to the global eradication of polio. Since beginning the project in 1985, Rotarians have contributed over US$600 million and tens of thousands of volunteer-hours, leading to the inoculation of more than two billion of the world's children. Inspired by Rotary's commitment, the World Health Organization (WHO) passed a resolution in 1988 to eradicate polio by 2000. Now in partnership with WHO, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary is recognized by the United Nations as the key private partner in the eradication effort.

There has been some limited criticism concerning the Rotary International program for polio eradication, which is supported with the help of World Health Organization. There are some reservations regarding the adaptation capabilities of the virus and some of the oral vaccines, which have been reported to cause infection resurgences[15]. As stated by Vaccine Alliance, however, in spite of the limited risk of polio vaccination, it would neither be prudent nor practicable to cease the vaccination program until there is strong evidence the "all wild poliovirus transmission [has been] stopped". In a recent speech at the Rotary International Convention, held at the Bella Center in Copenhagen, Bruce Cohick stated that polio in all its known wild forms will be eliminated by late 2008, provided efforts in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India all proceed with their current momentum.[16]

Exchanges and scholarships

Some of Rotary's most visible programs include Rotary Youth Exchange, a student exchange program for students in secondary education, and Rotary's oldest program, Ambassadorial Scholarships. Today, there are six different types of Rotary Scholarships. More than 37,000 men and women from 100 nations have studied abroad under the auspices of Ambassadorial Scholarship, and today it is the world's largest privately funded international scholarships program. In 2002–03 grants totaling approximately US$26 million were used to award some 1,200 scholarships to recipients from 69 countries who studied in 64 nations. The Exchange Students of Rotary Club Munich International publish their experiences on a regular basis on Rotary Youth Exchange with Germany.

Rotary Fellowships, paid by the foundation launched in honor of Paul Harris in 1947, specialize in providing graduate fellowships around the world, usually in countries other than their own in order to provide international exposure and experience to the recipient[17]

Rotary Centers for International Studies

Starting in 2002, The Rotary Foundation partnered with eight universities around the world to create the Rotary Centers for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution. The universities include International Christian University (Japan), University of Queensland (Australia), Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) (France), University of Bradford (United Kingdom), Universidad del Salvador Argentina), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (U.S.), Duke University (U.S.), and University of California, Berkeley (U.S.) Rotary World Peace Fellows complete two year masters level programs in conflict resolution, peace studies, and international relations. The first class graduated in 2004[4]. In 2004, Fellows established the Rotary World Peace Fellows Association [5] to promote interaction among Fellows, Rotarians, and the public on issues related to peace studies.

Individual club efforts

While there are numerous Rotary-wide efforts, Rotary clubs are also encouraged to take part in local ventures; these range from efforts which combine contributions to the community with efforts to attract new members, such as the scholarships outlined above, to donations to local libraries[18]. In a more unusual twist, Rosalie Maguire, a Batavia, New York, Rotarian, taking a cue from Calendar Girls convinced fellow members (a woman for each month and a male cover) to pose for a "nude" calendar sold as part of a $250,000 fundraiser for a local hospital[19]. In the past, members were assessed mock "fines" for minor infractions as a way of raising funds: these fines could in 1951 range from 10 cents to $1,000[20]

Rotary International and Politics

Nazi Germany

Many German Rotary clubs, with the onset of the Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s, ceased operation because of government opposition, after four years of discussions between 1933 and 1938. The other Rotary clubs, however, excluded Jewish members and otherwise appeased Nazi demands. In Munich, Germany, Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann was removed from the membership as a political enemy of the Nazis.

Since the Nazis saw international organizations as suspect, the Nazi Party declared membership to both Rotary and the Nazi Party as incompatible. After four years of negotiations between the central headquarters in Chicago and the Nazi Party — indicative of Rotary efforts to oppose Nazi ideologies — clubs were closed and charters withdrawn in 1938. Some clubs maintained an activity as "Friday Clubs". Rotary began re-chartering clubs after World War II ended.[21]

Paul Harris, Rotary's founder, was in Germany in 1932 as part of a European tour. While there, he planted a "tree of friendship" at an airport in Berlin, the first of several such plantings in Europe that year. This original tree was commemorated with a plaque (though it was later removed because of the Nazis' opposition to Rotary). The tree, destroyed in World War II, was replaced in 1985 along with the original plaque.[22]


Hamas has labeled Rotary International (and Lions Clubs International) a Zionist organization and, according to the 1988 Covenant of Hamas, is bent on its ultimate obliteration[23].

Popular culture

Rotary was portrayed in Steven Spielberg's film Catch Me If You Can. Frank Abagnale Jr.'s (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film) father, Frank William Abagnale (played by Christopher Walken) was a life time Rotarian in the film because he was a hero in World War II. The Italian song "Rotary Club of Malindi", who had a relative success on the world-music theme, speaks of an organisation for "white people in depression".

Famous Rotarians

Rotary partners

  • Mel Gibson
  • Ashoka: Innovators for the Public

Rotary conference makers

  • Wernher Von Braun, SS Officer and father of V2-Titan-Mercury rockets (Rotary Club Huntsville, Alabama; Rotary El Paso, Texas)
  • Nicolas Sarkozy, ex-Minister of the Interior, conservative candidate to the Presidential election (Rotary Neuilly, FR)
  • Ron Hubbard, pioneer of Scientology (Rotary Club Bulawayo, ex-Rhodésia, ZIMBABWE)
  • Louis Michel, European Commissary (Rotary Club Wezembeek-Kraainem, BE)
  • Patrick Ollier, conservative Speaker of the Parliament, France, (Rotary Club Rueil-Malmaison, FR)

Honorary members (former and current)

  • Albert I, King of the Belgians
  • Neil A. Armstrong, U.S. astronaut
  • Baudouin I, King of the Belgians
  • Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands
  • George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States
  • Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister
  • Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States
  • Gordon Cooper, U.S. astronaut
  • Walt Disney, U.S. entertainment executive
  • Thomas A. Edison, U.S. inventor
  • Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States
  • Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senator
  • Gerald R. Ford, 38th President of the United States
  • King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden
  • King Hassan II of Morocco
  • William Herbert, 18th Earl of Pembroke, 15th Earl of Montgomery
  • Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian adventurer
  • Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealander first Mt. Everest climber
  • Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States
  • John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States
  • Larry King, award-winning broadcaster
  • Charles Lindbergh, first solo transatlantic pilot
  • Douglas MacArthur, World War II U.S. General
  • Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States
  • Patrick Ollier, conservative President of the National Assembly of France
  • John J. Pershing, World War I U.S. General
  • Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
  • Augusto Pinochet, former Chilean dictator
  • Prince Rainier III of Monaco
  • Ronald W. Reagan, 40th President of the United States
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States
  • Alan Shepard, first US astronaut
  • Chen Shui-bian, 10th & 11th President of Taiwan
  • Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister
  • Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States
  • Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States

Active members (former and current)

  • Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, former President of Iceland
  • Jose Miguel Arroyo, current First Gentleman of the Philippines
  • Frank Borman, U.S. astronaut
  • Prescott Bush, U.S. businessman
  • Richard E. Byr, U.S. Admiral and Arctic explorer
  • Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States
  • Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister
  • Tom DeLay, U.S. Representative
  • Suleiman Frangieh, former President of Lebanon
  • Jesse Helms, U.S. Senator
  • William Herbert, 18th Earl of Pembroke, 15th Earl of Montgomery
  • Spencer W. Kimball, 12th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Jim Leach, Former U.S. Representative
  • Thomas Mann, German novelist
  • Guglielmo Marconi, Italian inventor
  • Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister of Republic of Czechoslovakia
  • Charles H. Mayo, co-founder of the Mayo Clinic
  • Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Peace Prize recipient
  • Earl Warren, 14th Chief Justice of the United States
  • Orville Wright, U.S. aviation pioneer

See Famous Historical Rotarians for more.

Organization and administration

In order to carry out its service programs, Rotary is structured in club, district and international levels. Rotarians are members of their clubs. The clubs are chartered by the global organization Rotary International (RI) headquartered in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. For administration purposes, the more than 32,000 clubs worldwide are grouped into 529 districts, and the districts into 34 zones.

Club level

Each club elects its own president and officers among its active members for a one year term. The clubs enjoy considerable autonomy within the framework of the standard constitution and the constitution and bylaws of Rotary International. The governing body of the club is the board of directors, which consists of president-elect, vice president, club secretary and treasurer, chaired by club president. Immediate past president is a de facto member of the board. The club president appoints the chairmen of the four main task groups for club service, vocational service, community service and international service.

District level

A district governor, who is an officer of Rotary International and represents the RI board of directors in the field, leads Rotary districts. The governor is nominated by the clubs of the district and elected by all the clubs meeting in the RI Convention held annually in a different country. To assist him with his duties, the district governor appoints assistant governors from among the Rotarians of the district.

Zone level

Approximately 15 Rotary districts form a zone. A zone director, who serves as a member of the RI board of directors, heads two zones. The zone director is nominated by the clubs in the zone and elected by the convention for the terms of two consecutive years.

Rotary International

Rotary International is governed by a board of directors composed of 17 zone directors, a president-elect and an international president. The nomination and the election of the president are based on zones. The international president, the highest officer of the organization, is elected for a term of one year. The board meets quarterly to establish policies.

The chief administrative officer of RI is the general secretary, who heads a staff of about 600 persons working at the headquarters and in seven international offices around the world.


Rotary International's unique communications media are the official monthly magazine named The Rotarian published in English language by the headquarters, and 30 other regional Rotary World Magazine Press periodicals that are independently produced in more than 20 different major languages and distributed in 132 countries.

The first official magazine The National Rotarian, predecessor to The Rotarian, was started in January 1911. The first regional magazine was issued 1915 in Great Britain and Ireland.

The official and regional magazines are circulated to Rotarian and non-Rotarian subscribers in around 769,000 copies combined.[24]


  1. Modified by the 2004 "RI Council on Legislation", from the original "He profits most who serves the best" — see Rotary International manual, Part 5 (Rotary Marks), online at [1] accessed 2 June 2006
  2. Wikle, Thomas A. "International Expansion of the American-Style Service Club", Journal of American Culture Summer 1999, Vol. 22, Issue 2, p45
  3. Wikle, 1999 p. 47.
  4. Bird, John "The Wonderful, Wide, Backslapping World Of Rotary." Saturday Evening Post 2/9/1963, Vol. 236 Issue 5, p58–62
  5. Wikle 1999, p 50.
  6. Rotary International California District website [2] accessed 17 June 2006
  7. "ABCs of Rotary" website [3] accessed 17 June 2006
  8. Fost, Dan. "Farewell to the Lodge." American Demographics January 1996, Vol. 18, Issue 1. p40–46
  9. de Pommereau 1997
  10. Quittner, Jeremy. "Join the Club." Advocate, 4/16/2002, Issue 861
  11. Fost 1996. pp40–46.
  12. Bird, 1963. p59
  13. Fost 1996. pp40–46.
  14. Russell, Jeff. "Can You Survive Rotary's Four-Way Test?" Journal of Management in Engineering, May/Jun2000, Vol. 16 Issue 3, p13
  15. Vaccine Alliance website December 2002 report
  16. Rotary International Polio Facts 2006 Accessed 24 January 2007. This document appears to be updated quarterly.
  17. Bird, 1963. p62.
  18. "noted & quoted" Computers in Libraries Jul/Aug2004 Vol. 24, Issue 7
  19. "The Strip Club." People 12/13/2004, Vol. 62, Issue 24. Models, aged 33 to 67, posed with strategically placed props.
  20. Ellison, Jerome. "The Truth About the Service Clubs." Saturday Evening Post 10/13/1951, Vol. 224 Issue 15, p. 38–178, 6p.
  24. History of the Rotary World Magazine Press

External links

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