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Note: This post is not highly polished but has ideas many people asked me to put into writing and so it is posted as an alternative to not being posted. All feedback welcome.

TLDR: Community Builders should learn from existing orgs, and the Rotary foundation has an exceptional track record of doing projects and local engagement. From it, CB can learn the importance of exclusive membership, spreading membership far and wide, and balancing these two.

I have spent about a decade in the "Rotary Family", more specifically in Rotaract, and the Rotary club itself. Starting  a month ago, I became president of my local Rotary club. Coming from a developing country, Rotary Foundation and Rotary in general are quite famous for their projects and donations - although I have learned that this fame is not evenly distributed worldwide. Many attendees at EAGx Prague and EAG London did not know of or even hear of Rotary, Lions, Freemasons (yes, those), Kiwianis, and others. There are more corporate charities that are more famous, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, but there are also numerous local, religious or simply humanitarian organizations in each country, each with its own degree of impact.

Some of these organizations, like Rotary, are over a hundred years old, have millions of members, and chapters in almost every country in the world. They are real shakers especially in developing countries where their members often include business people, political leaders and NGO activists. List of Rotarians (which is far from exhaustive even among the famous people) notes Neil Armstrong, Churchill, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Edison, Pope Francis and Walt Disney as Rotarians. In this post I want to explore what Rotary Foundation does as community building, what that allows Rotary to do, and what EA/AI Community Builders (CB) can learn from this.

What Rotary Does

Rotary clubs are theoretically invite-only clubs, although people can sometimes apply for membership without knowing anyone in a particular club. Clubs are given a constitution of the club which they must follow (along with things like branding guidelines) but are allowed to write by-laws which enable customization of club norms.

Each potential member goes through an application process which may include community work, vocational knowledge sharing or similar, and if they are approved by existing members, they become a full member. From there, club boards are elected, who report to districts, and to Rotary International. To stay a member, you must pay fees, come to meetings, and contribute to projects, as well as follow the club norms generally expressed by the four way test. The path to impact is done through service to your club, vocational service (working in your expertise for good, for example a dentist doing free dentistry work in a poor part of the country), volunteering in your community (unrelated to expertise, think soup kitchen work), international impact (coordinating to help other clubs, or fundraise from them for local projects), and youth work (helping new generations succeed). What is not directly listed but is important is fundraising, locally and globally, as that is how the Rotary Foundation has 330 million USD donations yearly, and a 1.1 billion USD fund.

So what are the benefits for members? Sense of community is definitely a strong motivating factor, as is frequent opportunity to do good. While all members could in theory just donate to Rotary Foundation and feel a sense of achievement, a majority does direct work in areas that interest them. Rotary has areas of focus and projects are expected to stick to those, but the areas are so broad most interventions fall somewhere in the areas of focus.

Membership in the club also allows networking - as the club is prestigious and invite-only, members can reach out to other members for friendship, business, or advice. Likewise, members are expected to share their expertise with each other, creating positive reinforcement loops in growing clubs. Internationally, being a Rotarian means being able to go to meetings of clubs in other countries, which makes for quick networking and can allow you to quickly meet the people in any place you care to visit.

The selective nature of Rotary means that knowing someone else is a Rotarian immediately allows you to trust the person more than average. You know that they do some community work, donate some money to charity, and have some similar interests to you. I have found that while wearing my Rotary pin, I am better received by people who turn out to be Rotarians or friends of Rotary members, although I am a stranger to them.

What does this allow Rotary to do

Imagine you and I decide to help remove lead from paint in a fictional country of Narnia. Being Rotarians, we can reach out to clubs that are there, and ask around for relevant connections in businesses, governments and NGOs to partner with. We can fundraise in our community, get a matching grant from a club in a developed country which doubles our fundraising, and then another matching Global Grant from the Rotary Foundation which doubles our fundraising again. Using these funds and our local connections, our project is now more likely to succeed than if we tried running it in Narnia as foreigners, even after hiring some local talent.

More practically, Rotary has worked on Polio eradication since 1979. A bottleneck at one point is not just money, but reliable ways to get vaccines distributed to local communities, and trust of those communities towards foreign aid. However, with the network of thousands of local members in affected countries, Rotary has managed to reach even the most remote places, making Polio a disease which exists only in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the most rural places. Currently, any donation given to End Polio Now is matched 2:1 (tripled) by Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, making fundraising for Polio much easier.

What can we learn from this?

I see three main things to learn from Rotary:

  1. There is value in exclusivity. Having a selection process for membership allows trust between members, which is important when the community grows beyond sizes where word of mouth is an effective social tool.
  2. There is value in expansion. Creating clubs around the world means that when opportunities for impact arise (for example earthquake in Nepal), funds and efforts can reliably be directed at affected people and areas. Spain is voting on octopus farming? EA Spain should have capacity to be our local source of knowledge, and direct efforts to stop this practice while the iron is hot.
  3. We may not need to emulate strengths of Rotary if we work with them. This learning is the reason why I am writing this sequence in the first place - Rotary has had over a 100 years to grow the network, but the network now exists and is full of people who are motivated (among other things) by altruism. If we had an intervention in a country where EA is not a strong presence, perhaps we can benefit from reaching out to local Rotary clubs.

What are the downsides?

Naturally, every system has problems. I personally think that Rotary spends too much funds on CB compared to exploring and causing impact, and that the focus on local community help, while understandable and good at attracting people, should be balanced by helping more globally. I also believe that there are social incentives to do what is visible rather than what is impactful, but I am experimenting in my club with looking to improve impact, and the idea seems compelling both to members of my club and to those other clubs that I spoke with.

Conclusion

I would not recommend EA members to join Rotary if they are looking for cheap wins in the short run - Rotary requires commitment, and sometimes that commitment is not the most EA one. However, I do believe that EAs who want to socialize, meet people outside of our bubble, impact their communities and global communities in the long run, and have a chance of shaping global policy through Rotary's connection with the UN should consider joining, and reach out to me about it.

Comments7
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:40 PM

It's good to see this post. I was a member of my local Rotaract club for years until I eventually aged out of their 18-30 age limit. I think I actually at one point got us to send some donations from one of our events to the Against Malaria Foundation. Overall, it was a great experience, although I ended up not joining Rotary Club proper later, mostly because I moved away from my hometown and didn't know anyone in the Rotary Club of my current city.

I do agree that EA can learn a lot from Rotary as a highly successful organization and community and I'm glad to see someone else mention it here.

Thanks for sharing this. I appreciate posts like this, because they broaden the scope of ideas that EAs are exposed to.

I'm surprised that many people had not heard of Rotary, Lions, or Freemasons. I have the impression that all of them are fairly famous/well-known organizations.

Happy to hear that you find it useful!

Yes, my subjective feeling from talking to people at EAG London, ~<30% people knew of Rotary. That was surprising to me, so this post was pushed higher on my priorities list.

Fantastic post! I had interacted with Rotary Clubs many times in a few projects I coordinated in Latin America and personally. There's a lot to learn from them, especially the way Rotary builds communities, and their influence in some is very interesting (in a few Brazilian states, they partnered with courts to donate a % of fines to communities). Although I'm new to EA, I would love to see how this collaboration could go and the potential impact of it.

Thanks for the input Matheus - yes indeed, they create quite tight communities in really diverse places, lots to learn! I hope to post more about successes in cooperation once we have them :)

Congrats on the new role, it sounds like it took a lot of commitment to get there. As president, do you think you'll have more influence among members, local or international? I wonder if becoming involved could help others consider cause prioritization when selecting projects.

(I was a Kiwanis Junior member back in middle school. I remember doing literally random volunteering to meet the community service hour minimum.)

Thanks, Allison!

The commitment is actually not that huge - there are many clubs, and many of them are quite small, meaning that every year ~20% of members are board members, and people usually do not want to be board members multiple times, so even a year after joining you can make your way up with ambition and drive.

My hope is absolutely to aim for cause prioritization within Rotary - and Rotarians I spoke to are quite keen on the idea! No one likes being ineffective!

(Yes, that's often the case when incentives are poor - I think things would be different if you were given a budget and asked to create maximum impact with guidance from someone experienced, a la Charity Elections!)