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Rotary Club - What is it?

Updated on August 7, 2013

The Familiar Wheel of a Rotary Club


Rotary International is Made Up of Rotary Clubs

Most people think of a Rotary Club as that familiar wheel hanging from a signpost at the entrance to town. The wheel usually has a sign hanging underneath that says: "The Rotary Club of (Yourtown) Meets (day of the week) at 12:15 at the XYZ Restaurant." So what is Rotary, and what is it all about? Having been an active Rotarian for 30 years, I am amazed that people don't have a better understanding of the organization. This article will describe the basics of Rotary, and why it may be an organization that you would like to belong to.

Rotary's mission is to "provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through its fellowship of business, professional, and community leaders."

I was privileged to be the president of my club, the Rotary Club of Islip, New York twice, and District Governor once.

A Rotary club is a service club, an organization of people who are dedicated to the ideal of service. The motto of Rotary is Service Above Self. Sometimes, if you ask an older Rotarian what is a Rotary Club, you may get a half hour lecture. I prefer simplicity. When I'm asked what is a Rotary Club I always answer: " We're a group of friends trying to do a little good in the world." That sums it all up. But let's explore some of the details of what Rotary is all about.

The Founders - Four Lonely Guys

The first four Rotarians: Gustavus Loehr, Silvester Schiele, Hiram Shorey, and Paul P. Harris
The first four Rotarians: Gustavus Loehr, Silvester Schiele, Hiram Shorey, and Paul P. Harris | Source

A Brief History of Rotary

The first Rotary Club was founded in Chicago in February of 1905 by a man named Paul Harris and three friends. Harris's idea was to capture in a professional organization the friendliness of the small town clubs of his youth. What better place to start than in the cold, windy streets of a big city? It's often said that Paul Harris began Rotary out of loneliness. It is generally acknowledged to be the world's first volunteer organization dedicated to service, rather than a fraternal or trade organization. The name Rotary came from the early practice of rotating meetings among the offices of its members. That practice has long since been abandoned, but the name lives on. The Chicago club still exists and is affectionately known as Rotary One.

Rotary wasn't founded as a service organization, but as what would be called today a networking group. But service soon became the raison d'être for the organization's existence. In 1907 the Rotary Club of Chicago performed its first service project, the installation of a comfort station near Chicago City Hall.

The idea took off. In 1912 the first non-U.S. Rotary Club was chartered in Winnipeg, Canada, and in 1922 the official name of the organization became Rotary International. By 1925 Rotary had over 2,000 clubs and 100,000 members.

As of 2011, Rotary had grown to 34,216 clubs in 538 districts and over 1.2 million Rotarians.

Rotary's Four Way Test

Of the things we think, say or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Women in Rotary

A Rotary Club used to be known as a men's club because that's exactly what it was until a few years ago. In the mid 1980s,The Rotary Club of Duarte,California decided to welcome women as members. This violated the charter of Rotary International, so the board of directors sued the Duarte Club. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which decided that Rotary's prohibition on women members violated the California Public Accommodations law. The high court didn't say that all Rotary Clubs in the United States had to accept women, only that Rotary International could not throw a club out of Rotary if it did. Board of Directors, Rotary International v. Rotary Club of Duarte, 481 U.S. 537 (May 4, 1987). I have a personal recollection of that case as I was the incoming president of my club, ready to take office in July of 1987. I told my 50 members that although we weren't required to accept women members, we would be foolish not to. The vast majority of our members agreed, and we have been enjoying the leadership and fellowship of our women Rotarians ever since.

How is Rotary Organized?

For such a large and diverse organization, it is surprisingly simple. Rotary International is the parent organization. Rotary Clubs are formed into districts, groupings of clubs in a geographic area. A Rotary District is presided over by a District Governor, who is a member and representative of Rotary International during his or her year as Governor. In my year as District Governor I was responsible for 35 clubs. Individual Rotarians do not belong to Rotary International but rather to their individual clubs. The clubs are members of Rotary International. Each club, as in any organization, is run by a board of directors. Each club has its own constitution and by-laws, but it is required that they don't conflict with the constitution and by-laws of Rotary International. There is a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.

The Typical Rotary Club Meeting

Rotary does have an attendance requirement, and members are expected to attend at least 60% of a club's meetings and not to miss more than four meetings in a row without a valid excuse. Few clubs are very strict about enforcing attendance. One of the endearing qualities of Rotary is that you can do a "make-up" at another club for a meeting you missed. I have done make-ups in England, Ireland, France, Spain and Italy. The great thing is that wherever you are, the Rotary meeting has a familiar look and feel, although it may be in a foreign tongue. Clubs meet for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Often there will be two clubs in an area, and you will see names like the Smithtown Sunrise Club.

The meeting always starts off with the Pledge of Allegiance (in the United States), an invocation prayer, the introduction of guests, and, depending on the club, a group sing along. Fortunately, my club is not a "singing club." Then the president makes announcements and calls for any necessary committee reports. There may be fines, a good natured fundraiser where the sergeant at arms assesses fines such as "Bob owes a dollar because he forgot to wear his Rotary pin." Most clubs also have "Happy dollars," where members toss a dollar into the kitty to express a happy thought, such as the arrival of a new baby or grandchild. Then there is the fellowship part of the meeting, where the members simply enjoy each other's company and chat. Most people report that fellowship is the best part of Rotary.

Then comes the week's program, consisting of a guest speaker. Savvy Rotary clubs know that having compelling and interesting programs is one of the keys to good attendance and healthy membership growth.

The meeting lasts one hour and fifteen minutes, or it should. The time of the meeting is usually adhered to because the members have to get back to work, if it's a lunch or breakfast club.

The Rotary Avenues of Service

Each club has a director of each avenue of service, and they typically serve on the board of directors of the club.

· Club Service focuses on fellowship and the effective running of a Rotary Club.

· Vocational Service encourages Rotarians to use their vocations to promote the Rotary ideal of high ethical practices.

· Community Service concentrates on projects that the club undertakes to serve its local community.

· International Service addresses global humanitarian projects, often in conjunction with the Rotary Foundation, Rotary's charitable arm, which will be discussed later in this article.

· New Generations Service is a relatively new area of service and concentrates on Rotary's involvement in youth orientated organizations such as RYLA (Rotary Youth Leadership Awards), Rotaract (Rotary in colleges and universities), Interact (Rotary in high schools) and the well known Rotary Youth Exchange, a program that arranges the exchange of youngsters between countries.

Is a Rotary Club a Business and Professional Networking Organization?

Absolutely. Not only is Rotary a networking organization, it is one of the best. You will find old Rotary purists who insist that business should be strictly off bounds at a Rotary meeting. From whence this purity comes I know not, because it has never been an official position of Rotary International that people shouldn't network and conduct business with one another. Especially for younger members who are just starting a business or career, networking is one of the biggest advantages to belonging to a Rotary Club. Service Above Self does not mean Service Against Self. That said, if you join a Rotary Club and look to every meeting as a chance to hawk your wares, you are making a big mistake. Whether it's Rotary or any other service organization, you should join to contribute, to pitch in and to help the club conduct its projects. Do that and you will be seen as a person to be counted on, a person who can get the job done. If all you do is plug your business it doesn't make you a bad Rotarian; it makes you a stupid networker.

Bill Gates on the Rotary Foundation

The Rotary Foundation

Rotary International and its Rotary clubs are not charitable organizations. The Rotary Foundation is Rotary's charitable arm, and it's a big arm indeed. Perhaps best known for it's worldwide PolioPlus campaign to eradicate polio, the Rotary Foundation supports innumerable projects worldwide in conjunction with local districts and Rotary clubs. The PolioPlus campaign got the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged over $200 million to the effort. Its grant program, known as Future Vision is impressive: Grants to Rotary districts are block grants that allow clubs and districts to address immediate needs in their immediate communities and abroad. Global grants, anywhere from $15,000 to $200,000, fund large l humanitarian projects, vocational training teams, and scholarships. Package grants allow clubs and districts to work with strategic partners of Rotary International to execute projects that are already set up. The Rotary Foundation's primary source of funding are Rotarians worldwide

Do you know what a Rotary Club is (before reading this article?

See results

Is Rotary For You?

Only you can answer that question, and the best way to answer it is to ask to be invited to a meeting. Finding a local Rotary club is as easy as Googling Rotary and the name of your town or local towns. Membership is by invitation only, and clubs love to bring in new members. If you are looking for an organization where you can unwrap your charitable impulses, and enjoy friendship and networking at the same time, perhaps you should become a Rotarian. As I said at the beginning of this article, Rotary is a group of friends trying to do a little good in the world.

Copyright ©2012 by Russell F. Moran PERMISSION is hereby granted to reprint or repost this article in part or in whole PROVIDED that you credit and attribute Russell F. Moran as the author


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    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Heidi. The younger members of Rotary are often the best.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      4 years ago from Chicago Area

      Rotary, like all other networking groups, is facing many challenges as Millennials join the world of work. I hope they are able to continue to be relevant. They do a lot of good things for the communities they serve! Voted up, interesting and sharing on Twitter... and congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for visiting.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      4 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very interesting article. Though I know some basics, this article gave me full knowledge of A Rotary Club and its organisation and functioning. Thanks for sharing this information with full details. Voted up and interesting.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Krissy. Try to arrange to visit a club that meets near you. They're uniformly populated by very nice people.

    • Krissy Totanes profile image

      Kristine Totanes 

      4 years ago from Daytona Beach, Florida

      Thanks for a very informative hub! Before reading this hub, I had no idea what rotary clubs were, although I had seen and heard of them before. Now, I have a great deal of respect for them, so thank you.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Religion? Like most organizations, Rotary Meetings do start with a prayer, and also a Pledge of Allegiance. For a view of the vast charitable endeavors that Rotary Clubs work at, see But each club makes its won decisions on what to work on.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD!!

      Of course, I've seen those signs all my life as I traveled along the roads with my parents; I still see them to this day. It's not an organization I, myself would join, because I don't believe in religions, and I eschew joining any groups that insist on prayer as part of their normal procedures.

      However, I am curious: if a town is trying to get a community food farm and garden off the ground, is this a project of the type Rotary clubs would help with? (The persons in-charge of this in my town don't necessarily share my views on prayers...) There are some serious start-up costs, and while some has been accomplished, much remains to be done. We have a fiscal sponsor, in the form of another non-profit garden group, but they don't supply funds to us; only bank and dole out any funds we ourselves raise prior to our obtaining our own non-profit status.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      The Rotary PolioPlus campaign has hit a brick wall in some places like Pakistan. The bottles of serum are marked "sterile" and the yokels think that it's a plot to sterilize Muslims.

    • mySuccess8 profile image


      4 years ago

      A concise yet comprehensive well-explained history of the Rotary Club. Now we have a clearer understanding, including its relation to the Interact Club and Rotaract Club during high school and college days. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      4 years ago from United States

      Thanks for such an interesting background look at this organization. I have my students do their research papers on non-profit organizations and one year a student did the Rotary Foundation. I was really interested in their campaign to eliminate Polo and since the Middle East has experienced more Polio recently, I've been listening on the news to hear about how Rotary Foundation is involved.

    • profile image

      former Charter President 

      6 years ago

      You said it...."Rotary clubs are not required to accept women..." I asked the General Secretary of Rotary International just this past

      year if it was acceptable

      behavior to exclude all women from a club's membership. He never answered me. I asked beca u se there is a Rotary club in my district that has openly excluded women for the past 90 years. The mayor was in the club too. It hurt so bad I left after I was terminated from my district position (

      just because I asked for help with this). Even RI won't answer this simple question with a Yes or No response. Emails available upon request.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      6 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thank you Mary.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      6 years ago from Florida

      When my husband who had just graduated from Veterinary School in Georgia and I moved here to S. Fl. he as invited to join the local Rotary Club. That was in 1965. As you said in the '70's women were allowed to join and I did. It as a big part of our lives.

      When my granddaughter graduated from High School, she applied for and won the Rotary Club's scholarship. It paid 1,000 a semester for her first two years. What a blessing that was. I wrote a Hub about her winning 18 college scholarships that year.

      The Rotary Club does many good deeds for our community, and I 'm so glad I found your Hub on the Rotary Club.

      I voted this Hub UP, and will share.

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 

      6 years ago from Central Texas

      Most informative Hub -- I've even attended Rotary Club meetings as a guest and never knew what they were other than a community service type organization. Thanks for educating me! Best/Sis

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      6 years ago

      Interesting hub. I have often wondered what the Rotary club is and does. I usually hear that it a group of businessmen. This says a lot more. Thanks.


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