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Rotary International is an organization of service clubs known as Rotary Clubs located all over the world. It is a secular organization open to all persons regardless of race, color, creed or political preference. There are more than 32,000 clubs and over 1.2 million members worldwide. The members of Rotary Clubs are known as Rotarians. The stated purpose of the organization is to bring together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world. Members usually meet weekly for breakfast, lunch or dinner, which is a social event as well as an opportunity to organize work on their service goals.

Rotary's best-known motto is "Service above Self", and its secondary motto is "They profit most who serve best".


The object of Rotary is 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.

This objective is 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:

  • 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?


Early years

The first Rotary Club was formed in downtown Chicagomarker by attorney Paul P. Harris 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. The same year, Rotary chartered a branch in Winnipeg, Manitobamarker, Canadamarker, marking the first establishment of an American-style service club outside the United States. This was followed in 1911 by the founding of the first club outside North America in Dublinmarker, Irelandmarker.

During World War I, Rotary in Britain increased from 9 to 22 clubs, and other early international branches were Cubamarker in 1916 and Indiamarker in 1920.

In 1922, because branches had been formed in six continents, the name was changed to Rotary International. By 1925, Rotary had grown to 200 clubs with more than 20,000 members.

War time

Rotary Clubs in Spain 'ceased to operate' shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

In Germany, no club had been formed before 1927, because of "opposition from the continental clubs". For a while after 1933, Rotary Clubs 'met with approval' of the Nazi authorities and were considered to offer 'opportunity for party comrades ... to provide enlightenment regarding the nature and policy of the National Socialist movement'. The Nazis, although they saw international organizations as suspect, had authorised NSDAP members to be members of the Rotary through the Nazi Party's court rulings issued in 1933, 1934 and 1936. In 1937, more than half the rotarians were Nazi Party members.

Six German Clubs were formed after Hitler came to power. They came under pressure almost immediately to expel their Jewish members.

Rotary clubs do not appear to have had a unified policy towards the Nazi regime: while several German Rotary Clubs decided to disband their organizations in 1933, others practiced a policy of appeasement or collaborated. In Munichmarker the club removed from its members' list a number of Rotarians, Jewish and non-Jewish, who were politically unacceptable for the regime, including Thomas Mann (already in exile in Switzerlandmarker). Twelve members resigned in "sympathy with the expelled members".

Beginning 1937 however, hostile articles were published in the Nazi press about Rotary, comparing Rotary with Freemasonry. Soon after that, the incompatibility between Nazism and the international humanitarian organization resulted in two decisions which would jeopardize the existence of Rotary in Germany: in June 1937, the ministry of the interior forbade civil servants to be members of the Rotary; in July, the NSDAP's party court reversed its previous rulings and declared Party and Rotarian membership incompatible as from January 1938.

Rotary's cause was advocated before the NSDAP party court by Dr. Grill, Governor for the Rotary 73d district, arguing that the German Rotary was compliant with the goals of the Nazi government, had excluded Freemasons in 1933 and non-Aryans in 1936 . Other attempts were made, also by foreign Rotarians, but appeasement failed this time, and, in September 1937, the 73rd district dissolved itself. Subsequently the charter of German clubs was withdrawn by Rotary International, although some clubs continued to meet 'privately'.

Clubs were disbanded across Europe as follows:

  • Austria (1938)
  • Italy (1939)
  • Czechoslovakia (1940)
  • Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Luxembourg (1941)
  • Hungary (1941/2)

From 1945

Rotarian clubs in Eastern Europe were also disbanded from 1947 to 1989, under the communist regimes.

In 1985, Rotary launched its PolioPlus program to immunize all of the world's children against polio. In 2005 Rotary claimed to have contributed half a billion dollars to the cause, resulting in the immunization of nearly two billion children worldwide.

Rotary started opening new clubs in former communist countries and the first Russian club was chartered in 1990.

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. The number of Rotarians has slightly declined in recent years: Between 2002 and 2006, they went from 1,245,000 to 1,223,000 members. North America accounts for 450,000 members, Asia for 300,000, Europe for 250,000, Latin America for 100,000, Oceania for 100,000 and Africa for 30,000.

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 Evanstonmarker, a suburb of Chicagomarker. 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. The 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 annual RI Convention held in a different country each year. 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 people working at the headquarters and in seven international offices around the world.


According to its constitutions ("Charters"), Rotary defines itself as a non-partisan, non-sectarian and secular organization. It is open to business and professional leaders of all ages (18 and upwards) and economic status.

One can contact a Rotary club to enquire about membership but can join a rotary club only if invited; there is no provision to join without an invitation as each prospective Rotarian requires a sponsor who is an existing Rotarian. The clubs have some exclusivist membership criteria: reputation and business or professional leadership is a specific evaluation criterion for issuing invitations to join, and they limit representation from a specific profession or business to a percentage of a specific club's membership.

Active membership

Active membership is by invitation from a current Rotarian, to professionals or businesspersons working in diverse areas of endeavor. 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. Examples of honorary members are heads of state or former heads of state, famous scientists or other famous people.

Female membership

From 1905 until the 1980s, women were not allowed membership in Rotary clubs, although Rotarian spouses, including Paul Harris' 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 had helped to break down female seclusion in some countries. Clubs such as Rotary had long been predated by women's voluntary organizations, which started in the United States as early as 1790.

The first Irish clubs discussed admitting women in 1912, but the proposal floundered over issues of social class.

Gender equity in Rotary International was first publicly raised by the Duarte Rotary Club affair. In 1976, the Duarte Californiamarker club allowed three women to join. Rotary International expressed alarm but requests to terminate the women's memberships were rejected by the club. 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.marker Supreme Courtmarker. 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 Seattlemarker-International District club unanimously voted to admit women in 1986. The United States Supreme Court, on May 4, 1987, confirmed the Californian decision and, since that time, women have been allowed to join Rotary. The Elks, the final holdout among service clubs in prohibiting female membership, voted in 1995 to allow women. The first female club president to be elected was Silvia Whitlock of the Rotary Club of Duarte, California, USA in 1987.. By 2007, there was a female trustee of Rotary's charitable wing The Rotary Foundation while female district governors and club presidents were common. Women accounted for 15% of international membership (22% in North America).

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. 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, Californiamarker's $10,000 scholarships for students in inner-city schools. Another example is the Reynolda Rotary club of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which has partnered with an elementary school with primarily minority students.

There have been some individual exceptions. As early as 1963, a Hindu Bengalimarker, Nitish Chandra Laharry, served as Rotary International's first Asian president.


The programs of Rotary are so diverse as to all but defy categorisation.

In addition, there are the programs of The Rotary Foundation, which include educational, humanitarian and fellowship and vocational exchanges.


Interact is Rotary International’s service club for young people ages 14 to 18. Interact clubs are sponsored by individual Rotary clubs, which provide support and guidance, but they are self-governing and self-supporting.

Club membership varies greatly. Clubs can be single gender or mixed, large or small. They can draw from the student body of a single school or from two or more schools in the same community.

Each year, Interact clubs complete at least two community service projects, one of which furthers international understanding and goodwill. Through these efforts, Interactors develop a network of friendships with local and overseas clubs and learn the importance of: developing leadership skills and personal integrity, demonstrating helpfulness and respect for others, understanding the value of individual responsibility and hard work and advancing international understanding and goodwill.

The first Interact Club meet with 23 students at Melbourne High School in Melbourne, Floridamarker in 1960. It has since become one of the most significant and fastest-growing programs of Rotary service; with more than 10,700 clubs in 109 countries and geographical areas, Interact has become a worldwide phenomenon. Almost 200,000 young people are involved in Interact.


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 in some of the oral vaccines, which have been reported to cause infection in populations with low vaccination coverage. 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 that "all wild poliovirus transmission [has been] stopped". In a recent speech at the Rotary International Convention, held at the Bella Center in Copenhagenmarker, Bruce Cohick stated that polio in all its known wild forms will be eliminated by late 2008, provided efforts in Nigeriamarker, Afghanistanmarker, Pakistanmarker, and India all proceed with their current momentum.

Exchanges and scholarships

Some of Rotary's most visible programs include Rotary Youth Exchange, a student exchange program for students in secondary education, and the Rotary Foundation's oldest program, Ambassadorial Scholarships. Today, there are six different types of Rotary Scholarships. More than 38,000 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 2006-07 grants totaling approximately US$15 million were used to award some 800 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. In July 2009 the Rotary Foundation ended funding for the Cultural and Multi-Year Ambassadorial Scholarships as well as Rotary Grants for University Teachers. [35748]

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. Recently, a new program was established known as the Rotary peace and Conflict Resolution program which provides funds for two years of graduate study in one of eight universitites around the world. Rotary is naming about seventy five of these scholars each year. The applications for these scholarships are found on line but each application must be endorsed by a local Rotary Club. Children and other close relatives of Rotarians are not eligible.

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 (Japanmarker), University of Queenslandmarker (Australia), Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Parismarker (Sciences Po) (Francemarker), University of Bradfordmarker (United Kingdommarker), Universidad del Salvador (Argentinamarker), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillmarker (U.S.), Duke Universitymarker (U.S.), Chulalongkorn University (Thailand) and University of California, Berkeleymarker (U.S.) Since then, the Rotary Foundation's Board of Trustees has dropped its association with the Center in France at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and is currently ending its association with the University of California, Berkeley.

Rotary World Peace Fellows complete two year masters level programs in conflict resolution, peace studies, and international relations. The first class graduated in 2004. As with many such university programs in "peace and conflict studies", questions have been raised concerning political bias and controversial grants. As of August 2006, the Rotary Foundation had spent $18 million on its "peace and conflict" Centers, and the average grant was about $60,000 per enrollee in the two-year program.

In 2004, Fellows established the Rotary World Peace Fellows Association to promote interaction among Fellows, Rotarians, and the public on issues related to peace studies.

Other Rotary sponsored organizations

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.
Interact:a service club consisting of more than 239,000 young people aged 14–18 with over 10,700 clubs in 108 countries.
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.

Individual club efforts

While there are numerous Rotary-wide efforts, Rotary clubs are also encouraged to take part in local ventures; In a more unusual twist, Rosalie Maguire, a Bataviamarker, New Yorkmarker, 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. 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.


Official and regional Rotary magazines

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 130 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 Britainmarker and Irelandmarker.

The official and regional magazines are circulated to Rotarian and non-Rotarian subscribers. The combined circulation is more than 700,000 copies.

Club bulletin

Rotary clubs issue weekly a bulletin full of Rotary news from recent meetings. Aside from meeting information and the name list of club directors and officers, the club bulletin contains club president's message, a summary of guest speaker's presentation, club projects and service activities, upcoming events, announcements and reminders for the members. It is circulated to the club members in printed form, however more and more clubs go paperless by publishing the club bulletin electronically.

District governor's newsletter

District governors publish monthly a newsletter reporting service activities conducted by the clubs within the district and various district level meetings. The newsletter contains also district governor's message and lists also the membership and attendance figures of all district clubs. It is circulated to every Rotarian in the district.
Rotary Club banners.

Popular culture

Rotary International 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", which had a relative success on the world-music scene, speaks of an organization for "white people in depression".

In the television show Desperate Housewives, Gabrielle attends Victor Lang's Rotary Club meeting in his ex-wife's couture dress.

Stephen King’s novel, “The Library Policeman”, centers on Sam Peebles, a small town insurance agent who is called upon on short notice to give a speech to his Rotary Club on “The Importance of the Independently Owned Business in Small-town Life”.

In season four episode five of the Larry David show "Curb Your Enthusiasm", titled "The 5 Wood", David is trying to gain entrance into a club whose members were generally non-Jewish Republicans. In the interview David makes up many lies about himself, one of which being that he is a member of the Rotary Club.

In the dual episode "Hole in the Heart" of series three of the Australian comedy TV series Frontline, the host Mike Moore and producer try to get all the credit after Rotary bring a young boy from Papua New Guinea to Melbourne, Australia for a life-saving operation.

In season four, episode two of The Office, branch manager Michael Scott holds one of his notorious seminars which this one focusing on ageism in the workplace. He introduces the surviving founder of the Dunder-Mifflin paper company, who mentions that he met the late co-founder when they were in the Rotary Club.


  1. Presentation of the Rotary on their website
  2. 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 Rotary Marks accessed 2 June 2006
  3. Russell, Jeff. "Can You Survive Rotary's Four-Way Test?" Journal of Management in Engineering, May/Jun2000, Vol. 16 Issue 3, p13
  4. Wikle, 1999 p. 47.
  5. Fabrice d'Almeida, La vie mondaine sous le nazisme ("High-class life under Nazism"), Paris, Perrin, 2006, ISBN 978-2-262-02162-7, p.155
  6. Fabrice d'Almeida, ibid., p. 155
  7. Such as the governor of the Belgian Rotary district, who insisted, in a letter to the NSDAP party court, on the fact that Rotary respects established authority. See d'Almeida, ibid., p. 156.
  8. De Grazia, p. 71.
  9. Today and tomorrow, an history of Rotary
  10. Examples can be found all around the world, such as Albert I, King of the Belgians, Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Winston Churchill, Hassan II of Morocco, John F. Kennedy, Angela Merkel, Augusto Pinochet and Prince Rainier III, but although for instance a majority of presidents of the United States appear to have been honorary members, it is difficult to say as a rule that all heads of state receive—or accept—honorary membership.
  11. Such as Thomas A. Edison and Thor Heyerdahl
  12. Such as astronauts (Neil A. Armstrong), military (Douglas MacArthur) or entertainment (Walt Disney) people. See Famous Honorary Rotarians for more examples.
  13. Bird, John "The Wonderful, Wide, Backslapping World Of Rotary." Saturday Evening Post 2/9/1963, Vol. 236 Issue 5, p58–62
  14. Wikle 1999, p 50.
  15. Rotary International California District website [1] accessed 17 June 2006
  16. "ABCs of Rotary" website [2] accessed 17 June 2006
  17. Fost, Dan. "Farewell to the Lodge." American Demographics January 1996, Vol. 18, Issue 1. p40–46
  18. Susan Hanf, Donna Polydoros, "Historic Moments: Women In Rotary", Rotary International Website, 1 October 2009 [3] accessed 26 October 2009
  19. Quittner, Jeremy. "Join the Club." Advocate, 4/16/2002, Issue 861
  20. Fost 1996. pp40–46.
  21. Bird, 1963. p59
  22. Rotary International Polio Facts 2006 Accessed 24 January 2007. This document appears to be updated quarterly.
  23. Bird, 1963. p62.
  25. Rotary World Peace Fellow Association - A Digaria Club Blogsite
  26. "The Strip Club." People 12/13/2004, Vol. 62, Issue 24. Models, aged 33 to 67, posed with strategically placed props.
  27. Ellison, Jerome. "The Truth About the Service Clubs." Saturday Evening Post 10/13/1951, Vol. 224 Issue 15, p. 38–178, 6p.

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