Rotary International

Rotary International provides humanitarian service, encourages high ethical standards in all vocations, and helps build goodwill and peace in the world. Today there are approximately 1.2 million Rotarians who belong to more than 31,000 Rotary clubs located in 167 countries.


Rotary International is an international organization made up of individual Rotary Clubs. Leaders from the business and professional communities, called Rotarians, make up each individual club. Rotary International provides humanitarian service, encourages high ethical standards in all vocations, and helps build goodwill and peace in the world. Today there are approximately 1.2 million Rotarians who belong to more than 31,000 Rotary clubs located in 167 countries (Rotary International).

Rotary’s motto is “Service Above Self.” The object of Rotary has four parts: to develop acquaintance as an opportunity for service; to have high ethical standards in business and professions; to apply the ideal of service in each Rotarian's personal, business, and community life; and to advance international understanding, goodwill, and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service (Ibid.)

Rotary’s mission also has four parts: 1) Promoting unity among member clubs; 2) Expanding and strengthening Rotary Clubs around the world; 3) Making the work of Rotary known worldwide; and 4) Introducing a system of international administration (Ibid.). Rotary Clubs are active in a wide range of activities, from local community improvement projects to global public health campaigns and international cultural exchanges for students and individual Rotarians.

Membership in Rotary can only be obtained by an invitation from a current Rotarian. Effort is made to keep membership limited to only ten percent from a given area of business or vocation. The primary goal of Rotary Clubs is to promote volunteer service by professionals in their communities. Group projects are commonly organized for the local community, with some larger projects organized globally (Wikipedia).

Historic Roots

Paul Harris, a lawyer from Vermont, founded Rotary International in 1905 in Chicago. He had just finished a five-year tour of the United States and Europe where he had made many friends and contacts. After settling in the big city of Chicago, Paul found that he missed the camaraderie of his small town upbringing and the friendships he had made around the world. With several other like-minded businessmen with similar backgrounds, Paul formed a small association that sought to establish the fraternity and trustworthiness that they missed. Paul’s new club met at the offices or places of business of the members, and because the location rotated weekly, the group decided to call themselves the Rotary Club.

The early objective of Rotary was for members to build friendly business relationships with each other, but the members soon “discovered the joys of service,” and included community service in their activities (Forward, 2003, 4). The Rotarians also decided that they wanted their club to be as diverse as possible, and so started the tradition of limiting membership to certain percentages from the various professions (i.e. not a club of mostly lawyers, but one person from the law community, from medicine, from banking, etc.). Soon the Rotary Club of Chicago grew to over 200 members from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions, all engaged along with their families in many community service projects.

In 1908, Chicago Rotarian Manuel Munoz visited California and brought his stories of Rotary to the businessmen he met there. Soon Rotary had its second club, in San Francisco. Over the next few years many more clubs sprung up around the United States, and in 1922, the first Canadian Rotary Club was established, prompting the then National Association of Rotary Club to change its name to Rotary International (Forward, 2003, 5).

Early projects for Rotary International were centered on the effects of the First World War and then the Great Depression. During World War II, British Rotarians became involved in a conference on international education and cultural exchange, beginning what would become the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). By 1948, Rotary International was involved in many international cultural exchanges and had become a strong, influential international organization (Forward, 2003, 5).

For many years women were excluded from Rotary membership, even though many participated informally. A percentage of Rotary wives and daughters formed the Inner Wheel, a Rotary associated service club for women that still exists today. But it wasn’t until 1989 that women were formally allowed by the Rotary Constitution to become full members of Rotary International itself. The decision to allow women into Rotary was the result of great debate and many lawsuits, including one in the Supreme Court. Today women make up 10% of Rotary members and their membership has done much for the organization’s growth and increased activity in the past 15 years (Forward, 2003, 185-89).


Individual Rotary projects often focus on an important need of an individual community or region. For example, Rotarians in the state of Georgia formed a baseball league for 100 children with physical and developmental disabilities. This league was called the “Miracle League” because no matter how disabled, every Miracle Leaguer plays the field, gets a hit, gets on base, and crosses home plate. The Rotary Clubs of Rockdale County and Conyers joined together to expand the league, creating the Field of Dreams project – a custom-designed complex of four playing fields – three of grass and one of cushioned synthetic turf to accommodate wheelchairs and other walking-assistance devices – plus a handicap-accessible concession area and restrooms. Rotarians have been involved in this project through fundraising, spreading the word about the league, finding prospective players, and promoting the Rotary image in the area (Rotary International).

In 1985 Rotary International began an important new project that would work to improve the entire global community – the PolioPlus program to eradicate Polio from the world completely. Since the project was begun, Rotarians have donated over $500 million US dollars to the project, not to mention tens of thousands of volunteer hours. Over one billion children have been immunized against Polio through Rotary efforts. The PolioPlus is particularly important because it prompted larger organizations, such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the US Centers for Disease Control to become involved in eradicating polio (Wikipedia).

Rotary also works globally through the Rotary Youth Exchange, funding international scholarships for undergraduates, graduate students, as well as for qualified professionals. The oldest Rotary exchange program, the Ambassadorial Scholarships program, seeks to improve international understanding and friendly relations among nations. It has funded scholarships for more than 37,000 of tomorrow’s community and world leaders. While abroad, Ambassadorial scholars, in addition to their studies, give presentations on the culture of their home countries. Once they return home, the scholars present information about their host countries to Rotarians and others (Rotary International).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Rotary and other service clubs are a very important part of the philanthropic sector. They have grown in popularity since the early 20th century and are common features of modern middle-class American life. By having this position in the lives of average Americans, service clubs make it easy to engage in civic service and giving behavior, creating a deep-seated tradition of voluntarism. Professional service clubs, that is service clubs made up of businessmen and women, allow individuals to improve their businesses through networking and public relations, while simultaneously benefiting the community as a whole (Charles, 1993, 1-3).

By engaging in group service and giving activities and tying social activities to volunteering, individuals become invested in the philanthropic process. Organizations like Rotary, which also engage in international cooperative and exchange projects, do much to further international understanding and peace. When individuals, even those from different cultures, nationalities, and races, cooperate towards a shared goal, harmony and cohesiveness result (Sherif, 1954).

Many Rotary leaders like Paul Harris realized that while individual clubs could do much for their respective communities, by banding the many clubs together important philanthropic work on a global scale could be accomplished. So in 1917 the Rotary Foundation was established as the philanthropic arm of Rotary International. The Foundation funds international humanitarian, educational, and cultural exchange programs that promote world understanding and peace. The Foundation's humanitarian programs fund international projects to improve the quality of life in developing countries by providing health care, clean water, food, education, and other needs. Educational programs are also funded by the Foundation, which allows 1,200 students to study abroad each year. There are also grants made to university professors and teachers to travel to and teach in developing countries, as well as grants for exchanges of business and professional people (Charity Navigator).

Key Related Ideas

Civic Service is the organized period of substantial engagement and contribution to the local, national, or world community, recognized and valued by society, with minimal monetary contribution to the participant (Global Service Institute Network).

Development of acquaintances is the first part of the Object of Rotary. Rotarians see the practice of networking among professionals as not only good for business but also an opportunity to engage in service activities. It is in this way that individuals and businesses, as well as community, benefit from Rotary Clubs (Rotary International).

Ethical standards in business and the professions is the second part of the Object of Rotary. Rotarians seek not only to be active in improving their communities and the world through civic service, but also to bring ethics into their professional lives and business practices (Ibid.).

“Four Avenues of Service” refers to the four types of service on which Rotary Club activities are based. They include Club Service (strengthening fellowship and function within an individual club), Vocational Service (adhering to high ethical standards in all activities of one’s vocation), Community Service (the projects and activities a club and its members undertake in their community), and International Service (expansion of Rotary’s humanitarian programs around the world which work to promote understanding and peace) (Ibid.).

International understanding is a core principle behind service efforts and cooperation among Rotarians from different parts of the world, as well as being the fourth part of the Object of Rotary. International understanding is fostered through Rotary projects in club-to-club exchanges, student exchanges, and international service projects. It is the reason Rotary International has a long-standing, close collaboration with the United Nations and many of its member agencies (Ibid.).

Service Clubs are groups of individuals who meet for social exchange and professional networking, much like fraternal organizations, except that service clubs are also dedicated to charitable service or voluntarism of some kind. Service clubs can be small, local, informal associations or can be multinational organizations, and their activities range from short-term projects in a single neighborhood to global campaigns to improve all civil society (Charles, 1993, 3).

Important People Related to the Organization

  • Neil Armstrong (1930-) is famous for being the first human to walk on the moon. H was also a Rotarian.

  • Walt Disney (1901-1966) was a former Rotarian and creator of Mickey Mouse, a cartoon character who is now an icon known throughout the world. 

  • Paul P. Harris (1868-1947) began Rotary by believing that a small club of businessmen could improve their Chicago community. He took that dream to promote kindness, tolerance, ethical behavior and commitment to service and turned it into the strong international organization that Rotary is today.

  • President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was a former Rotarian who, while President of the United States, helped found the Peace Corps – no doubt at least in part on Rotary values of international understanding through travel.

  • Carl-Wilhelm Stenhammar (1935-) is the current President of Rotary International. From Sweden and a Rotarian since 1974, Mr. Stenhammar has also served on the Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force and as general coordinator of the Literacy and Education Committee.

  • Herbert J. Taylor (1893-1978) was an early Rotarian who served as president from 1954-1955. While helping to restore the bankrupt Club Aluminum Company in 1932 he developed the “Four-Way Test” which Rotarians still use today as a guideline for business ethics. He believed that in all things a person thinks, says, or does, the four questions should be considered: “1. Is it the truth? 2. Is it fair to all concerned? 3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” (American Business National Hall of Fame).

  • Margaret Thatcher (1925-) is the former Prime Minister of England, as well as one the first female Rotarians.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Altrusa International is a worldwide volunteer service organization devoted to improving human well being through the development and implementation of effective local community service programs (

  • International Cultural Youth Exchange is an international nonprofit organization that, like Rotary, believes that international understanding can be achieved through cultural exchanges like study abroad and student exchanges (

  • Kiwanis is a global volunteer association whose goal “changing the world one child and one community at a time.” Service projects often focus on improving the lives of young children, but also work to improve communities in other areas, such as care of the elderly and literacy (

  • Lions Clubs International is another major international association of service clubs. Lions Club projects combat blindness, drug abuse, and diabetes; as well as global projects to prevent river blindness and improve disaster preparedness (

  • Rotaract is a Rotary-sponsored service organization for younger people (ages 18-30) (

  • Rotary Community Corps (RCC) is a Rotary affiliated volunteer organization for non-Rotarian men and women in over 4,400 communities worldwide. Sponsored by Rotary Clubs, RCC members share the Rotary commitment to service and use their knowledge and abilities to improve quality of life in the communities in which they live (

  • Soroptimist International is an organization for professional women, working through service projects to advance human rights and the status of women worldwide (

  • The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works to eradicate polio and other childhood diseases. UNICEF and Rotary work as partners (along with the US Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization) to improve access to immunizations, disseminate information to parents and communities, and to raise funds for future programs (

Related Web Sites

Abroad View, at, is an online and print magazine for students who are considering studying abroad or have recently returned home from a study abroad program. Highlights include information on global service-learning (a combination of study and volunteer work) as well as helpful guides for adapting to foreign cultures and adjusting to “reverse culture shock” when returning home.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative Website,, is a comprehensive guide to the global public health initiative to eradicate polio. The site contains background on the disease, information on the countries where polio is still endemic and links to recent news stories about polio.

Innovations in Civic Participation has a website and online newsletter available at The site has great resources for individuals interested in becoming involved in civic service.

Besides your local Rotary Club, a good place to look for volunteer opportunities for professionals is the Network for Good Website at

Bibliography and Internet Sources

American Business National Hall of Fame. Herbert Taylor. [updated 2002; Accessed 28 November 2005].

Charity Navigator. The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International. [updated June 2004; Accessed 28 November 2005}.

Charles, Jeffrey A. Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. ISBN: 0-252-02015-4.

Forward, David C. A Century of Service: The Story of Rotary International. Evanston, IL: Rotary International, 2003. ISBN: 0-915062-22-4.

Global Service Institute Network. GSI's Working Definition of CIVIC SERVICE. Accessed 28 November 2005.

Rotary International. About Rotary. Accessed 28 November 2005.

Sherif, Muzafer. Socio-Cultural Influences in Small Group Research. Sociology and Social Research, 1954. 39: 1-10.

Wikipedia. Rotary International. Accessed 18 October 2005.