I’m a sucker for beginnings. So when I heard about the recent launch of a new Rotary club in our district (7090), I was more than just a little excited.
As a past Club President and current PETS 1 Chair, I am well versed in the challenges of membership and retention. Without sufficient Rotarians we can neither actualize our potential nor leverage our impact in communities around the world. And as a trained psychologist and mediator I also understand the challenges of transforming – or retrofitting- existing clubs, addressing historical patterns, interpersonal dynamics, and contextual issues that can inhibit growth.
So when a new club launches with exuberance and vigor, it is certainly worth celebrating and taking careful note.
Here’s the set-up. Buffalo, NY, a Rust Belt city in the midst of reinventing itself. Palpable energy around new construction projects, a growing cultural and tourism sector, and a burgeoning biomedical core, including a relocating medical school, new start-ups and research centers, all co-located in the heart of the city. And at the very nexus of activity is the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), an exciting destination attracting talented physicians, researchers, students, and staff, and just maybe the most perfect home for a brand new Rotary Club.
When members of my own club- Buffalo Sunrise- announced the idea, we were all hopeful that there would be sufficient interest. But when the charter ceremony commenced with over 50 official members, and numbers rising to nearly 100 within the first 2 months, it was clear that they were on to something huge. Talk about beginnings.
My chance to visit the club came just this past week when I was asked to co-facilitate an orientation into the bigger world of Rotary. As an opening exercise we passed around an assortment of articles from past Rotarian magazines. Rather than traditional introductions we had participants summarize their article while sharing any details that had resonated.
Within minutes we could feel the energy of Rotary. The new members described stories from around the world featuring fundraisers, service projects, and extraordinary impacts implemented by clubs, most smaller than theirs. Their areas of focus were as diverse as the projects- from animals to children, disease prevention, clean water, to agriculture. But for me the most exciting part was the reflections following the exercise. Members commented that they hadn’t known there was so much room for creativity, so many possibilities for projects, and opportunities for support.
Imagine all these amazingly talented and connected people joining the world’s best service organization without any idea of its latent potential.
It struck me that new clubs such as the BNMC in many ways represent the promise of Rotary. But they also reflect the significant challenge of connecting Rotary resources and structures with individuals and clubs that are in a constant state of motion and change. Clearly, we all stand to benefit from our ability as districts, and a unified organization, to stay relevant and connected to individual members and clubs. But keeping up with their talents, interests and potential is not for the faint of heart. As district leaders we had better strap on some speedy new running shoes, because the new BNMC Rotary Club has certainly taken off.
“How can we maximize our collective impact?”
We were discussing the adoption of a new local service project, something long-term that would allow us to get closer to the community and make a meaningful contribution.
We had entertained this discussion many times before, but never in quite the same way. Usually it was in the form of self-critique, pointing out what we didn’t do well, or enough of. After all, the mission of Rotary is “service above self” so the question of whether our output was sufficient seemed both natural and heavy as we continued to ponder the direction of our club’s growth and evolution.
But for me this time felt qualitatively different, and the moment resonated with promise.
By framing the question as such, “How can we maximize our collective impact?” we had opened a secret door. And if we chose to enter, it would lead us to something big and important, as long as we had the courage to see it through.
With the question hanging in the air, the probes quickly followed. “Who are we at our core? What do we do best, and enjoy most?” The responses flowed easily.
However, the next question, “What do we have that our community needs most?” gave us pause. It was clear that our city’s needs were great, but there were also so many resources and organizations. We would need to be careful not to duplicate services or even worse, inadvertently compete. We agreed to study community reports in hopes of identifying critical gaps and opportunities.
But we also needed to define the boundaries, the lines that we promised not to cross. As Rotarians we were all volunteers, paying significant dues for the honor of being members. As such, we had little tolerance for going outside our comfort zones. And with membership being such a critical issue, we would have to stay firmly within our sweet spot, maintaining our current members while continuing to attract more.
The promise was tantalizing- identifying a new service project that would serve a significant unmet need, leveraging and supporting other community programs and resources, while being uniquely suited to our club’s respective strengths and interests.
So what did we come up with? I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that our new project, which is still in its formative stages, promises to be both exciting and ambitious, in all the right ways.
But perhaps even more important than the project itself is the associated birthing process. By framing our new endeavors, whenever possible, within the guiding question “How can we maximize our collective potential?” we can ensure that our efforts are both inherently important and uniquely ours. And when we are truly working- or serving- in our sweet spots, not only will we find the fulfillment and satisfaction that we crave, but we will also attract other like-minded individuals who are ready to join us, and our capacity for impact will continue to grow.
It begins with a spark, a current of energy that radiates outward, illuminating the darkness and igniting our collective possibilities.
It exists among us in people of all ages and backgrounds. Although some have achieved prominence it is not about money or power in the traditional sense.
Brilliance is an inner light that shines with clarity and purpose, emanating from within while radiating outward, catching and amplifying the light of others, brightening our world.
To behold it, we must be open and ready. For brilliance is most often quiet and understated.
A taxi driver from Ethiopia who sends his children home every summer to remember what’s important; a homeless woman who feels blessed to sleep in a park that is peaceful and safe, asking of nothing and appreciating the gift of life
Sometimes brilliance is bold and dramatic. A friend who funds medical projects in Africa, or Rotary clubs that together eradicate polio around the world
But regardless of the scope or focus, brilliance includes a heightened sense of purpose and meaning that serve as a driver, activating courage and strength, and mitigating fear.
People who shine brilliantly possess an inherent respect for others, and an ability to experience joy and gratitude that nourish their soul and provide all that they need.
To be clear, the world does not cultivate brilliance, nor does it recognize it as such. In fact the very word is defined as a one-dimensional strength, impressive and rare, but somehow different, as if too much.
Perhaps the notion of brilliance is inherently scary. If we were to acknowledge that it exists and represents a superior state that cannot be bought by money, power, or influence, it would be too jarring to address.
In many ways we are unprepared for brilliance, finding it easier to modulate our light, keeping our expectations low and seeking satisfaction in good enough.
After all, those who dare to shine often find their light weakened or snuffed out by others who fail to nurture their flames.
It is ironic that brilliance is viewed as threatening when it has the power to elevate us all.
By merely recognizing brilliance we connect with what is important and are rewarded with a sense of warmth and promise, a clarity that can guide us toward our own growth and fulfillment.
But how can we nurture brilliance, in ourselves and others?
First we must develop our sensitivity- noting shifts in our own levels of radiance and the radiance of others, as conditions change and become more or less conducive.
As we begin to notice changes we can glimpse the sources of our light, feeling out the edges and boundaries and appreciating our impacts and possibilities.
It is critical that we start with ourselves. For t is only when we are shining brightly and able to sustain our own brilliance that we can cultivate it in those around us.
Yes, brilliance is highly combustible, spreading from person to person, eventually lighting up the world.
And although it begins with any one of us, we simply cannot be brilliant alone.
I am currently grappling with the decision of whether to leave Rotary, and I have been doing so for quite some time. To be clear, I don’t want to leave Rotary, in fact I would love to get even more involved.
But as a busy forty-one year old with young children and a demanding career, I am finding it increasingly difficult to stay engaged. And as I ponder my options I can’t help thinking about the broader challenges and the hundreds- if not thousands- of Rotarians who share my dilemma.
Just last month I had the privilege of chairing our district’s President Elect (PETS 1) trainings at which issues of membership featured heavily. Our incoming presidents were told of the “revolving door” phenomenon and its implications for our collective work and the future of our beloved organization. The offered solutions focused on keeping members engaged, ensuring their involvement in committees and fundraisers, and keeping meetings fun and stimulating.
While these solutions all make sense, they fail to touch my own issues and reasons for considering leaving. To be clear, I am already engaged. I became president of my club less than 3 years after joining, and I had a wonderful and successful year. Following my presidency I happily agreed to get involved at the district level, chairing the president-elect training and also helping to develop and facilitate workshops focused on club growth and vitality.
So engagement is definitely not the issue, nor is the notion of having fun. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a club being more fun and lively than ours (Buffalo Sunrise). Within our membership of approximately 30, we have a clown, a humorist, a body builder, two singers, and a diverse assortment of accomplished professionals who love to laugh, have fun, and enjoy one another’s company.
So why would I ever consider leaving? Simply put, I feel guilty. As a person who wholly commits to everything I do, I’m having a hard time giving my club and Rotary all it deserves and asks of me as a member. Although my president is understanding and my club forgiving, I feel my engagement slipping. And since my career and family life promise to grow even busier in the years ahead, I don’t see this pattern changing.
To be clear, I don’t want to leave Rotary. On the contrary, I would love to help steward its growth and sustainability as we work through the changing landscape ahead.
But when I consider what it will take to rise through the ranks of Rotary to become an agent of change, I do not think it is feasible. The shear time commitment involved in virtually every aspect of leadership has far-reaching implications for the profile of leaders who will continue to emerge.
How we respond to the constraints and needs of Rotarians like myself while staying true to the core of the Rotary tradition presents a dilemma that is both critical and complex.
I am hopeful that we will rise to the challenge.
As the challenges facing our communities grow deeper and more complex, we require innovative solutions that are effective and scalable. And although we have embraced the importance of innovation in technology and STEM fields, these sectors- even if fully developed- will not be enough to address the full scope of humanitarian need.
Clearly, we must expand our focus on innovation and problem solving to include all fields and disciplines that touch our communities, especially those most vulnerable.
And while specialization is of course necessary to prepare individuals for specific fields, we would benefit greatly from professionals who embody a holistic commitment and readiness to contribute to the greater good.
By visioning this general learner profile and unpacking the associated attributes we can allow for diverse and specialized preparation programs while at the same time working toward a shared vision and goals.
Through my own professional and community efforts I have developed a profile that I refer to as “adaptive agency.” This incorporates the Piagetian notion of adaptation that speaks to the dynamic nature of learning through interacting with one’s environment and making successive refinements to existing schemas; and also the notion of agency that speaks to one’s sense of competency and empowerment to make meaningful change.
If you agree that we need individuals across all fields and disciplines with high levels of adaptive agency, then the following component skills and dispositions must be cultivated.
- A sense of responsibility and competence with regard to identifying and working toward solutions and responses to large-scale issues and problems
- A sensitivity to communities and cultures and an ability to reflect on one’s efforts and impacts within broader contexts
- A broad array of problem solving and critical thinking skills as well as theoretical and disciplinary lenses that can be applied toward innovative solutions and approaches
- An understanding of assessment, evaluation, and research to help test hypotheses, refine approaches, and share findings toward greater impacts
Although certain civic and service-based organizations, especially Rotary, celebrate and support adaptive agency, the profile is neither widely embraced nor actively cultivated through our current education systems- both at the Prek-12 and higher education levels.
If we are serious about reaping the benefits of adaptive agency, then we must start young. School-aged children are enthusiastic, empathic, and notoriously confident in terms of their skills and abilities to be successful. And as they become older and more cognitively sophisticated they can incorporate agency within academic and professional paradigms as well as experiential learning opportunities.
To be clear, cultivating and even measuring adaptive agency (or some variation of the construct) is in no way difficult or costly, nor would it present any systemic challenges that could not be overcome.
The only real obstacle is getting leaders to recognize the importance of agency and innovation within the broad contexts of community development and sustainability and the need to cultivate the necessary skills and dispositions.
Perhaps organizations such as Rotary that already understand the importance and potential impact of adaptive agency can emerge as catalysts for the broader conversation. Doing so would in turn increase our own adaptive agency as Rotarians.
I am not a joiner. On the contrary, I have gone to great lengths to avoid all groups with official names and rules. I have zero interest in badges or titles or joining committees. And the words “fellowship” and “oath” evoke a reflexive need to escape and hide.
And yet I am a Rotarian, and amazingly, a very enthusiastic and proud one.
What draws me to Rotary?
It’s not the club meetings, the programs, or projects. It’s not even the amazing contributions that Rotarians make to communities around the world.
For me, it’s the system- a system that is remarkably robust and nimble, organized entirely around the notion of service above self, a mission that is both powerful and unifying.
All layers of the Rotary system- from clubs, to districts and zones, to Rotary International, and the Rotary Foundation- are designed to amplify and leverage the contributions of individual Rotarians toward the greatest impact.
To be clear, Rotary is not a panacea, nor is it perfect in its current manifestations.
A tour of Rotary clubs will reveal surprising variability, with some clinging to tradition at the cost of relevance, and diversity uneven at best (and often much worse). And you will quickly learn that women have only been officially accepted since 1987, with no woman serving as president of Rotary International to date.
Clearly, Rotary has yet to reach its full potential. But as a model for community and world development it is like none other that I have found.
From an infrastructure standpoint it is both lean and transparent. Leaders serve one-year terms with no financial or political benefits.
Unlike the PreK-16 education system, Rotary it is truly a pipeline with programs focused on youth, young professionals, and adults who can contribute well into their senior years.
The system is built around individual clubs, with districts offering support and resources to ensure health and sustainability, even in the face of continually changing membership, leadership, and community context.
This is perhaps my favorite aspect of the Rotary system. Despite its size, complexity and dynamic nature it is inherently elegant and nimble- able to flex and pivot with the changing needs of the world.
And like any robust system, it must also continue to attract members who seek the experiences it affords.
While historically, Rotary has sustained itself largely on those who enjoy the benefits of fellowship, networking, and the status that is often associated with membership, the inner and outer workings of the system have gone largely unseen.
But today our communities are experiencing deeper and more systemic challenges than ever before. And at the same time, people of all ages are yearning for a more meaningful connection with the world.
Fortunately, Rotary is poised to deliver on both ends. And as a model it is scalable, sustainable, and highly accessible to all who are ready to engage.
It is time we embrace Rotary for all that it has to offer.