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The Rotary Effect

Author: Juliet Porton
January, 2015 Issue

Rotary works by harnessing both the power of its 1.2 million members worldwide and the power of each member willing to step up and be of service.

There’s a name for the phenomenon that occurs when Rotary International partners with other organizations to multiply the impact either group could have had on its own: “the Rotary effect.” Once you start to look for Rotary in action in our local communities and around the world, you’ll begin to see that effect everywhere you turn. Whether collaborating with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or a local elementary school, Rotary works by harnessing both the power of its 1.2 million members worldwide (representing 37,000 clubs in 160 countries) and the power of each member willing to step up and be of service.

What is Rotary?

In 1905, lawyer Paul Harris started the Rotary Club of Chicago as a local business organization, with a name derived from the group’s habit of “rotating” its meetings between members’ offices. After the group funded a project to bring the first public toilets to the city, its focus shifted to community service with an emphasis on projects that support health, education and international goodwill. It was originally an all-male organization, but has officially welcomed women since 1987, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled women could not be barred from membership. The Rotary Club of Marin Sunrise (formerly Larkspur Landing) was created that year and was the first to have women as charter members.
Today, Rotary is made up of three interconnected branches: Rotary International, the Rotary Foundation and the local clubs. Rotary International helps coordinate all global initiatives and programs within Rotary, while the Rotary Foundation collects donations from Rotarians and others to distribute to humanitarian projects around the world. Rotary also organizes service clubs for young people, Interact and Rotaract. Interact clubs are for youth ages 12 to 18 and are usually school-based (Santa Rosa has two: one at Elsie Allen High School and another at Montgomery High School), while Rotaract clubs are for people ages 18 to 30 and can be university- or community-based (there’s one at Santa Rosa Junior College, and the Cotati Rotary chapter sponsors one at Sonoma State University). All youth clubs are sponsored and mentored by a local Rotary club.
The local clubs and their weekly meetings are referred to as the heart and soul of Rotary. Some towns have one main chapter, while in cities like Santa Rosa, there are currently six clubs. Meetings take place all over town on different days, at times ranging from 7:15 a.m., to noon, to 5:30 p.m., to help make them as convenient as possible.
Harry Coffey is president of the Rotary Club of Santa Rosa Sunrise, which currently has about 65 members. He describes the typical weekly meeting, held at 7:15 a.m. each Thursday at Fountaingrove Inn in Santa Rosa, as comprised of a quick period of greetings, followed by announcements and new business, and then a speaker for 25 minutes. Speakers educate members on local and international issues or report back on the results of past funding, and have recently included Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board; a representative from Landpaths, an environmental nonprofit; and students from Elsie Allen High School’s Interact Club. Coffey says that, at the Sunrise club, he makes sure everyone can be in and out of the door in one hour.

Service above self

One place where the Rotary effect comes through loud and clear is in the organization’s full-scale determination to eradicate polio globally, which has been its top priority since 1988. Rotary helped launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative that year and has raised more than $1.2 billion for the cause since then. From 1988 to 2013, polio rates worldwide dropped 99 percent. In 2014, only 202 cases were reported around the globe.
To understand the service organization’s impact on a smaller scale, one only has to look closely at a single club. The Rotary Club of Ross Valley was started in 1925, making it one of the oldest clubs in Marin. Membership has declined in recent years to roughly 30, down from more than 50 members two decades ago.
Even with fewer members than before, the group continues to make a big impact on the needs of its community. It regularly receives funding requests, which are carefully vetted by committees that oversee different program areas, such as youth, vocational or international service, before being forwarded to the full board for a vote. It also receives email bulletins and requests from different chapters or districts, especially in times of crisis or disaster, and can jump in to help.
“When deciding what to fund, we look at whether the request is worthwhile and whether we have money to sustain our support if it’s an ongoing need,” says Ted Wight, president of the Rotary Club of Ross Valley. “Lots of factors go into our decision, and it seems to have worked well for us, because we’ve come up with a lot of good organizations to support.”
Close to home, the club has adopted the Ross Valley Ecumenical Housing Association’s low income, senior housing in San Anselmo, which Rotarians were instrumental in founding. Now, the group offers ongoing financial support and meets there several times per year (along with teens from Sir Francis Drake High School’s Interact club) to do yard work and minor repairs. It’s also a dedicated supporter of the Fairfax-San Anselmo Children’s Center, a daycare for middle- and low-income children, and it administers a foundation that gives more than $20,000 in scholarships every year to help local high school students in-need attend College of Marin.
Though the club funds many youth programs, Wight says some of its international programs have also been particularly close to his heart.
“We’ve partnered with an organization named Kiva to fund microloans in developing countries for the last four or five years, and that’s been really rewarding,” he says. “We hear back about the projects and things the money has supported; what’s really phenomenal is, we’ve had almost 100 percent payback.”
The Ross Valley chapter has also worked with Rotary clubs in India to sink more than 100 wells, providing fresh drinking water to villages, and helped ship textbooks (that would otherwise be headed to recycling here) to a Rotary partner in Sierra Leone.
“I think we do a lot for the size of our club. But, of course, bigger clubs can do more and have more of their own international projects,” says Wight.
One example of an international project taken on at the club level is happening in the Santa Rosa Sunrise chapter, which has been steadily putting money away for five years, with the goal of building a surgery center in Sabalos, Nicaragua. The club has formed a connection with another Rotary chapter in Nicaragua, which will be organizing the project onsite and reporting back frequently.
“Working with other Rotarians, we believe they will administer the project with good will, because we’d do the same for them if they had a project here,” says Coffey.
Of course, not all service projects involve giving money. The Rotary Club of Napa is a major financial sponsor of The Pathway Home, a treatment program for veterans in Yountville, and Rotarians also meet weekly to bowl with the center’s residents, many of whom are being treated for post-traumatic stress and brain injuries sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq, giving new meaning to the Rotary motto, “Service above self.”
“Basically, these guys have isolated themselves,” says Dale Carriker, president of the Rotary Club of Napa. “We try to give them back a sense of community.”
For all the long-term commitments, goals and planning that go into Rotary, sometimes it’s a spontaneous act of generosity that can make a huge change in a person’s life, and Rotarians also know to jump on those moments. When the South Napa earthquake hit in August 2014, the Rotary Club of Napa was meeting within days to assess how it could help. Carriker says the group partnered with the Salvation Army to determine how to best get assistance to those affected. At its next meeting, $5,000 was raised within 10 minutes; the Salvation Army used the funds to purchase gift cards for food and housewares.
Coffey describes a request that came in a few years ago to fund a $1,200 computer for a former Sonoma State University student who’d had an aneurysm and was now in a wheelchair and unable to speak. They knew that the computer would let her communicate, and ultimately change her life, and quickly approved the request.
“These are the things that make an immediate effect, but they fly below the radar so no one hears about them,” says Coffey. “Every group has at least three or four of those projects every year.”

A dedication to youth programs

Though funding priorities vary, nearly every chapter dedicates significant time and resources to improving the lives of local children. The Rotary Club of Napa, which currently has 104 members, shows its support for Napa’s youth in a variety of ways, such as distributing teacher appreciation gifts and awarding scholarships to local high school students.
The group adopted Phillips Elementary, a lower-income school in Napa, and sponsors an Interact club at New Technology High School in Napa, where students recently raised money to go to Nicaragua to teach English skills to children. It also participates in a Rotary tradition: the distribution of free dictionaries to third graders. Last year, the club handed out 700 dictionaries, many to children who’d never owned a book of their own.
The Santa Rosa Sunrise chapter is closely connected with the Interact Club at Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa and recently gave $10,000 in scholarship funding to the school’s Foundation. It also takes part in a key program of Rotary International: student exchange programs. Every other year, 10 students from Santa Rosa are sponsored to study in Japan, with 10 students from Kagoshima, Japan, coming to Santa Rosa.
Ross Valley’s chapter works with the Interact Club at Drake High School in San Anselmo and offers financial support to a unique educational experience offered on campus named Arête West. Since 1979, Drake’s track coach, Bill Taylor, has been teaching groups of kids about world history and culture in weekend classes throughout the school year, then taking the group on a trip to see history come alive in spots like Turkey, Greece and Italy. Students must find ways to raise the majority of their own travel expenses, but Rotary is there to supplement the cost and help introduce them to the world.

Getting in the game

By the numbers, Rotary is a huge organization worldwide, but there’s no denying membership in the U.S. has stagnated in recent years, as older members are leaving the group and aren’t being replaced by an equal number of new ones. Even growth in Africa and Southeast Asia hasn’t been able to stem the tide.
This fact has meant Rotary is stepping up efforts to get the word out on the organization’s role and what a difference membership can make, both in a member’s life and in the community. Local leaders are hopeful that the same things that drew them to Rotary can draw in more people looking for the opportunity to help others and feel a part of their community.
When asked what makes someone a good fit for Rotary, Carriker says it’s simply, “Someone who gives with no expectation of recognition.”
Coffey admits that the first time he attended a meeting, he didn’t really connect to the message. He tried again a few years later and something just clicked with him. Since then, he’s had experiences he wouldn’t have dreamed of otherwise, like learning to build a wheelchair ramp, hosting an exchange student from France in his home and scuba diving in Australia during the Rotary world conference. For all that he’s given to the organization, he believes the organization has given him so much more.
“It’s like anything in life,” says Coffey. “It’s more fun in the game than on the sidelines. I’m in the game.”
To find a Rotary chapter near you, go to

Rotary Means Business

Rotary began as a business networking group, but after its early transformation into a service organization, it became frowned upon to openly promote your business at meetings. Of course, you were likely to know what your friends and fellow Rotarians did for a living, and may even refer people to them on an individual basis. Members with shared interests or hobbies, or from similar careers, could also meet through Rotary Fellowships, broader groups that connect people with common vocations and interests. Such fellowships exist for Rotarians interested in wine tasting, motorcycle riding and home exchange vacations as well as for those who are attorneys, teachers and pilots.
As times have changed, though, people have begun looking for ways to integrate their personal and professional lives into busy days. In 2004, a San Francisco Rotary Club began the first Rotary Means Business (RMB) meetings. These gatherings, separate from the weekly general meetings, were started as a way for businesspeople in Rotary to connect and support each other through potential business and referrals. Those meetings eventually faded out in San Francisco, but not before this grassroots idea had reached Marin and South Bay chapters in 2005—and had even reached Australia, where a man who’d heard of the concept at a San Francisco meeting started his own RMB chapter in Sydney.
In 2009, the Rotary Club of Santa Rosa helped bring RMB to Sonoma County. Mark Burchill of Santa Rosa is local chapter past president and the current chair of the RMB Fellowship. Burchill says that the first meetings of the Sonoma County RMB, always at the same restaurant, weren’t catching on, until he heard an idea.
“Our district governor, Maureen Merrill, reminded me of what Rotary originally did, rotating meetings among people’s businesses. We took her advice and started meeting at different businesses every month,” he remembers. “We went from the same 10 to 12 people to 50 or 60 at a meeting.”
Fellow Rotarian Wayne Rowlands soon designed an RMB website, and the group was suddenly hearing from people all over the world who wanted to connect and form their own groups. At the time, RMB wasn’t an officially sanctioned part of Rotary, so Burchill and other members began to prepare to formally apply for Rotary International Fellowship status, which was approved in November 2013.
Attendance at various local RMB chapters can range from a dozen Rotarians to more than 100 people. There are dozens of local RMB chapters worldwide, with five chapters in the San Francisco Bay Area. The international RMB Fellowship has more than 250 members in 24 countries. Burchill hopes RMB will help Rotary attract a new generation of members, which is critical to keeping the organization vibrant and alive.
“Younger people today are often building their businesses or careers and want to combine that with doing good deeds, fellowship and socializing,” he says. “I think Rotary recognizes that, to attract younger members, we need to reincorporate that element.”

How Is It All Funded?

Rotary chapters are each responsible for fund-raising out in the community to attract the largest share of their charitable dollars. Some of these fund-raisers have become institutions in our local communities, drawing huge crowds annually and raising thousands for local nonprofits.
Cycle for Sight (Rotary Club of Napa): Each spring since 2008, this biking event has drawn up to 2,000 riders to its 15-, 25- and 50-mile courses through some of Napa’s finest scenery. Each route includes the “Memorial Mile,” a trip up the tree-covered entrance to the Veteran’s Home of California in Yountville to view the commemorative markers purchased by riders and others to honor the veterans in their lives. Participants may ride alongside bikers from the largest beneficiaries of the fund-raiser, The Pathway Home and the Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind & Visually Impaired, as campers bike along with the veterans. It all ends with a wine and music festival at Justin Siena High School, where another 500 people join in for gourmet food, wine and a silent auction. (
Sebastopol Cajun Zydeco Festival (Rotary Club of Sebastopol Sunrise): September in Sebastopol means...crawfish and beignets? For the past 20 years it has, with enough Creole cooking and zydeco beats to make you think you’ve been transported to the bayou. (
Best Winery Chefs (Rotary Club of Santa Rosa Sunrise): This gala event, held in November 2014 at the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club, features dishes from the unsung stars of Wine Country: winery chefs. This is your chance to find out what’s being served to guests at Francis Ford Coppola, Mondavi and Simi Wineries, paired with their premium wines, music and a silent auction. The event made $40,000 for the chapter last year, with another $20,000 split among the favorite charities of the featured chefs. (
Fairfax Car Show (Rotary Club of Ross Valley): For the past 12 years, car lovers from around Northern California have come to downtown Fairfax to show off their classic cars, all to benefit area youth programs. (
Guys Can Cook, Too! (Rotary Club of Sebastopol Sunrise): After 16 years, it would appear that the question of whether or not guys can cook has been settled. Come to watch amateur chefs (both men and women compete) pit their best home recipes against each other, and enjoy professional chefs’ creations, as well as beer and wine. (
Giro Bello (Rotary Club of Santa Rosa): Drawing just shy of 1,000 riders last year, this charity cycling tour is gaining steam among bike enthusiasts in Sonoma County. (
Ross Valley Rotary Crab Feed: This year’s traditional crab feed will take place Saturday, February 28. (



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