We humans love a story; in fact, we need them. They are what we use to explain just about everything we do and are. Within our lives we have a patchwork of smaller stories we have woven together into the one personal story we tell ourselves that defines us to ourselves, which I call our narrative. It is the one story that binds together all the other ones and allows us to make sense of who we are, what we’ve done, and what we want to be.
Organizations are similar in that they too are made up of many stories that explain them. And in most cases, there is a narrative that attempts to tie these various accounts together into a more cohesive representation of what they are and try to accomplish. The Rotary Movement is no exception, though it is different than a corporate entity like Apple, because Rotary has so very many moving parts that it is decidedly difficult to distill all the stories of understanding down into just one all-encompassing narrative. So getting this best narrative right is important.
RI has its story, as do I, and my Club, District, and Zone have theirs. None of these are the same, though they all have some similar elements. RI, in its quest for a unified branding, rolls out memes from time to time that attempts to present a narrative that people inside and out of Rotary can use to understand what the organization is about. We are People of Action is the current tag line that the narrative is built upon. It is meant to convey a storyline that explains Rotary with the necessary brief punch required in today’s over-saturated marketing culture. But is this the narrative that Members need to hear to help them define what it means to be a Rotarian?
My own Rotary narrative is more complex (as one would expect since I don’t need to grab my attention: I already have it). Rotary for me is first and foremost a philosophy of life. It is a belief structure that centers on the ideal of service in all aspects of one’s life, and that places service above simple self-interest. And is a concept worthy of personal sacrifice. A Rotary Club is the place where you meet with other people in your community who hold a similar belief, in order to better understand and strengthen this particular way of thinking. This is the foundation of Rotary from which all else springs. This is who Rotarians are.
Rotary service requires sacrifice in many instances, some hurting more than others, some not at all. It is a firmer belief in this philosophy that motivates the best Rotarians to dig deeper and give more of themselves in time, talent, and treasure. It is when a person acknowledges this fundamental attitude as important in one’s life, as something that you really want to be part of your personal story, that you become “a real Rotarian” or Rotarized, as I like to say.
The beauty of this acceptance of the Rotary Movement is that it allows for many other beliefs to flourish in one’s life as well. It is a way to bring together many different people in a common purpose: to find ways to better serve. The focus of Rotary from the beginning was on people of some accomplishment in our commercial and professional culture, regardless of background, religion, politics, social status, or education. Membership in a Church usually requires adherence to a specific belief structure that can involve many behaviors and intellectual concepts. Rotary does not, aside from an attitude of service resulting in action. Almost everybody can be that, if they want to.
This is my Rotary story. As a Rotarian, I believe in service as an important part of my life. Being a Rotarian has given me many avenues to perform service, opportunities I would not as easily have if I wasn’t a Member. Rotary has brought into my life many other people who share this belief, folks I most likely would not have otherwise met and become acquainted with, or even become friends. What amazes me is that Rotary can make this opportunity to share a belief in service with people outside of my immediate community, in fact with people around the world. We can legitimately take some pride in each other’s accomplishments because we share a belief in Rotary.
We are so much more than just People of Action. Let’s face it, many people are that in many ways. We are people who believe in something bigger than just ourselves. This is what makes us Rotarians. I think that we too often forget that it is not just what we do; it is what we believe that defines us. We do because we believe, and we don’t reinforce this central truth enough.
I remember the olden days, when leadership preached this regularly and motivated people to embrace this philosophy. Now, they advocate TRF donations, membership numbers, and hours spent on projects. When your supposed leaders lose sight of what is most important, it is only a matter of time before the spirit is lost and the endeavor dwindles away. Who we are as people is what defines us as Rotarians. This is the true message we need to spread.