April 19, 2016 was Paul Harris’s birthday. He would have been 148 years old. I believe that is perceived by many to be the average age of the members of some Rotary Clubs! In an earlier post I pointed out at the first Rotary Club meeting on February 23, 1905 the four original members had an average age of just over 38. In 1910, at the first Rotary Convention, Paul P. Harris was elected the first Rotary International President. He was only 42 at the time. Of the first twenty Rotary International Presidents (for which dates of birth could be found), the oldest was 49 (Harry H. Rogers in 1926) and the youngest was 33 (Estes Snedecor in 1920). Compare that to the last four RI Past Presidents who have been ages 69, 73, 67 and 69, respectively. Interestingly, most of the official biographies of RI Presidents do not list their age or date of birth. When Rotary celebrated its centennial in 2004, Glenn E. Estess was our President. He was an outstanding Rotarian and a great leader. However, as the face of Rotary for that year, he was also 76 years old and ailing with a bad hip that made him appear even older.
How did we get from Presidents in their 40s to Presidents in their 70s? In my earlier March 2015 post, I blamed the “aging” of Rotary membership in general on complacency and laziness. All of us who are members of a Rotary Club know Rotary is a good thing. However, we are apparently not sharing that with enough of our younger friends or are not adapting our clubs to their social and service needs so that they want to join. Rotary has come a long way with the creation of Rotaract and Interact Clubs as well as the recent enactment at the 2016 Council on Legislation allowing Rotarians and Rotaractors to belong to each other’s clubs, if otherwise qualified. However, the excuse for the aging of our RI President has to fall squarely on politics. I have known individuals who, in their 50s, were told they were too young to be an RI President. Individuals who would have been excellent faces for Rotary. Each of them would have been a “poster child” for attracting younger members. However, they were each told they either lacked service in a particular international position or were told another candidate would be chosen, since this was probably that candidate’s “last chance” to serve, due to age. That was a shame.
Presently, I have met five very dynamic young people from different parts of the world. They will remain nameless so I am not accused of campaigning for them. All five are in their 20s and 30s and I have NO DOUBT that, by age 50, they could and SHOULD each be RI Presidents. I would welcome their elections to that job and believe that a 50 year old President could open the floodgates of membership from the younger generations. Once younger prospects see that Rotary leadership recognizes the value of youth by incorporating it into their leadership, they will want to be a part. You can talk about it all you want. However, using a 76 year old man to promote Rotary to youth seems counter-intuitive. Why not a 50 year old woman or a 45 year old man?
The problem, I fear, is that these young, very qualified and experienced leaders – even at age 50 — will be looked at as TOO young. One of them, at age 30, was even told he was too young to be in Rotary in his country. I am even aware that, in some countries, Rotaractors stay with Rotaract past age 30 for that very reason. They want to do service but are being denied access to Rotary Clubs due to either their age or their sex. Again, that is a shame.
How can we change this thinking? I submit to you that the election of an RI President has become a “lifetime achievement award” instead of the selection of the best person for the job. Granted, the available candidates for the job become few when they each realize the time commitment for the job. As a result, the candidates are usually only people who are retired, independently wealthy, or tremendously supported in their profession and home life. In my own dreams, I have considered the possibility of being RI President, but quickly dispelled those dreams knowing I cannot walk away from my business and my personal commitments for two or more years to serve. I stand is awe of those men who have served as RI President. I have seen their travel schedules and truly wondered how someone in their 60s and 70s could keep up the hectic pace of not only being President, but also maintain the personality and congeniality of the position. Nevertheless, for the future of Rotary, we must find a way to allow younger people access to that position, even though they haven’t served as a Foundation Trustee, a Convention Chair, or a Council on Legislation Chair.
Rotary must create an environment for younger leaders at the international level. The photo I have included with this post is a picture of the RI Board of Directors from last year. Not to be offensive to anyone, but all I see is grey hair! Sorry ladies! How does this group of very qualified, dedicated leaders appeal to a 25 – 35 year old prospective Rotarian? Granted, it is WONDERFUL to see three women in this photo – something that would have been unheard of just thirty years ago. However, when we will see someone in this photo in their 30s or 40s? I hope we don’t have to wait another thirty years! I have names in mind of individuals who can and should be in this photo right now and feel they can add a perspective to Rotary that is sorely needed. When will they be given the opportunity?