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Ian Riseley has spent his career making connections among friends, colleagues, and Rotarians. He brings that gift for putting people together to his work as Rotary’s president.

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 “Traditionally, I pay for the coffee.” Ian H.S. Riseley makes this pronouncement in such a serious tone that you believe it. Until, that is, his friend Kevin Harrison guffaws. Just who does pay for the coffee is never resolved, but the good-natured joking sets the mood for a walk along the banks of the Patterson River in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. 

For the past five years, these walks have been a twice-weekly routine for a small group of Rotarian friends. It’s a way to get “some much-needed exercise, coupled with the opportunity for us to resolve the problems of the world,” says Harrison.

Whoever can make it on a given day – Richard Garner, John Williams, Nick and Maree Vinocuroff – comes along for the chance to bounce ideas off the others. And everyone always wants to know what Ian thinks. “He’ll listen to an idea,” says Harrison, “and over a period of five or six walks, we’ve got ourselves a project.”

Riseley, right, and Bob Richards, second from right, accept donations from visitors to the Bayside Farmers Market, sponsored by the Rotary clubs of Hampton and Sandringham. The market features produce, meat, flowers, and gourmet foods from local farmers and artisanal producers.

On a pleasant December morning, the conversation ranges widely. The friends discuss news including a recent earthquake in New Zealand, as well as business in their Rotary clubs: Sandringham, Hampton, Noble Park-Keysborough, and Chelsea. 

As the group talks, Riseley listens. His entire life has been about putting people together, nurturing ideas, and guiding people with practical suggestions about what to improve and how. The new president of Rotary does it with such easy charm and self-deprecating wit that at first you might not realize how intensely focused he is.

Riseley’s earliest exposure to Rotary was typical of what many newcomers to the organization experience: He wasn’t sure what to make of it. In 1977, he was the owner of an accounting firm when one of his clients invited him to speak at the Rotary Club of Cheltenham. “My first question was,  ‘About what?’” Riseley recalls. His second: “What’s a Rotary club?”  

He gave a talk on income tax. “Nice people, laughed at the right places, stayed awake the whole time,” he jokes. A few weeks later his client called again to invite him to a planning meeting for a new club in Sandringham. 

“I said, ‘I’m not really sure what Rotary does, but I’m happy to come along,’” Riseley says. “I actually missed the first meeting, but I got another call, and I went to the next one. The movers and shakers were all there, so I thought, wow, what a group to be involved with.”

Before joining, he consulted his wife, Juliet. Many of Ian’s friends were also accountants, so she thought Rotary could help him meet people outside his professional circle. He became a charter member of the Rotary Club of Sandringham in 1978.

Riseley embraces the idea that Rotary is a place where people network and make professional connections while doing good in the world. “I’d love to say that it was the projects and things that Rotary did that won me over, but that’s not correct,” he notes. “It was being involved with people who obviously were the absolute business elite in the area.” 

At meetings, you’ll often hear someone say, ‘I wonder what Ian thinks about this,’ or ‘Has anyone spoken to Ian about that?’ He offers wise counsel.

Rotary Club of Clayton

Once he became involved in Rotary, it became central to his and Juliet’s lives. “Maybe 15 years later I was considering doing my master’s degree,” he says. “I said to Juliet, ‘What do you think?’ and she said, ‘Well, you’ll meet lots of new people. Too many of our friends are Rotarians.’ It was the rationale for joining Rotary – too many accountant friends – in reverse. Rotary is like that. Rotary grabs hold of you. Our daughter calls our involvement Rotarama. She says, ‘Rotarama has got all of you,’ and it’s true. I think it happens to the majority of us.” 

Despite the Rotarama effect, Riseley’s service hasn’t been limited to Rotary. He has given his time and energy to the Sea Scouts, to sporting associations and school councils, to a local community advisory group. In 2006, the Australian government awarded him the Medal of the Order of Australia in recognition of his wide-ranging service to the community. 

Riseley’s enthusiasm for Rotary faced a challenge, however, when the question of admitting women as members arose in the early 1980s. The Rotary Club of Duarte, Calif., had inducted three women in 1977, and the club’s membership in Rotary International was terminated the following year. In 1980, the Rotary Board of Directors and several clubs unsuccessfully proposed removing all references to members as “male persons” from the RI and club constitutions and bylaws. This brought fresh attention to the issue around the world. 

For Riseley, it was a crisis of conscience. “Back in ’78, it didn’t occur to me that all these people are male. I just didn’t notice,” he recalls. But when membership for women became a contested issue, he says, “I thought to myself, how crazy is that? What sort of organization says no to half of the population? So I resigned. I said, ‘I can’t be a member of an organization that discriminates.’”

The president of his club suggested another option. “He said, ‘Let me recommend that you don’t resign. We encourage you to agitate from the inside to invite women to be part of Rotary.’ I agreed on the condition that we had a vote at the club and that the club agreed with that stance.” So they voted, and the members overwhelmingly supported the idea of women in Rotary.

Bob Richards, a close friend and a member of the Sandringham club, remembers Riseley’s role in the discussion. “Ian was a persuasive advocate for the introduction of women. He’d say, ‘We can benefit by diversifying our viewpoints and ideas,’” Richards recalls. Soon after Rotary officially changed its constitution in 1989, the Rotary Club of Sandringham welcomed several women as members.

One woman who didn’t join the Sandringham club was Juliet Riseley; instead, she became the charter president of the Rotary Club of Hampton in 1995, bringing the organizational skills and remarkable memory for details honed during her career in library and information science. 

Ian and Juliet Riseley love to sit on their back deck, which offers views of their garden. The evenings are filled with the scent of flowers and the song of birds. It’s a perfect place to relax and reflect at the end of the day.

She also brought the advantage of firsthand exposure to the workings of Rotary. “By the time I was president, Ian had already been a club president and was involved in Youth Exchange,” she notes. “We’d been to a number of district conferences. You end up with information by osmosis, so when I was president, it was a bit easier for me.”

And as Ian’s roles in Rotary have increased, so have Juliet’s. He was governor of District 9810 in 1999-2000; she was governor of the district in 2011-12. As much as possible, she attends his events, and he hers. “They’re very supportive of one another, but equally independent,” says Carol Lawton, who just ended her term as governor of that district. 

But that doesn’t mean the logistics of their calendars aren’t complicated. “They would often arrive at a function independently of each other,” Richards says. “We used to joke: ‘Ian, did Juliet know you were coming?’ ‘Juliet, did you know Ian was coming? ’”

During an evening at their home in Moorooduc, a rural township in the heart of some of Australia’s finest wine country, the Riseleys show off their gardens, with Juliet easily rattling off the names of the myriad flowers. There are also fruit trees and a pair of rescued goats, Vinda and Lulu. “We didn’t name them,” Ian is quick to clarify. He complains about the goats, but it’s clear he’s rather fond of them – despite their propensity to gnaw aggressively on the trees.

In the evenings, Ian and Juliet like to sit on their deck with friends and a glass of wine, often from one of the many vineyards in the area. One friend, David Lloyd, runs the nearby Eldridge Estate and has established a reputation for his pinot noir and chardonnay. But the Riseleys wear their knowledge of wine lightly. Their wine rack holds some bargain-bin bottles resting alongside some very fine vintages.

They have a habit of telling entertaining stories in a running dialogue, correcting, augmenting, and sometimes contradicting each other. “One of the things about couples,” notes Juliet, “is that when they’ve been married for a long time, they have –” Ian jumps in: “Selective memory retention!” Back to Juliet: “It is absolutely true. We have different versions of the same story. Fortunately, not too different.” 

Juliet and Ian feed Lulu the goat; the Riseleys are proud of the fruit trees in their gardens; Ian shares old photos of their children, Andrew and Jill.

Many of those stories are about their children and grandchildren. Jill, who lives in Melbourne with her husband, Scott, and their two sons, Will and Jack, is an expert in corporate social responsibility and has a master’s degree from Cambridge. The Riseleys’ son, Andrew, an attorney, and his wife, Bronwyn, met as graduate students at the London School of Economics. They have two children, Neve and Lachlan, and recently relocated from Singapore to Wellington, New Zealand. 

But Juliet and Ian love to hear other people’s stories as well. “Whenever you meet Ian, he wants to hear about you,” says Geoff Tickner, a friend of many years and a fellow Rotarian. “That’s always how a conversation starts. It’s always, ‘Haven’t seen you for a while. What have you been doing?’”

When you talk to his friends and colleagues, you hear again and again that Riseley is a listener, someone you go to for advice. “If you’ve got an idea, you tell Ian, because he’ll take it on board,” says Helen Wragg, the 2016-17 president of the Rotary Club of Hampton. “And if it’s a bad idea, he’ll tell you.”

John Barnes of the Rotary Club of Clayton says Rotarians seek out Riseley’s guidance at every opportunity: “At meetings, you’ll often hear someone say, ‘I wonder what Ian thinks about this,’ or ‘Has anyone spoken to Ian about that?’ He offers wise counsel.”

Barnes recalls consulting with Riseley about his idea for a project involving Interplast, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing reconstructive surgery to people with conditions including cleft palates and severe burns. Barnes went to Riseley with what he describes as “a ridiculously ambitious scheme to get every Rotary club in Australia to help raise a large sum of money and fund Interplast projects on the investment interest.” 

If Riseley, a district governor at the time, was skeptical, he didn’t show it. “I suppose he didn’t want to burst my bubble, so he said, ‘I’ll give you a hand,’” Barnes recalls. “He didn’t put the kibosh on it.” 

Riseley made introductions and offered advice, and eventually, Barnes got support from all 21 of Australia’s districts, then went on to add New Zealand’s six. Rotary provides funds and volunteer support, and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons provides the skilled surgeons who volunteer their services. “Interplast is a great example of Rotary partnering with another organization to meet a need,” Riseley says.

“He was always interested, always wanted to know how we were doing, always wanted to look at our progress,” Barnes says of Riseley. “If he saw something that wasn’t working, he might come to me and say it gently. He’s able to give you a valid course of action.”

Rotarians from 9810 fondly recall the district conference during Riseley’s year as governor. He saw that a bit of stagecraft was needed, so he drove onstage in a race car, and ever since, the district’s governors have tried to come up with an equally dramatic entrance. Richards rode in on a quarter horse.  

Riseley stresses that while fun is a vital element of the organization, Rotary must make a difference in the world. At the International Assembly in January, he noted that environmental degradation threatens us all and asked every Rotary club to plant a tree for each member as a gesture with both practical impact and symbolic power.

Rotary must also do more to welcome younger people, who he says face a number of competing demands. They are interested in service and eager to do good, he stresses, but they need options. “We need to offer them an involvement that doesn’t waste their time,” he says.

That’s one reason he enthusiastically supports the 2016 Council on Legislation decisions to give clubs more flexibility in membership and meetings. “If you want to meet every week, and it suits your club, that’s great,” he says. “But there are people who can’t do that, for whatever reason. To me, the flexibility is really important.”

Riseley also worries that Rotary needs to do a better job of communicating with people outside the organization. “We’ve grown up talking to ourselves, and there was an ethos for years that we didn’t seek aggrandizement,” he notes. “We haven’t made enough effort in marketing ourselves to the outside world. One of the things I am absolutely petrified of is that when polio is gone, Rotary will not get the recognition that we warrant.”

Ever the accountant, Riseley thinks one way to demonstrate Rotary’s impact is to quantify it. “What Rotary doesn’t do is calculate the value of its output. We’ve got 35,000 clubs around the world and they all do good things.” He envisions asking every club to report how much money it spends or donates and how many volunteer hours it puts in so that Rotary can calculate the output: “I believe that not just the rest of the world, but Rotarians themselves, will be astonished at the value of what we do.” 

• Read more stories from The Rotarian

Juliet and Ian have always enjoyed the natural beauty of the Melbourne area, including the beaches along Port Phillip Bay. When they lived closer to the water, walks along the shore were a regular occurrence.

Learn more about Ian Riseley