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President-elect Barry Rassin on where Rotary has been, where he hopes to lead it – and how the organization profoundly changed his life

President-elect Barry Rassin wants to explore ways of starting new Rotary clubs.

Photos by Alyce Henson

When Barry Rassin arrived at Rotary headquarters in Evanston at 4 a.m. for his first full day as president-elect, his security card wouldn’t work in the elevator. Just the day before, in a whirlwind process, he’d been nominated to fill the vacancy of Sam F. Owori, who had died unexpectedly in July. Now Rassin, a member of the Rotary Club of East Nassau, Bahamas, didn’t have the right credentials for all-hours access to the building. “I had to explain the situation to the security guard, who of course didn’t have a clue who I was,” he says.

Not much can stop Rassin when he wants to get something done. After making it up to the 18th floor of One Rotary Center, he set about compressing five days of orientation into a day and a half, planning the International Assembly, and coming up with his presidential theme: Be the Inspiration. “My personality is such that I want to hear all the options, make a decision, and go on to the next thing,” he says. “So we moved through the process fairly rapidly.”

Before becoming president-elect, Rassin was best known for leading Rotary’s relief and recovery efforts after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which included 105 separate projects funded by Rotarians. “I had a spreadsheet with 132 pages and every detail of every project,” he says. “People look at it and say, ‘How do you do this?’ But I enjoyed that.”

Rassin’s leadership abilities served him well in his professional life as a hospital administrator. The first fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives in the Bahamas, he recently retired after 37 years as president of Doctors Hospital Health System, where he still serves as an adviser.

Rassin has been a Rotarian since 1980 and received Rotary’s highest honor, the Service Above Self Award, for his work. He and his wife, Esther, are Major Donors and Benefactors of The Rotary Foundation. 

President-elect Barry Rassin and his wife, Esther, attend a celebration in their honor hosted by the Rotary clubs of the Bahamas. Nassau, Bahamas.

Editor in chief John Rezek and senior staff writer Diana Schoberg spoke with Rassin at his office in Evanston in October, shortly after a photo shoot in a local coffee shop. A birthday party had been booked in the shop at the same time, but the partygoers didn’t seem to mind. (“He’s movie star material,” one of them whispered.) Afterward, Rassin joked about the photo shoot: “It was like going to the dentist.”

Q: Rotary is not a disaster relief organization. As someone who has had a front seat to some of the worst disasters of recent times, do you think we should make any shifts?

A: Yes, Rotary International is not a relief organization, but I would like it to be a much better communicator and catalyst between disaster areas and potential donors. Rotarians around the world hear of a disaster and they want to help. We need a better way to communicate to them how to help appropriately. It’s not appropriate to go in your closet and send whatever clothes you have, because that’s not necessarily what’s needed. First we have to hear from people in the disaster area. Their needs can change on a daily basis, so that communication is really important. I hope we will have more up-to-date information on our website about every disaster as it occurs.

We have a Rotarian Action Group focused on disaster assistance. That group has a great opportunity working with the staff at Rotary International. We can respond more quickly than we do today. The first thing we have to do in a disaster is reach out and say, “Are you OK? We’re here, we care, what can we do to help you?” Just those words make people in that area feel less alone. Then we can advise them about how to get the immediate relief we can’t provide, through those agencies that we already work with.

Q: Is Rotary dependent on clubs for this information?

A: The clubs and districts are on the ground. They know what’s going on. They’ve got to know who and how and when to contact somebody at Rotary International for assistance. We have to provide that link. That’s Rotary International’s job.

If you live in that disaster area, you’re going to give immediate relief because your friends are hurting. That’s natural. Rotary’s bigger role is the next step, the long-term recovery efforts.

It’s been eight years since the earthquake in Haiti, and Rotary International is still there. A lot of other agencies provide immediate relief, and then they’re gone. We’re there for the long term. The Rotarians live there; they’re going to want to get their community back to where it was. Our role is to help them do that. Not necessarily with funds, but with advice, with guidance, and with empathy.

Q: You want Rotary to have a transformational impact. How should we allocate our resources to do that?

2018-19: Be the Inspiration

RI President-elect Barry Rassin’s theme for 2018-19, Be the Inspiration, asks Rotarians to inspire change in the world and in each other. “I ask all of you to Be the Inspiration to help Rotary move from reaction to action — to take a hard look at the environmental issues that affect health and welfare around the world and do what we can to help.”

Download his theme logo and materials

Download the presidential theme citation and brochure

Download his Rotary Days brochure

A: It’s OK to do small projects – don’t get me wrong. We’re always going to be doing them. But I’d like every club to think of at least one high-impact service project they can do to change people’s lives. They don’t have to cost a lot of money. I always use the jeep we provided in Haiti as an example. For $60,000 or $70,000, we provided a pink jeep to a group of midwives who go out into the community and give prenatal care to mothers who wouldn’t get it any other way. The mortality rate has gone down dramatically. That’s transformational.

The Rotary Foundation has talked about sustainability for a long time. To be sustainable – to make the good we do last – you should be transformational, so that fits well into what the Foundation’s trustees and global grants are doing. The districts could look at district grants and do the same kind of thing. We have the resources. We just have to think a little differently.

Q: Did the act of rebuilding in Haiti have a positive effect on Rotary?

A: If you go into certain parts of Haiti with the Rotary wheel, they’re going to say thank you, because they know what Rotarians have done. Rotary has provided them with food, with water, with a school for their children. When we talk transformational, one project we’ve been working on is to bring potable water to the entire country of Haiti. The prime minister is a Rotarian and past president of his club. He is working with us, and he’s got a government agency that’s going to work directly with us. That’s way above any global grant, but we can plan for that and figure out how to do it in chunks. I’m sure districts and clubs around the world would love to be a part of it. That’s transformational. That’s the kind of thing that could change a region for the better, forever.

Q: What other goals do you wish to accomplish during your year?

A: There’s a disconnect between what we do at Rotary International – and do really well – and what Rotary clubs are doing. I’d like to bridge that gap. One of our strategic priorities is strengthening clubs, which involves things like membership and Foundation giving. We’re not reaching the clubs to get them to understand why we need to do some of these things, and therefore some don’t do them.

I want to explore ways of starting new Rotary clubs. There are a lot of clubs out there. We keep telling them, “You’ve got to get new members.” But their club culture may not be attractive to other people. Fine – they should enjoy their club, and then start another club next door. We’re working on making sure everybody knows that Rotaract clubs can start Rotary clubs. We need to tell Rotaractors they can start a Rotary club they’re comfortable with when they move on after 30. Rotaract is our secret weapon, and we need to spend time developing the transition from Rotaract to Rotary in a different way.

We’ve got to get better at social media. When you look at our numbers versus a celebrity’s, we’re nothing. We need Rotarians and Rotaractors to access social media and use it to improve our public image. And that’s the other part of it: I don’t believe our communities understand what Rotary is. I want to hold Rotary days so clubs and districts can get into their communities and talk about Rotary – what do we do and why do we do it.

I want clubs to have leadership development programs for their members. Rotary’s new vision statement says: “Together, we see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change – across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves.” It is a great opportunity to remind everybody that as members of Rotary clubs, we’re also there for personal development. Young people are looking for ways to grow and develop, and that gives them another reason to join Rotary. Those are the key things I want to go with.

Q: You mentioned Rotary’s new vision statement. We already have a motto, Service Above Self. We have presidential themes every year. Why do we need a vision statement too?

A: A vision statement allows us to tell the world what our ultimate value is for the long term. It helps Rotarians and non-Rotarians understand what our goal is when it comes to changing our world. This vision statement came from Rotarians, who recommended each phrase. The end result shows our vision for the future and the path to get there.

Q: Rotaract and Rotary clubs in the Caribbean have a good relationship. What’s the key?

A: My club is an example. When a Rotaractor comes to our club, they’re not our guest for the day. They sign in as a member. So right away they’re feeling like they’re a part of us. That’s important. We also make sure that a Rotarian from our club always goes to Rotaract meetings so there’s always a connection. In the last two years, I believe we’ve got 100 percent transition from Rotaract to Rotary. They come and join our club because they know us. We’ve got to keep that connection going.

Q: What have you learned from Rotaractors?

A: Rotaractors are energetic. They’re passionate. They want to do good, and they really like working with each other. The frustration is that they then find it difficult to transition to a different club that has a totally different culture, doesn’t have the energy, doesn’t even know how to use social media. Rotaractors are the Rotary of the future, and we need to help them get there. What are they going to want in a club when they’re 40? We have to come up with that answer and then create Rotary clubs, or help them create Rotary clubs, that can get them there.

Q: Imagine your life without Rotary.

A: Wow! That’s hard to do, to be quite honest. I have put my heart and soul into Rotary for 37 years, and without it I wouldn’t have the friends I have or the ability to do some of the things I can do. I always give the example of my first speech. I was holding on to the lectern reading the speech I wrote, and when I got to the bottom of the first page, I was so nervous that I couldn’t turn the page. But my club kept asking me to speak, so I kept doing it, and now I speak publicly with confidence. I couldn’t do that without Rotary.

Q: How do you begin a speech?

A: It’s important to recognize and acknowledge who’s in your audience. You want to connect with them in one fashion or another, either by saying thank you or it’s nice to be here, or by recognizing a particular individual. Whenever I make a speech, I want to make it as personal as I can.

Q: If there’s one thing you could change about Rotary, what would that be?

A: One of our challenges in Rotary is our Council on Legislation. We meet every three years to consider changing Rotary’s governing policies, but it takes more like four and a half or five years to accomplish this because of the deadlines to propose legislation. The world is changing far too fast for that. We need a way to make major decisions that affect the organization on a quicker basis. Our Council on Legislation needs to understand that maybe it’s time to make that change. I’d love to see our Council restructured. One way would be to conduct those meetings electronically every year. It would be a challenge because it’s hard to have a dynamic debate online, but I think Rotary is smart enough to figure out how to do that.

Q: Is there a Rotary tradition you would never get rid of?

A: I would never get rid of our Four-Way Test. I would never get rid of vocational service. Some of the traditions from weekly club meetings could go. I don’t think there’s a need to be that formal in a club meeting anymore. But when you look at core values or ethics or classifications, those are things that have to stay with us. That’s who we are and what makes us different, and we need to appreciate that and keep developing those principles. 

I have put my heart and soul into Rotary for 37 years, and without it I wouldn’t have the friends I have or the ability to do some of the things I can do. 

Rotary International president-elect