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Could you be the next RI president?

What it takes to be a leader in Rotary

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RI President Barry Rassin says he learned more about leadership from Rotary than he did pursuing his MBA – or even as president of the hospital he ran for years. “It takes more skill to lead volunteers,” he insists. “It’s harder than leading employees.”

Rotary also gave Rassin the opportunity to practice public speaking. “When I started in Rotary, I couldn’t make a speech to save my life,” he says – a remarkable admission from a man who is clearly comfortable addressing large crowds today.

There are other benefits to assuming a leadership position at Rotary. The organization’s leaders gain access to world-class training that prepares them for their roles. As they ascend the ranks, they also expand their networks to include accomplished professionals from around the world. 

A new generation of good leaders is essential to Rotary’s future. They help guide the organization, contribute their professional expertise, and build goodwill with other leaders while working toward a common goal: helping Rotarians create sustainable, positive change. 

Thinking of taking on a leadership role? Read on to learn more about different positions available within Rotary and the myths – here debunked – often associated with them.

Club president

Club presidents plan and lead club meetings, set goals, encourage communication between club and district committees, review expenditures, participate in decisions, and motivate club members. They also collaborate with the district governor and assistant governor. Any member in good standing is eligible to become club president, though most presidents have already served their clubs as a committee chair or in some other leadership role.

MYTH: It’s all on you.

“People think they have to be good at everything to be club president,” says Conor Gee, who was president of the Rotary Club of Chicago in 2017-18. “But you’re building a team around you. You learn what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and you can rely on others to fill the gaps.”

Gee says he has seen candidates shy away from the office, fearful that they lack adequate administrative ability or some other talent. Instead, he says, look at this as an opportunity to improve those skills. He adds that other candidates worry that they don’t know enough about Rotary, such as the ins and outs of securing a global grant. “You don’t have to be a Rotary expert,” Gee says. “You can rely on your district leaders to train you. You just have to lead the club and tie everything together.”

 “The strongest presidents that I have seen in our club are the ones who bring leadership to the club and board, but don’t do all the work themselves,” says Mary Ann Collishaw, who has served two terms as president of the Rotary Club of Whistler Millennium, British Columbia. “Instead, they inspire club members to work hard.”

Collishaw, who works at Whistler’s tourism bureau, notes that her experiences as club president improved her professional skills. “I have learned and practiced leadership, organization, time management, delegation, and more through Rotary,” she says. In addition, “my employer sees the value in having the community connection through Rotary.”

Gee notes that the most important thing a club president should have is a clear vision of how he or she wants to move the club forward. “You don’t have to be a perfect president to be a good one,” he says.

District governor

District governors are an important part of Rotary’s leadership structure. Governors, together with a team of assistant governors and district committees, support, strengthen, and motivate clubs. They also organize training and plan the district conference and other events. Nominees for district governor must have been Rotarians for at least seven years and have served as a club president.

MYTH: It’s impossible to work full time and serve as district governor.

“There are lots and lots of people who were not retired when serving as DG, including me,” says 2017-18 RI President Ian H.S. Riseley. “It’s vital we stop this misconception.”

Riseley, who ran an accounting firm while he was governor of District 9810, worries that misunderstandings about the role discourage too many people from even considering it. “Anything you do that you really enjoy does tend to take over your life a little bit,” he concedes. He suggests leaders ask for support to make juggling the responsibilities easier. “You are part of a family in Rotary,” he says. “We need to encourage people and offer assistance when they put their hand up and want to do the job.”

Because visiting clubs is arguably the most time-consuming part of being district governor, Rotary allows multiclub visits. “There are several districts around the world that believe the district governor is mandated to visit all the clubs,” says 2016-17 RI President John F. Germ. “That potentially weeds out younger people who wouldn’t have the time to get that done.” He points out that gathering members of several clubs for everyone to meet the governor at once can save time and offer opportunities for fellowship.

Sherri Muniz, a Rotarian from San Antonio, Texas, who was a district governor in 2011-12, says that even though she decided to scale back her business selling model cars and trains during her term as governor, her business actually grew that year. The added responsibilities forced her to work more efficiently, focus only on her best customers, and handle more requests remotely, which ultimately benefited her business. “I put Rotary first for a year, and it paid me back twofold,” she says.

RI director

Rotary’s Board of Directors establishes policy for Rotary International and provides guidance to clubs. Past district governors are eligible to serve on the Board, but at least three years must have elapsed since the end of their term as governor. Candidates must have attended two Rotary institutes and a Rotary convention in the previous three years. Each director serves for two years.

MYTH: Directors are appointed by the RI president.

Every director on the RI Board is nominated by one of Rotary’s 34 zones. Regional nominating committees interview candidates and select the one they want to represent them. Clubs then formally elect the directors at Rotary’s international convention.

In 2017, Ian Riseley did appoint a task force of eight past district governors – evenly split between men and women, and all of them in their 40s or younger – to advise the Board during his year as president.

People think they have to be good at everything to be club president. But you’re building a team around you. You learn what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and you can rely on others to fill the gaps.

president of the Rotary Club of Chicago in 2017-18

“Most Board members are in their 60s, if not older,” Riseley says. “We have to be conscious of the fact that there are many Rotarians much younger than that.” By offering younger leaders, and more women, the opportunity to weigh in on issues facing the Board, Riseley aimed to diversify the perspectives the Board considered when making decisions. The task force advised on topics such as how to encourage young professionals to join clubs and assume leadership positions in Rotary.

RI President Rassin has opted to keep an advisory panel this year; he says it will play an especially important role because no women are serving on the 2018-19 Board of Directors, which disappoints him. Rassin suggests that Rotarians with similar concerns talk to their zone nominating committees. He also encourages clubs to nurture female leaders at the club and district levels. “That’s where our leaders come from,” he says.

Regional leaders

Rotary’s regional leaders use their skills to support and strengthen clubs, focus and increase Rotary’s humanitarian service, and enhance and heighten Rotary’s public image. They also serve as trainers and facilitators at Rotary institutes, governors-elect training seminars, regional and zone seminars, district training, and other events. Regional leaders are appointed by the RI president or The Rotary Foundation trustee chair and serve a three-year term.

The regional leaders are:

Regional Rotary Foundation coordinators (RRFCs) assist clubs and districts in fundraising and can support them through Rotary’s grant system. They also encourage Rotarians to support PolioPlus and the Annual Fund.

Rotary coordinators (RCs) help clubs develop new strategies to attract and engage members. They also support district efforts to establish new clubs.

Rotary public image coordinators (RPICs) provide marketing, media outreach, and social media advice to clubs and districts and help them implement Rotary’s public image campaigns.

Endowment/major gifts advisers (E/MGAs) promote major giving opportunities to Rotarians and other community donors.

MYTH: A regional leader is someone who tells districts what to do.

“We are subject matter experts,” says Art MacQueen. “If you think we can bring your club or district value, engage us.” MacQueen is a Rotary coordinator based in Florida; he and his team offer training and conduct educational webinars.

“We are consultants and we attempt to offer solutions,” MacQueen says. “We never tell anyone what to do. Clubs are autonomous.”

 Rotary invested in regional leaders to provide support to clubs and districts in three key areas: membership growth and engagement, fundraising and grants, and enhancing Rotary’s public image.

Most regional leaders have been successful district governors and show an interest or expertise in public image, membership growth, or fundraising. They have demonstrated success at the district level, but are also selected based on skills they developed in their professional lives.

 “I see my goal as to help the district governors and the district Rotary Foundation chairs succeed by guiding them through the sometimes intriguing maze of Rotary information and guidelines,” says Patrick G. Coleman, a regional Rotary Foundation coordinator based in Zambia. “If they succeed, then I have succeeded.”

Rotary Foundation trustee

To become a trustee of The Rotary Foundation, candidates must be nominated by Rotary’s president-elect and elected by the RI Board. Trustees serve a four-year term, and they manage the business of the Foundation, which is the charitable arm of Rotary that funds service activities. The trustee chair is elected by the Board of Trustees and leads the Foundation for one year.

MYTH: You have to be an amazing fundraiser to be a good trustee.

“When you look at the trustees, it’s important to have a balance of people,” says Past Trustee Michael K. McGovern, who now chairs Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. “Some are good fundraisers, some are good program administrators, and some have other strengths. You need a balance.” McGovern, who worked as a city manager in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, while he was a trustee, said he tried to facilitate discussion among the trustees to help them make better decisions. It’s something he also had to do in his job serving a seven-member city council and 9,000 citizens. “I never hesitated to bring issues to the table that made people feel uncomfortable,” he says. “I just wanted everyone to understand what they were voting on, and I’ve always believed that the best decisions are made with more input.”

Past Rotary Vice President Anne Matthews served alongside McGovern as a trustee. While Matthews considers fundraising to be one of her biggest strengths, she echoes the sentiment that a good trustee isn’t just a good fundraiser. “They also need to be able to think strategically,” she says – which is where her experience as a director with the South Carolina Department of Education came in handy. “You need to be able to develop plans and measure results,” Matthews says.

RI president

The official requirements to become president of Rotary International are actually pretty simple: A member must first serve as club president, district governor, and on Rotary’s Board of Directors. Once a member has been a director, he or she is technically eligible for the presidency. However, most RI presidents have held additional leadership roles, including serving on committees that offer international experience.

Ready to take on a leadership role beyond your club – but not ready to be a district governor? There are other options.

District committees often need volunteers. Most districts have committees that focus on the following areas: finance; international service; public image; training and leadership development; and youth programs and scholarships. Ask your district governor about opportunities in your area.

MYTH: Women aren’t welcome. 

After the 2018-19 Board was announced, The Rotarian magazine received a spike in letters expressing concern about the lack of women directors and wondering when Rotary will elect its first woman president. Rotarian Monica Smith wrote, “It pains me to see how little concrete action appears to be taken at many other clubs locally, nationally, and internationally to recruit, support, and promote women members, not to mention officers.” Texas Rotarian Sarah Carriker wrote, “If the leaders of Rotary really wanted more women in Rotary, there would be more women in leadership roles.”

Past RI President Riseley says the lack of women on the Board is unfortunate: “It indicates to the world and Rotary that there’s no place for women in Rotary – and that’s completely incorrect.”

Smith, a member of the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C., says her club’s strategies to diversify its membership could serve as a model for the organization. The club has attracted young professionals by enacting programs such as its “Rule of 35,” which offers discounted membership fees for new members under age 35. It also relaxed attendance requirements and moved club meetings to evenings to accommodate young professionals who can’t meet for lunch. “Making a program indicates you’re trying,” she says. Over the past few years, she says, club members have also made an effort to invite more women. That effort has paid off as those new members invite their friends. Now the club is about 40 percent women, and it has members from 30 countries. 

Smith admits that it’s probably easier for her club to foster diversity given its location in the U.S. capital, but members do make a concerted effort to achieve that diversity. “If you don’t see Rotary’s leadership pushing this, there are going to be clubs that don’t make it a priority,” she says. One hypothetical solution: Rotary could set a minimum number of leadership roles that have to be filled by women. That might seem drastic, Smith says, but Rotary isn’t the only organization wrestling with a gender imbalance in leadership. She notes that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose to appoint a cabinet that is ethnically diverse and has as many women as men. Trudeau called it a “cabinet that looks like Canada.”

While Rotary has yet to elect a female president, four women have served Rotary as vice president. The first was Anne Matthews. “I was honored and humbled to be asked to serve as vice president,” Matthews says. While her appointment marked a first for women in Rotary, Matthews is quick to point out that it was her experience, not her gender, that stood out to President Ron D. Burton. She expects the same will be true for Rotary’s first female president. “The first woman president of Rotary International should be a lady who is respected, of unquestionable character, who possesses integrity, and has earned this important role.”

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