Presidential message

K.R. Ravindran

President 2015-16

May 2016

Some years ago, in the Kano plains of Kenya, a well-meaning development agency took on the task of improving water availability to a rural community. Committees were formed, meetings were held, and the local people were consulted. The main need the community identified was improved delivery of water for irrigation and livestock. A plan to meet this need was created, and the work was soon begun, exactly as the community representatives had requested.

Yet once construction began, it was met by immediate protest from groups of community women, who came to the site and physically blocked workers from building diversion channels. Upon further investigation, the agency realized that the water it was diverting for farming came from the only source, for dozens of families, of water for cooking, drinking, and washing. The entire project had to be scrapped.

Why? Because it had never occurred to a single member of the all-male team in charge to consult the local women. At every stage, it was assumed that the men knew the needs, spoke for the community, and were able to represent it. Clearly, this was far from the case. The women knew the needs of the community, and its resources, far better – but their opinion was never sought.

We have had women in Rotary for only the last quarter of our history, and it is no coincidence that those years have been by far our most productive. In 1995, only 1 in 20 Rotarians were women; today, that number has risen to 1 in 5. It is progress, but it is not enough. It is only common sense that if we want to represent our communities, we must reflect our communities, and if we want to serve our communities fully, we must be sure that our communities are fully represented in Rotary.

Rotary’s policy on gender equality is absolutely clear. Yet nearly one-fifth of our clubs still refuse to admit women, usually by claiming that they simply cannot find women who are qualified for membership. I would say that any Rotarian who makes this argument, or believes it, himself lacks the two most basic qualifications for Rotary membership: honesty and good sense.

A club that shuts out women shuts out much more than half the talent, half the ability, and half the connections it should have. It closes out the perspectives that are essential to serving families and communities effectively. It damages not only its own service but our entire organization, by reinforcing the stereotypes that limit us the most. It leads our partners to take us less seriously, and it makes all of Rotary less attractive to potential members, especially the young people who are so crucial to our future.

To tolerate discrimination against women is to doom our organization to irrelevance. We cannot pretend that we still live in Paul Harris’ time, nor would he ever want us to. For, as he said, “The story of Rotary will have to be written again and again.” Let us see to it that the story we write in Rotary is one of which he would be proud.


April 2016

Many years ago, in Kolkata, India, I had the chance to meet Mother Teresa. She was an incredible woman with an incredible force of personality. When she walked down the street, the crowd parted in front of her like the Red Sea. Yet when you talked to her, if you mentioned the tremendous things she had done, she almost did not engage in this topic at all. By many reports, if you asked her what her greatest achievement was, she would answer, "I am an expert in cleaning toilets."

The answer was both humorous and absolutely serious. Her business was caring for others. Toilets had to be cleaned, so she cleaned them. There was no question of a job being beneath her. Helping people who needed help was her work, and there was nothing higher, nothing in the world more important than that.

So one day, when an elegantly dressed man came to Kolkata looking for Mother Teresa, the nuns who answered the door informed him that she was at the back of the house, cleaning the toilets. They pointed the way, and indeed he found Mother Teresa scrubbing the toilets. She said hello, assumed he was there to volunteer, and began explaining to him how to hold the toilet brush correctly and how not to waste water. Then she put the brush in his hand and left him standing there, in his expensive suit, alone in the lavatory.

Later, the man came out, found Mother Teresa again, and said, "I have finished; may I speak with you now?" "Yes, certainly," she said. He took an envelope out of his pocket and said, "Mother Teresa, I am the director of the airline, and here are your tickets. I just wanted to bring them to you personally."

That airline director told that story again and again for the rest of his life. He said those 20 minutes spent cleaning toilets had filled him with the greatest joy he had ever known – because by putting his hands to Mother Teresa's work, he became part of that work. For those 20 minutes, he cared for the sick just as she did: with his own hands, his own sweat.

That is exactly the opportunity that Rotary gives us. We might not do what Mother Teresa did – give up our lives, our homes, our families. But for 20 minutes, 20 hours, 20 days of the year, we can be like her.

We can do the work that others will not with our hands, and our hearts, and our sweat, and our devotion – knowing that what we do is the most important work in the world.


March 2016

Some years ago, I was asked to speak at an Interact club in my home city of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I have always taken my interactions with Rotary youth very seriously, so I prepared my remarks carefully and put the same effort into my presentation that I would for any other event. After the meeting, I stayed to chat with a few of the Interactors, answering their questions and wishing them well.

I came out of the classroom where we had met into the autumn afternoon. The bright sun was shining directly into my eyes, so I found a bit of shade behind a pillar where I could wait for my ride.

As I stood there, hidden from view, I overheard a group of the very Interactors who had just listened to my speech. Naturally I was curious: What would they be saying? What had they taken away from my presentation? I quickly realized that what they had taken away was not at all what I had intended.

They were not talking about what I had said, the stories I had told, or the lessons I had come to their school to impart. To my astonishment, the major topic of conversation was my tie! I listened with amusement as they chattered about my Western clothes, my background, my business; every aspect of my appearance and behavior was dissected and discussed. Just as they began to speculate about what car I drove, my ride arrived and I stepped out into view. They were perhaps a bit embarrassed, but I just smiled, got into the car, and drove off with a wave.

Whatever they learned from me that day, I learned far more. I learned that the lessons we teach with our examples are far more powerful than those we teach with words. I realized that as a Rotary leader, and a prominent person in the community, I had, for better or worse, become a role model for these young people. Their eyes were on me in a way that I had never before appreciated. If they chose to emulate me, they would model themselves on what they saw, not what I told them.

All of us in Rotary are leaders, in one way or another, in our communities. All of us bear the responsibility that comes with that. Our Rotary values, our Rotary ideals, cannot be left within the confines of our Rotary clubs. They must be carried with us every day. Wherever we are, whoever we are with, whether we are involved in Rotary work – we are always representing Rotary. We must conduct ourselves accordingly: in what we think, what we say, what we do, and how we do it. Our communities, and our children, deserve no less.


February 2016

In life, sometimes the experiences that matter the most are the briefest. They pass in the blink of an eye: a few days, a few hours, a few moments. They are the experiences that illuminate the landscape of our memory, shining brightly even years later. They are the moments in which we see, suddenly, something we had not seen; we understand something we had not understood; we forge a connection we had not expected.

For me, this has been a Rotary year like no other. I have been around the world, traversing countries and continents. I have been to places I had never seen before, and I have returned to familiar places and seen them, as for the first time, through the lens of Rotary.

When you travel for Rotary, you travel with a different sense of perspective and a different sense of purpose. There is an awareness of being part of something larger than yourself. When you board a plane or a train, or leave your home in the dark hours of early morning, you may be leaving for lands unknown – but at your destination, there will be no strangers. There will be Rotarians, waiting and welcoming. There will be work to do, something to learn, and perhaps something to teach.

There will be connections to forge, friendships to build, and memories to carry for a lifetime.

This year, I have been the traveler, and I have been welcomed by Rotarians around the world. A few months from now, from 28 May to 1 June, I invite you to step into my experience: allow me to welcome you to Seoul for our 107th International Convention.

The Koreans have a saying: 사람이 나면 서울로 보내라. In English we would say, "When a person is born, send them to Seoul." For Seoul is a city of opportunities: a wonderful destination with rich traditions, modern conveniences, and a culture unlike any other. But I ask you to join me in Seoul not only for all of this, but also for the experiences you will have there with your fellow Rotarians.

For a brief moment in time, you will experience Rotary as I have experienced it: in all its diversity, all its warmth, and all its potential. You will be greeted as an old friend by people you have never met; you will share your thoughts, even without a shared language. You will learn with wonder of what Rotary has achieved, and leave inspired to achieve even more.

Before this Rotary year comes to its close, I ask you to do what I have done: to leave your homes, to board your flights, to travel toward the unknown with an open heart and an open mind, confident that Rotary will welcome you. Join me, and your fellow Rotarians, as we Connect with Korea – Touch the World.


January 2016

There is a story told in my Hindu tradition of two sages, Shaunaka and Abhipratari. They were worshippers of Prana, the wind god. One day, the two men were about to sit down to lunch when a poor student knocked on their door, asking for food.

"No, boy, do not bother us at this hour," was the reply. The student was surprised but very hungry, so he persisted.

"Tell me, honored sirs, which deity do you worship?"

"Prana, the wind god," they answered impatiently.

"Do you not know that the world begins and ends with wind, and that wind pervades the entire universe?"

The two sages were by now very irritated by their impertinent guest. "Of course we know it!" they replied.

"Well, then," continued the student, "if Prana pervades the universe, then he pervades me also, since I am but part of the universe. He is also in this hungry body, which stands before you begging for a bite to eat! And so in denying food to me, you deny it to the very deity whom you say you serve."

The sages realized the student spoke the truth and invited him to enter and share their meal. For they understood, at that moment, that by opening the door to one who sought their help, they were not only serving that individual – but reaching toward a larger goal.

Our experience of Rotary is, for the most part, based in our own communities. We meet every week in our clubs, in the same places, with the same familiar friends. While almost all of us are involved in some way or other in international service, the Rotary we see and share from day to day feels very local. It can be easy to lose sight of the larger picture – of what our service truly means.

Every impact you have as a Rotarian, individually and through your club, is multiplied by the power of our numbers. When you feed one person who is hungry, when you educate one person who is illiterate, when you protect one child from disease, the impact may seem small. It is anything but. For it is only through the power of numbers, through the power of our individual actions and gifts, that we can have the impact we seek: to truly Be a Gift to the World.


December 2015

When the Canadian army liberated the Netherlands in 1945, they found the country on the brink of starvation. Seeing the suffering of so many, and especially moved by the faces of the children, four Canadian privates stationed near Apeldoorn that year decided to make that Christmas special for as many Dutch children as they could.

Together, they made the rounds among their fellow soldiers, collecting chocolate bars and chewing gum, candy and comic books. In their spare moments, they built toy trucks out of wood and wire, sawed scrap lumber for building blocks; one, risking the military police, sold his cigarette ration on the black market, using the money to buy rag dolls. Each thought longingly of his own family at home; each channeled his energies instead toward the children whose Christmas they knew they could brighten.

By 1 December, four sacks of gifts lay ready; the soldiers eagerly looked forward to the 25th. But two days later, they learned the date they were to depart for Canada: 6 December, long before Christmas. With mixed emotions, the soldiers decided that the best plan simply would be to take their sacks over to the local orphanage and leave them there to await Christmas.

The night before they were to leave the Netherlands, the four set off for the orphanage, one of them in a makeshift white beard and red cap. On their way, they were surprised to hear church bells ringing and see houses lit brightly, with Christmas still some weeks away. As they approached the orphanage, boots crunching in the snow, they saw through the windows that the children, two dozen girls and boys, were gathered at their evening meal. Only a few months after the war's end, food was still scarce; the meal was small, and the children's faces pale and thin.

"Santa Claus" raised the knocker on the door and knocked three times, hard. As if by magic, the chatter of young voices inside fell silent; a priest opened the door. His polite expression gave way to one of shock, as the children behind him erupted into cheers, rushing forward and swarming the private who had dressed for Christmas three weeks early – but exactly on time. For in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas comes on St. Nicholas Eve: 5 December.

For an hour, joyful chaos reigned as packages were opened and exclaimed over, sweets were tasted, dolls caressed. The last wooden truck, the last bar of chocolate, went into the hands of a little boy who had been waiting patiently all the while. After thanking the men, he turned to the priest and said something to him in Dutch, his face alight with happiness. The priest smiled and nodded. "What did he say?" one of the soldiers asked.

The priest looked at them with eyes full of tears. "He said, 'We told you he would come.'"

By sending joy out into the world, we do not sacrifice it for ourselves – we only multiply it. As we enter this season of giving, let us multiply the gifts we have been given by sharing them with others. Through acts of caring, kindness, and generosity, in our clubs and through our Foundation, we become and remain a gift to the world.


November 2015

One sunny morning at the end of June 1991, a van drove through the busy, rush-hour streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Winding through traffic to a northern suburb, the van arrived at the Forward Command Headquarters of the Defense Ministry. Security guards stopped it for inspection. When they did, the two suicide bombers driving the van detonated their cargo: thousands of kilograms of plastic explosives.

The roof of the building was blown off completely. Debris was strewn for blocks. In total, 21 people were killed and 175 people injured, among them many pupils of the girls' school next door. More than a kilometer away, the blast shattered every window in my home. My wife raced toward the sound of the explosion – toward our daughter's school.

Our daughter was then nine years old. That morning, she had forgotten her pencil case at home. At the moment of the blast, she was coming out of a stationer's shop, admiring her new pencils. Suddenly her ears were ringing, the air was filled with sand, and everywhere around her people were screaming, bleeding, and running. Someone pulled her into the garden of the badly damaged school, where she waited until my wife arrived to bring her back to our home – its floors still covered with broken glass.

Sri Lanka today is peaceful and thriving, visited by some two million tourists every year. Our war now is only a memory, and we as a nation look forward to a promising future. Yet so many other nations cannot say the same. Today, more of the world's countries are involved in conflict than not; a record 59.5 million people worldwide live displaced by wars and violence.

In Rotary we believe, in spite of all that, in the possibility of peace – not out of idealism, but out of experience. We have seen that even the most intractable conflicts can be resolved when people have more to lose by fighting than by working together. We have seen what can happen when we approach peace-building in ways that are truly radical, such as the work of our Rotary Peace Fellows. Through our Rotary Foundation, peace fellows become experts in preventing and resolving conflict. Our goal is that they will find new ways not only to end wars but to stop them before they begin.

Among the hundreds of peace fellows who have graduated from the program, two from Sri Lanka, one from each side of the conflict, studied together. In the first weeks of the course, both argued passionately for the rightness of their side. Yet week by week, they grew to understand each other's perspective; today, they are good friends. When I met them and heard their story, they gave me hope. If 25 years of pain and bitterness could be overcome by Rotary, then what, indeed, is beyond us?

We cannot fight violence with violence. But when we fight it with education, with understanding, and with peace, we can truly Be a Gift to the World.


October 2015

Last month, after confirming a full year without a single case of wild poliovirus, Nigeria was removed from the list of the world's polio-endemic countries. It was the last polio-endemic country in Africa. Today, only two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – harbor the world's final reservoir of endemic poliovirus. As this issue of The Rotarian goes to press, global cases of polio in 2015 number only a few dozen.

The scale of this achievement can hardly be overstated. Polio has existed for millennia; it has plagued humanity since our earliest civilizations. Today, because of Rotary's work and that of our partners, the end is in sight. We are counting down not in years, but in months.

And yet, our success is as fragile as it is monumental. We are moving forward, slowly, steadily, inexorably – thanks to colossal efforts that never cease. We continue to vaccinate hundreds of millions of children in vast synchronized campaigns; we constantly monitor environments to prevent new outbreaks. The sheer scale of the effort – the coordination, the cost, and the commitment – boggles the mind.

Some ask why such high levels of immunization and surveillance are still needed to combat a disease that is almost gone. The answer is simple: It is the only way forward. If we did anything less – if we allowed the virus any quarter – years of work would be undone. We know too well how easily polio could spread again. We know how quickly our decades of progress could be lost. And this is why the months ahead are so tremendously important. We need your voice – to raise awareness, to raise funds, and to keep the momentum going. We need your strength to help fight this war until we have won.

On 24 October, we mark World Polio Day. I hope that on that day, all of you will take part in some way in our work to eradicate polio. I know that many of you intend to publicize this event on the club or district level; for those who have not yet made plans, there are still many ways to participate. Visit endpolionow.org for ideas, tools, sample press releases, and ways to donate. You'll also find the link to our livestream event; be sure to join in, and share it on social media.

This war of ours – which started as a war against polio but is also a war against hatred, against ignorance, against fear – this war will be won. It will be won soon. And when it is won, all of Rotary will have a story to tell – to the children, and the grandchildren, who will never see a leg brace or an iron lung, or know a world with polio in it.

Whether you are a Rotarian in Kano or Peshawar or Swat, in Seoul or Madrid or Chicago – you are a part of this story. Your part in it is one that only you can write. I ask you all to write it well – so that the story you will one day tell is one of which you will be proud.


September 2015

There was once a strong young man who was offered a job as a woodcutter. He set about his task with energy: The first week, he turned 18 trees into firewood. The second week, he worked just as hard, but was surprised to find he had chopped only 11 trees. The third week, despite working nonstop from morning till night, the number was six, and he went despairingly to the foreman to offer his resignation. "I am losing my strength. I can no longer cut as many trees as I once could."

The foreman looked at the young man, who seemed to him in fine health. "Have you thought of sharpening your ax?" he asked.

"Sharpen my ax? Who has time to sharpen an ax?" the young man asked indignantly. "I have been too busy chopping wood!"

When we aren't making the kind of progress we feel we should be making, the natural response is to redouble our efforts. Sometimes, though, the better response is not to work harder, but to work smarter. Look at your tools. Analyze your processes. Are you directing your resources in the most effective ways? Or are you pouring all your strength into chopping wood with a dull ax?

For the last 20 years, we have relentlessly beaten the drum of membership in Rotary. We set goals and launch campaigns, all focused on bringing in more and more members. And yet, our overall numbers remain the same.

It is time to sharpen our tools. Instead of focusing on the question, "How can we bring more members into Rotary?" we should be asking ourselves, "How can we add more value to Rotary membership, so that more will join and fewer will leave?"

One way we are doing that is with the new Rotary Global Rewards program, which launched in July. This innovative program allows Rotarians to connect with, and receive discounts and concessions from, businesses and service providers around the world. Individual Rotarians may submit their own business to be included alongside those with which Rotary has already negotiated relationships; the most appropriate offers will be added to the listings. We have also created the option of allowing businesses to return a percentage of their profit on each transaction to our Rotary Foundation, and several companies have already been locked into this part of the scheme. Each month we will update the list with additional offers that we may receive. I urge all of you to try it out by signing up on My Rotary at Rotary.org now. The more Rotarians participate, the stronger, and more beneficial, the program will be.

Much more than another loyalty program, Rotary Global Rewards is a new way to benefit from being a Rotarian, and being part of the Rotary network. It is another way to combine business and service. And it is yet another way to add value to Rotary membership. We cannot forget that our potential members will be asking themselves, "What's in it for me?" We need to demonstrate the value of Rotary by showing that becoming a Rotarian will enrich their lives, as it has ours.


August 2015

In the 1930s, Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter, had a wooden sign hanging on his wall that read, Det bedste er ikke for godt: "Only the best is good enough." Today, Christiansen is remembered as the inventor of Lego, the colorful plastic bricks beloved by children around the world. But in the early days of the Lego company, its signature product was a wooden duck – one built to the highest standards, out of aged beech, with three coats of clear varnish. Lego's company history tells how Christiansen used his ducks to teach a lesson in quality to his son, Godtfred Kirk:

One evening, when I came into the office, I said to my father: "It's been a good day today, Dad. We've earned a little more." "Oh," said Dad, "what do you mean?" "Well, I've just been to the station with two boxes of our toy ducks for the Danish Co op. Normally they get three coats of varnish, but since it's for the Co-op, I only gave them two. So I saved the business a bit of money." He looked at me in dismay. "Godtfred, fetch those boxes back. Unpack them and give the ducks another coat of varnish. You're not going to bed until the work's done – and you'll do it all on your own." There was no arguing with Dad. And it was a lesson for me about what quality meant.

Today, Lego's quality standards are legendary, and its products are the most popular toys in the world: Lego pieces outnumber humans 86 to 1.

We all recognize that this success stems directly from Lego's business practices – its insistence on quality, efficiency, and innovation. I compare this with our efforts in governance and accountability in Rotary, and realize that sometimes we fall short of the standards expected.

The leaders at the Rotary International, zone, district, and club levels have to maintain the highest standards in governance. The RI president and directors must serve the membership in a meaningful manner; zone leaders must deliver on the investment Rotary makes in them; district leaders must provide dynamic leadership in the district and focus on transparency in accounting and timely reporting of financials; and club leaders must adhere to proper reporting functions and get their clubs onto Rotary Club Central.

Just as Christiansen refused to consider sending a lesser product to any of his clients, so should we refuse to consider giving a lesser effort to any of our work. We must always demand the best of ourselves – in our professional lives, and especially in our Rotary work.

For in Rotary, what is our product? It is not wooden ducks or plastic bricks. It is education, water, health, and peace. It is hope, and it is life itself. For this work, only our best is good enough. I ask you all to remember this – and to do your very best to Be a Gift to the World.