Confessions of a Contrarian Rotarian

                       An Essay by Bill Phillips; PP, RC of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, USA

I am a Contrarian Rotarian.  Since 2012, I have been actively involved in a campaign that questions Rotary’s direction with specific concern about its Future Vision initiative.  What you are about to read are my personal feelings which in no way represent the position of either my club or my district. 

The act of publicly expressing disagreement with Rotary policy is unusual in the Rotary world; it makes people uncomfortable. I have often been questioned and have in fact questioned myself on why I have started down this road less travelled. What exactly am I trying to accomplish? Why is the journey so important that I would expose myself to the criticism that would surely result; and in the process virtually eliminate any opportunity to personally advance in the Rotary world?  Why have I chosen to become a Contrarian Rotarian?

This essay contains answers that have surfaced after more than a little soul searching. While this may be a self serving rationalization for engaging in what many will view as inappropriate; I can assure you that my feelings are genuine and well intentioned. As my friends and colleagues will testify; I may occasionally spread a little organic fertilizer, but I will not lie.

Why is such a campaign important?

Although Rotary membership is growing in developing countries, its numbers are declining in North America and other donor regions.  If this trend continues, Rotary as we know it will die.  I sincerely believe the old maxim that “The World Needs Rotary”.  Rotary has done a lot of good in my community, and Rotary has done even more good in the world. There is still much that Rotary can do, but this will not be possible if Rotary membership continues to decline. In order for Rotary to grow, it must find a way to truly engage its clubs and club level Rotarians, especially in the developed world where needed resources exist, but Rotary membership is in its greatest decline.  I believe a re-emphasis on fellowship, hands on service, and support for local clubs would be a wonderful place to start. 

What do I hope to accomplish?

At the most basic level, I hope to convince Rotary leadership to reinstate The Rotary Foundation’s Matching Grant Program or a reasonable substitute that will assist individual clubs and Rotarians to leverage their resources and do projects that are within their experience and unique skill sets.  I also hope to convince Rotary leadership to reinstate corporate support of the now defunct Group Study Exchange program. My strategy is to build a case on why these programs were important, why their elimination was a mistake, and most importantly why they should be reinstated.  I am not interested in finding fault or leveling criticism at what has already been done, but I am very interested in undoing the elimination of programs that were gateways to international service for so many Rotarians. 

On a higher level, I believe that Rotary is moving in a direction that is losing sight of its core values; namely the bringing together of professional, business, and community leaders for fellowship, networking, and activities that serve their local communities and beyond.  I believe the vast majority of club level Rotarians are virtually unaware of this, primarily because the activities of Rotary International are so far removed from their own experience and ability to participate; but also because many newer Rotarians  have never experienced the Rotary that existed a few short years ago. Therefore, my intermediate goal is to raise awareness on this shift in direction, why it is relevant to the operation of local clubs, and how the shift affects a club level Rotarian’s ability to enjoy Rotary while practicing Service Above Self.

On the highest level, I hope to encourage a ground swell of opinion and informed discussion that will help the leadership of Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation rediscover the programs and club focus that made Rotary successful. I want to see a Rotary that once again values doing actual service ahead of simply collecting money for faceless non-rotarian groups.  I want to see a Rotary that once again evaluates projects mostly on the good they can do and less on whether they will generate favorable publicity for RI and its leadership. I want to see a Rotary that once again fills a service niche that Rotarians are eminently qualified to fill as opposed to a Rotary that turns its back on small but effective projects while vainly reaching for bigger and better things. I want to see a Rotary that once again relies on the experience and talent of its rank and file membership and less on the recommendations of paid bureaucrats, third party consultants, and deep pocket non-rotarian donors. I want to see a Rotary where The Rotary Foundation once again supports the effort of Rotarians through their hands on projects and less on being a foundation that pursues its own agenda while expecting unconditional support from Rotarians.

The bottom line is that I want to see a Rotary that is once again a club centered association of independently operating clubs that are united in the ideals of friendship and service. I want to see a Rotary that rejects the flawed parts of a vision that is causing it to become a large, impersonal, centrally controlled, quasi-political collection agency for its own foundation and non-related groups.  I want to see a Rotary that once again lives up to its own ideals!

One Final Thought:

I fully recognize that a single Rotarian, a single Rotary Club, or even a single Rotary District has little chance of affecting such a change. I have therefore joined with a group of experienced and committed Rotarians who are dedicated to raising the awareness described herein and ultimately supporting an effort that will help Rotary return from a well intentioned but misguided detour.  The effort is frustrating and lonely; but someone has to try. 

“I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.  What I can do, I should do; and what I should do, by the grace of God, I will do”. 

Quotation by Edward Everett Hale recited by DGE Charlie Laine in 1986.

 This is why I have become a Contrarian Rotarian. Thank you for reading.  If you would like to know more, please visit

 Yours in Rotary Service

Bill Phillips

PP, RC of Lawrenceburg (TN, USA – District 6760)

PHF+8, TRF Level 1 Major Donor