Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The Rotary Theme Park

Everyone loves a theme park. What's not to like except maybe the impact on your credit card statement? But seriously, who attends a theme park for the themes? We're in it for the rides, the souvenirs, the Kodak moments and the highly processed high sugar, high carb, high fat and high priced food. I don't imagine anyone joins Rotary for the themes either, so in this blog I want to examine if Rotary International's annual theme actually serves a purpose or if it's simply another exhibit from the "We've always done it this way" department.

We're now most of the way through changeover season; that time of year when one Rotary annual theme gets dropped like a bad habit, and we all line up to salute a new one. Club secretaries are busy changing letterheads, and webmasters and Facebook admins are hopefully uploading the new theme logo. I stress hopefully. A few weeks ago I spotted the "Rotary: Serving Humanity" logo on a club website. Sadly that was the newest thing on it. The changeover dinner is that special event where your chicken breast costs that little bit more, the president's collar gets that little bit heavier, and we officially replace our themed lapel pins and lower a new lectern theme banner over the old one.

But I've noticed the Rotary annual theme appears to be losing its intended alignment with the July-to-June Rotary year and has all but transitioned into a February-to-January popularity cycle, as a result of the pomp and ceremony surrounding the announcement by the Rotary International President Elect of his (I normally try to avoid gendered pronouns, but in this case 'his' is the only pronoun applicable) theme for the year ahead. 

The fervour was so intense this year that someone who shall remain nameless pushed a button about 48 hours before they were meant to, releasing Mark Maloney's 2019/20 theme before it was officially announced at the International Assembly. Social media being what it is, much of the Rotary world saw it prematurely; myself included. Awkward! When I first caught sight of the 2019/20 logo in isolation it crossed my mind Rotary was mounting a program to eliminate Zika virus.You can't deny the resemblance!

As we all know Rotary training season commences in February when District Governors Elect return from San Diego, and concludes in May or June depending on your district. I've been heavily involved in it for over ten years now, in my native district and many others. First as a club president, then as a district leader, and more recently as a key note speaker. It's a crazy few months which calls for those involved to jump between parallel universes. There's the regular Rotary universe in a club under a current president observing a current annual theme. Then there's the training team universe; where we trainers, leaders and speakers participate in the journey towards post June Rotary. The leader of this universe is the DGE who is trying their hardest to fire up said leaders with yet another Rotary annual theme. A theme which is embargoed inside the regular Rotary universe until July 1, but is plastered everywhere in the training universe. For those new to impending presidency and/or leadership positions; this should be an exciting time, if not a wee bit daunting. There are massive opportunities to learn about Rotary and compare notes with one's contemporaries, and it's a priviledge to have been involved so many times. But even this enthusiastic Rotarian is starting to feel a "Groundhog Day" effect in the face of new theme hyperbole.

Annual themes are like a box of chocolates. You never know what your gunna get. To be honest I'm not convinced our annual leadership churn is a good thing either, but that's a blog for another day. At the risk of upsetting people (not that it's ever stopped me before), I want to convey why I'm not a fan of annual themes in Rotary. Although I don't expect I'll be upsetting too many outside of our new crop of District Governors and Presidents; each of whom have been galvanised behind said new theme, and may well see this blog as a thunderstorm on their parade.

I will outline my reasoning behind my position shortly, but first; a little history. In 1949/50 Rotary International President (and please, can we stop using the term 'World President'? They are not the president of the world, they are the president of Rotary International) Percy Hodgson outlined a list of key objectives for his presidential term. It is understood this was the inception of the concept whereby Rotarians world wide aligned themselves with key emphases of the RI President. Shortly thereafter, RI Presidents started trumpeting shorter, punchier themes, and today Rotary has built an entire industry on work-shopped themes and logos, together with a vast array of matching merchandise.

A quick rummage through my sock
 drawer and look what I found.
Understandably many Rotarians question what this costs us, but to be fair Rotary International makes a good deal of money from the licensing of the new theme and logo as it is reproduced on all manner of promotional materials. That income more than covers the costs of articulating an annual theme and designing its accompanying logo. Invariably they help keep our RI dues down. 

But the pins, banners and ties which are given out each year are not free. Somewhere these all appear in district budgets which inevitably get passed on to rank-and-file members. I have acquired a comprehensive collection of Rotary theme ties over the years, and I haven't (directly) paid for one of them. Most came my way as part of the deal when serving at district level, and others have been gifts. For the record I do appreciate a nice tie, even though these days I don't wear them as often as I once did.

50 Shades of Blue - My Rotary Theme Tie Collection
What was Gary Huang thinking?
But in this age of questioning our traditions and rituals, and asking "what purpose does it serve?", rather than blindly repeating a practice because we've always done it that way; surely it's not unreasonable to ask if we really need a new theme every year.

2005/06 RI President Carl-Wilhelm Stenhammar took the position at the time that an annual theme was unnecessary. He was quite candid with his beliefs it was counterproductive, but when given no option, he decided to use our motto: Service Above Self as his theme for that year. Of course, being the creatures of habit we are, we have continued to change themes every year despite his protestations. You know when a practice is well entrenched when the RI President himself cannot change it. So what is the rationale? The theory I’ve heard is that Rotarians need to be reinvigorated every year, and the annual theme gives a common focus to unite behind. Personally I find the people we meet and the doors we open for social impact far more invigorating than a 70 year old ritual. 

District Governors Elect, having just returned from the International Assembly, an event which I have only ever heard described in glowing terms, exhibit an amazing drive and enthusiasm for their year ahead. One cannot blame them for their enthusiasm and veneration of the approaching annual theme. Those District Governors Elect then have the job of not only training, but energising and emboldening their incoming district and club leaders, and I don't doubt that a well crafted and defined annual theme can play a strong motivational role. I have served under many motivated presidents and a few less than motivated presidents. The difference was not a theme, and I remain somewhat sceptical as to how well a theme can motivate the rank-and-file. No doubt it resonates with some presidents and members, but if we expect all Rotarians to jump through themed hoops on command we'll likely be disappointed. I recall the late Connie Tremethick, the first female president of my former club, the Rotary Club of Edwardstown being less than impressed with the theme for 2001/02, one of two years she served as president. The theme in question was "Mankind is Our Business", and this proud feminist was unenthused by a theme she saw as less than female friendly in an era when women were starting to ascend to senior leadership roles in Rotary.

Conversely when it was my turn to be Edwardstown's president in 2006/07, I was very happy with "Lead the Way" as a theme, and my theme banner, personally signed by Bill Boyd still hangs proudly in my office. But I still think this Rotary ritual is more about tradition than direction. Thus far I still haven't outlined why I'm not a fan of the concept, so here are my top 4 reasons.

1. Sustainability.
In an era where we are constantly asking consumers to consume less, I think of all of the Rotarians across the world hoarding those piles of lapel pins in their sock drawers, not to mention ties and neck scarves in their wardrobes. My daughter is 13 now but I recall when she was much younger, one of her Barbie dolls sported an outfit fashioned from a Rotary themed ladies' neck scarf. I think of all of the theme banners that have made it into landfill. Hopefully most of the theme specific stationery has been recycled, but I cannot imagine how many theme specific items of memorabilia, apparel, banners and desk weights are still in Rotary merchandise store rooms and will never be sold. RDU Supplies are still trying to flog 2016/17 themed products. As someone in the gourmet food industry, my biggest enemy is the "USE BY" date. Every theme specific product ever made has a June 30 use by date, and that is the antithesis of sustainability.

2. Cost.
I've already mentioned the cost implications. Every Rotarian pays more in club fees, be it via their contribution to district or RI levies, to proliferate the Rotary world with theme specific products with a 12 month lifespan.

3. Yet another process.
Our obsession with process at the detriment of outcome could well be our undoing. Meals, menus, venues, sergeants, fines, songs, toasts, prayers, collars, flags, bells: they are all processes, and Rotarians seem to consume way too much time and energy on them. The generation and promulgation of annual themes fit into this category too. Do we really want to be known for any of this minutia? Or do we want to be known for humanitarian service; such as the eradication of polio, youth programs and medical clinics? Some of our processes bring about outcomes, but many do not.

4. Narrative Inconsistency.
One of the greatest ironies in Rotary themes was produced in 1999/2000: "Act with Consistency, Credibility, Continuity". Just pause to think for a moment what this is saying: Be consistent, be credible and be continuous; but only for 12 months, then be something else. Give me strength! It's easy to say that no harm could come from annual theme changes, but I believe the process is far from innocuous. This is about our penchant for shooting ourselves in the public image foot. One of our biggest challenges as an organisation is controlling that public image. By and large, the general public really don't know what Rotary does or what Rotary stands for.

In contrast, when you think of organisations such as Amnesty International, RSPCA, Greenpeace, Red Cross, etc., you immediately understand what they're about. But when it comes to Rotary; most Rotarians have trouble conveying what it is we do. So can you blame the public for being somewhat confused? How do we address this confusion? Our best chance is with strong, consistent messaging. But instead we have a motto, a vision statement, core values, strategic priorities and objectives, six international areas of focus, five avenues of service, a four way test, three french hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. And to top it all off, we go and change our theme every year. Bravo! We have now done everything in our power to mix our messages and confuse our audience.

But here's what I think we could do instead of glib, focus group approved, work-shopped slogans. We could go back to Percy Hodgson's example and identify a key priority for the year; a humanitarian focus which could actually get a good deal of Rotarians behind it. Foci such as homelessness, child slavery, clean waterways, even saving bee populations. How about reducing waste and landfill? We could lead by example by eliminating theme specific products that only have a 12 month life. We could even have a serious tilt at global CO₂ emissions if only we weren't so addicted to flying people all over the world for meetings. Sakuji Tanaka was on to something with his "Peace Through Service" theme, which when combined with forums and other peace related activities throughout 2012/13 did help articulate a message beyond Rotarian ears.

But I'm a realist, and I don't see these ideas getting up either. Love them or loathe them, annual themes are here to stay. And yes; some do love them (seemingly none so much as the theme for their year). If you're motivated by a Rotary theme, that's great! It's doing its job. And hats off to those who step up to take on club and district leadership positions. You are not the target of my cynicism. Let's at least recognise the raison d'ĂȘtre of our annual theme, and use it for the purpose it was intended: as an internal leadership motivation tool. I suspect the vast majority of Rotarians have little more than a passing interest in our annual theme at best. But I'm convinced the general public are completely oblivious to it. As someone who has played a role in shaping our narrative for close to a decade, I think we'd be wise to segregate it from our external messaging strategy. We are deluded if we think for a moment that our muddied narrative can be clarified by incorporating a theme which changes every 12 months. Our audience is not remotely interested in our navel gazing.


  1. You do talk a lot of good sense, Mark. Well done.

  2. I have blogged on this topic in much the same vain. For six months themes over-lap to boot. They are dysfunctional, and immediately forgettable if known in the first place. About three or four years ago RI announced they were going to be discontinued but as we all know it never happened. Put them all together and they would appear much like your wonderful theme park analogy, a total Hodge-bodge of images.