How the Rotary Club Works

A blind woman and her daughter ask for money from passersby in Blantyre, Malawi. One of the Rotary Club’s seven priorities is providing service to people in need.
Alistair Lyne/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Hearing the word "club" may lead you to think about memberships you maintained in your youth, such as a scouting club or intramural sports. Clubs don't have to be for young people, though. One club for adults that captures the spirit of camaraderie found in many youth clubs is Rotary Club.

The Rotary Club is a service-oriented organization. It encourages members to find ways to give back to the club and to the community, internationally and vocationally [source: RI]. One of the unique ways the Rotary Club chooses projects is to see if they will pass the Four-Way Test. This test has been translated into more than 100 languages for Rotary Clubs all over the world. As stated in the Rotary Club's guiding principles, the four-way test is:


  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  • Will it be beneficial to all?

The Rotarians take their memberships seriously. Their organization has a constitution, a Rotary Code of Policies and a Manual of Procedure [source: RI]. The club is focused on developing friendships, supporting your community and bettering your world.

In this article, you'll learn about the history of the Rotary Club, national and international Rotary projects, Rotary youth and educational programs, and how you can become a Rotarian. Read on to learn about the history of this service organization.


History of the Rotary Club

The Rotary Club is a massive organization that boasts a whopping 1.2 million members in more than 200 countries [source: RI]. But as with most movements, it started with a single, creative spark in one person's mind. In 1905, Paul P. Harris caught the itch to start a professional gathering of people and ideas. Harris had fond memories of being raised in a small town, and he wanted to bring the dedication and camaraderie of that setting to his big-city life in Chicago. In the early days, meetings moved from one member's home to the next -- this rotation is what inspired the group's name.

Before long, other cities were taking notice of the club and wanted to form their own groups. Rotary spread like wildfire, first across the United States and then across the globe. Within two decades, there were 20,000 Rotary members in over 200 countries [source: RI]. When groups are local, it's easy to only focus on the immediate needs of your own community. As Rotary blossomed into a global organization, however, the members began to think beyond their city gates. In 1922, the organization renamed itself Rotary International and eventually adopted the motto "Service Above Self" [source: RI].


As major events in world history came and went, Rotary was there. Their members worked through World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The focus began to shift toward working on modern issues, such as environmental degradation, world hunger and illiteracy. Rotary also modernized by allowing women to join the group -- in 1989, Rotary International opened its doors to female members [source: RI].

Read on to learn about Rotary projects in the United States and abroad.


The Rotary Club at Work

In 1917, current Rotary president Arch C. Klumph thought it would be a good idea to set up an endowment for the group to help promote and further its causes. The first donation rolled in at $26.50. As the years went by, the name of this wing of the group became The Rotary Foundation, and the donations soared. Today, The Rotary Foundation has raised over $1 billion to support its various projects [source: RI].

Beyond the foundation, Rotary is active in the United States and abroad to achieve its strategic goals. From 2007 to 2010, the club has seven priorities:


  • The eradication of polio
  • Advancing the recognition and public image of Rotary International
  • Increasing the organization's ability to provide service to those in need
  • Membership expansion
  • Emphasizing Rotary's commitment to vocational services
  • Cultivating leadership talents
  • Fully implementing their strategic plan

[source: RI]

You can take on a range of tasks as a Rotary Club volunteer, in fields including everything from administrative tasks to disaster relief. A searchable volunteer database lets you find projects that search your expertise or location [source: RI]. You don't have to be a member of Rotary International to volunteer. To learn more about volunteering with the organization, you can download the Rotary Volunteers Handbook from its Web site.

The Rotary Club fully embraces today's youth. Read on to learn about Rotary's youth and educational programs.


Rotary Youth and Educational Programs

Rotary International recognizes that young people are an extremely important part of maintaining a strong organization as time goes by. The group actively recruits young volunteers and sponsors multiple programs for young people, including:

  • Rotary Youth Exchange: an exchange-student program for secondary school students. Students live in another country while working with the Rotary Club there.
  • Rotaract: a club for people aged 18 to 30. Rotaract groups are sponsored by their local Rotary Clubs, which help the young people contribute to the community and learn about professional development.
  • Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA): a youth leadership training branch that promotes and encourages leadership. These groups can encompass anyone aged 14 to 30, but they are often divided up into smaller age ranges.

Rotary International also works for education through its Ambassadorial Scholarships program. From 2005 to 2006, Rotary awarded almost 800 scholarships totaling $500 million [source: RI]. Fellowships for the Rotary World Peace Fellows are offered for master's degrees and professional development certificates nationally and internationally. Even if you outgrow the age restrictions for the youth programs, you can still be involved through the Rotary alumni group.


By joining the Rotary's mission at an early age, you can get a head start on bettering your world through volunteerism and a commitment to social issues. Read on to learn how to become a Rotarian.


Becoming a Rotarian

Joining Rotary Club can be an exciting way to be a part of a large, international group. You do need to think about whether or not you can truly make the commitment, however. Rotary members are required to attend at least half of the meetings for each six months of the calendar year [source: RI]. Check with your local Rotary Club to find out if additional meeting obligations are required.

Beyond attending meetings, prospective Rotarians should think about the role of service in their lives. Your local Rotary group may be focused on one of the four service areas (club, vocational, community or international) [source: RI]. You will also be required to help find new members and keep current members active within the group. Like many groups, Rotary Club asks its members to pay annual dues. You will be expected to pay local group dues, district dues and Rotary International dues [source: RI]. Check with your local Rotary Club to find the exact costs of these expenses. You may also be asked to train for or participate in a leadership role within your local club.


Rotarian membership is by invitation only. You can be invited to join the club by someone who is already a member, or you can start attending a few meetings before filling out your own Prospective Member Form. In order to qualify for membership, you need to have a job or be retired, demonstrate a dedication to service, be able to attend the meetings and live or work near the club [source: RI].

Rotary International is also offering some pilot programs. The first is an E-club option, and the second is a Meeting Frequency project designed to make the meeting schedule more flexible [source: RI]. Now that you know all about Rotary, check out your community's club to become a member.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AP. "International Peace Garden grows." Grand Forks Herald. 05/24/09. (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • Mayberry Okonek, Bonnie A. and Morganstein, Linda. "Development of Polio Vaccines." The National Health Museum. (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "A Primer for Exchange Students." Rotary Youth Exchange. (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Alumni." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Ambassadorial Scholarships." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "FAQ: How do I become a member of Rotary?" (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Guiding Principles." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "History." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "History of Rotary International." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "History of The Rotary Foundation." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Make Up Missed Meetings." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Membership responsibilities." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Pilot clubs and e-clubs." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "RI: Strategic Plan 2007-2010." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Rotaract Handbook." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Rotary Centers for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Rotary Grants for University Teachers." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Rotary Volunteers Handbook." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Policy Documents." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Volunteers." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Volunteers Database." (Accessed 05/25/09)
  • RI. "Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA)." (Accessed 05/25/09) (RYLA)/Pages/ridefault.aspx
  • UGLE. "Who Can Join?" 2002. (Accessed 05/25/09)