Twenty years ago, at an advertising agency in Nairobi, the team consisting of creatives, client services, media and the admin staff came together to have a discussion about personal values. That was rather unusual because agency personnel were known for parking their values at the door when reporting to work. Whether they picked them up again on their way out was only left to the imagination.
However, this unique day found the high-flying CEO in good spirits which compelled him to dismount his high horse and hang out with everyday people. He came bearing gifts, pizza, and gathered the staff in an airy, sun-lit conference room to discuss mind numbing distractions that might have meant something to graying philosophers of old. Most of the people were there for the food, but a few wanted to rub shoulders with their mighty leader so that he would recognize them when, later on, they’d casually walk into his office to ask for a raise.
It was in this setting, saturated with designer perfume and oversized egos, where a simple question brought to a standstill both movement (surprising) and thought (not so surprising).
“If you had all the money you’ll ever need, what would you do with your time?”
This is one of those questions that causes the keen listener to pause for a moment and shift gears. It forces them to look into their hearts to find out how they feel about the world around them, like shaking a bottle of deo spray to see if there’s anything left.
And within the hollows of their soul, they are reminded that they may have thought about this in their youth. The answers that they had then might have driven them to desire a great career full of excessive rewards, knowing that their parents would forgive them for the high dose of overindulgence. However, those answers are no longer appropriate as grown-ups, and in a different set of circumstances.
That is unless they have the psychological and moral makeup of Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wallstreet, who believed that ‘greed is good’.
Back at the agency, every answer without exception incorporated a mostly unexplored desire to give money and time to poor families and orphaned children. The executives talked about straight forward and transactional activities like making a regular donation to a charity organization or delivering foodstuff and used clothes to homes for abandoned kids.
Others spoke of more complicated initiatives like raising money from their family and friends to buy a bus for a school in an impoverished rural area or using their artistic skills to raise awareness about infectious diseases ravaging vulnerable communities. They all wanted to do good and give back to their society, though the majority thought of charity in terms of small or miniscule projects that an individual can undertake on his own without getting too involved.
Obviously, the cautious approach wasn’t because of a general lack of compassion, as they had already demonstrated that their hearts had room for charity. It was going to feature as part of their journey whether or not they had already acted on the impulse, and it would eventually manifest itself in extending a hand to members of the community who need help.
The interest in small projects with little impact had more to do with the the prospect of exhausting all of their time and resources on big charity drives. There was insufficient imagination about fulfilling the desire to give back, either by making it a way of life or taken in their stride while having lasting impact on bigger problems.
That is where Rotary clubs come in. They bring together volunteers of like mind who go on to address the glaring issues in the world. For example, the Rotary clubs are at the verge of wiping out the debilitating disease polio from the face of the earth. This will be the second disease in history to be entirely eradicated after Smallpox back in 1980. The End Polio Now campaign has had major impact and the spread the disease has been reduced by 99.9% within 30 years. Together with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners they have raised billions of dollars and immunized over a billion children across the world.
Remember, all of this is happening as Rotarians continue to fulfill their other personal obligations at work or in their businesses, at home with their families or discharging their duties at church and in their neighborhoods. They deliver substantial relief from the world’s problems and comfortably take this responsibility within their stride.
How they do it is not rocket science and they don’t need to be brain surgeons to figure it all out, even though they do have rocket scientists and brain surgeons within their ranks. It is a membership organization that has created a broad and inclusive international network of people who are active in their careers and yet want to contribute to positive outcomes in an ailing world.
The organization has deep and long-lasting effects on its members whether young or old and some of the benefits may lie heavier on one age group than the other. Yet these benefits have appealed to this special breed of volunteers throughout the world and have sustained the Rotary club for 116 years.
The opportunity to gain advanced leadership skills is at the top of the list of benefits. Rotary club members take turns at the helm as the leadership mantle changes hands annually, giving each an opportunity gain from the rich and rewarding experience of managing a diverse set of individuals.
They contain a mix of hardnosed capitalists, seasoned professionals, senior officers in the development sector, even the clergy, and keeping them motivated demands a light touch and a ton of emotional intelligence. The old HR management maxim works in reverse — ‘if they don’t get here trained, they’ll get trained here’.
Apart from the experiences at the local club, there are extensive opportunities for international leadership, completing service projects across borders and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds. The international exposure is really useful in any setting where globalization has taken root and working with multicultural teams is the norm. In the past many had to contend with non-English speakers often saying, ‘me no speake de Inglish’, and other language speakers got just as frustrated when faced with similar sentiments. But now there is Google Translate which makes the communication seamless (kind of).
Thus, the international reputation of Rotary is worthy of respect and admiration. Being associated with an organization that does good in the world, both in local communities and on a massive global scale adds credence to the individual and beefs up the resumé. In today’s realm the personal investment in social responsibility projects improves the image among potential employers, corporate boards, as well as executive recognition award panels like Top ‘Something’ Under ‘Something’.
The reward of gaining the skill to lead robust and high-level teams stands for nothing at all if the deeper meaning of personal transformation is not addressed. In the earlier part of the last century the literature that centered on management skills offered ideas around strengthening personal attributes, focusing on private values and setting an internal moral compass. In later years, the literature shifted toward skills development.
If both elements are crucial for achieving the biggest goals, does the Rotary club present opportunities to attain the former? The simple answer is yes, and here is how.
As the member rises up the leadership ladder in the club, they are inspired to gain the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job. And as they tick off the activities required to support their club’s goals and have meaningful impact in the community, they slowly develop a profound sense of compassion. There are numerous examples in history that demonstrate that an intimate sense of compassion is necessary to drive organizations or society at large to greater heights.
As in a chain reaction the attainment of deep-seated compassion leads to another important attribute — wellbeing. While interacting with other donors who are also intent on uplifting the underprivileged and advocating for equity in society, and as they spend time with the beneficiaries of their charity, a positive effect is created in their mental, physical and spiritual state.
All of this leads to the most important factor of all. It is at the core of the person who wants to successfully climb the mountain of achievement and success, in their families, careers and any other goal they set for themselves. It is the solidifying of character, which is formed when an individual wages a war against their weaknesses and emerges with some measure of self-respect. Character is the foundation upon which men and women set audacious goals, cement their faith, harden their resolve, and layer life-changing experiences that result in a legacy of purpose and accomplishment.
Character is the single most important attribute in an individual who wants to be influential in society because it is the one that guarantees the others.
And so, we go back to the scene twenty years ago in a conference room full of advertising agency narcissists and prima donnas who expressed their desire to dip in their toes and try out this charity thing. Perhaps there is a chance for redemption after all.