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Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis: Are American Service Clubs Too Old To Matter?

The question in the 21st Century is: Does anyone care anymore? Is it cool to belong to a service club? Or are these organizations too old, too Midwestern, too goofy to matter today?

Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis

New York, N.Y. Service clubs are a particularly American institution that began in the heartland, although now they are found on both coasts, as well as virtually every country in the world.  Iraq and North Korea are exceptions, although Libya now has a Lions Chapter.

The ideal of these international organizations – particularly Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis – is exemplified by their enduring relationship with the United Nations here in New York.

Rotary International is an organization of service clubs located all over the world. It is a secular organization open to all persons regardless of race, color, creed, or political preference.

Rotarians gather as business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world.

Rotarians and village volunteers work together in India.

Rotarians and village volunteers work together in India to build a retaining wall
that keeps the wells from going dry. (Alyce Henson © Rotary International)

As the world’s first service club organization, Rotary began as an idea 104 years ago. Today, Rotary flourishes worldwide with 1.2 million members in more than 200 countries and geographical areas.  I personally have visited and spoken at Rotary clubs in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Rotarians serve the world through projects and activities they undertake every day.

Rotarians serve the world through projects and activities they undertake every day.

Rotary club members are volunteers who work locally, regionally, and internationally to combat hunger, improve health and sanitation, provide education and job training, promote peace, and eradicate polio under the motto “Service Above Self.”

The first members chose the name “Rotary” because they rotated club meetings to each member’s office every week.  During World War I, Rotary in Britain increased from 9 to 22 clubs, and other early international branches were Cuba in 1916 and India in 1920.

In 1922, because branches had been formed in six continents, the name was changed to Rotary International. By 1925, Rotary had grown to 200 clubs with more than 20,000 members.

Rotary’s top priority is the global eradication of polio, a crippling and potentially fatal disease that still threatens children in Africa and Asia.

Since 1985, Rotary club members worldwide have contributed more than US$800 million and countless volunteer hours to the effort, and Rotary is now working to raise an additional $200 million to fulfill its commitment for a $355 million challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Great progress has been made, and the incidence of paralytic polio infection has plunged worldwide from 350,000 cases in 1988 to fewer than 2,000 in 2008. To learn more about polio eradication, visit the Rotary End Polio or Polio Eradication websites.

Rotary also sponsors the largest privately funded international scholarship program in the world. Since 1947, Rotary has contributed roughly $500 million to fund a year of study abroad for 38,000 students from 100 countries.

These cultural ambassadors use the skills and knowledge they acquire through their time abroad to advance the cause of international understanding, goodwill, and peace.

Rotary also sponsors seven Rotary Centers for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution at eight leading universities in six different countries.

One of Rotary’s most visible programs includes the Rotary Youth Exchange, a student exchange program for students in secondary education similar to AFS.

Rotaract is a Rotary-sponsored service club for young men and women ages 18 to 30. Rotaract clubs are either community or university based, and they’re sponsored by a local Rotary club. This makes them true “partners in service” and key members of the family of Rotary.  

As one of Rotary’s most significant and fastest-growing service programs, with more than 7,000 clubs in about 163 countries and geographical areas, Rotaract has become a worldwide phenomenon.

The video This Is Rotary is available as part of a collection of public service announcements and short videos about Rotary on YouTube.   You can also visit Rotary’s website.

I look forward to interviewing both Carol Pandak on Rotary’s polio eradication program and Judy Gibson on Rotary’s Peace Center program.

Lions Clubs International. In 1917, 12 years after Rotary began, another Chicago business leader told members of his local business club they should reach beyond business and address the betterment of their communities and the world. His group, the Business Circle of Chicago, agreed.

After contacting similar groups around the U.S., they met in 1917 in Chicago. The new group took the name of one of the invited groups, the “Association of Lions Clubs,” and a national convention was held in Dallas later that year.

Within three years, Lions became an international organization. Since then, they have earned high marks for both integrity and transparency. They are a well-run organization with a steady vision, a clear mission, and a long – and proud – history.  One that I am about to become a part of.

In 1925, Helen Keller spoke to the Lions convention on the “Crusade Against Darkness.”  The Lions bought into it and began their historic cause, eradicating blindness. Since then, they have worked tirelessly to fulfill her charge to aid the world’s blind and visually impaired.

In the late 1950’s, Lions Clubs created the “Leo Program” to provide the youth of the world an opportunity for personal development and contribution. There are now more than 5,500 Leo clubs in more than 130 countries, with more than 140,000 Leos worldwide.

In 1990, they launched their most aggressive sight preservation effort, SightFirst. This US$215 million program aims to rid the world of preventable and reversible blindness by supporting desperately needed health care services.

In 2008, Lions completed Campaign SightFirst II, which raised more than US$200 million to expand the program.

Lions Clubs International grows stronger and extends its mission of service every day – in local communities, in all corners of the globe.

In 2002, they were the first international service club to be granted permission to organize and operate clubs in mainland China. And in 2007, a Lions club was formed in Iraq.

These clubs join an international network that has grown to include 45,000 clubs located in more than 200 countries across the globe.

Kiwanis International is an international, coeducational service club founded in 1915. It is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. It comprises approximately 8,000 clubs in 96 countries with over 260,000 adult members.

Kiwanis remains the smallest of the Big Three service clubs because it remained male and American longer than Rotary and Lions.

The name “Kiwanis” means “we trade” or “we share our talents” and was coined from an American Indian expression, Nunc Kee-wanis. This was originally the motto of Kiwanis, translated as “We build.” The current motto is “serving the children of the world.”

The organization’s original purpose was to exchange business between members and to serve the poor. The debate as to whether to focus on networking or service was resolved in 1919, when Kiwanis adopted a service-focused mission.

Kiwanis became international with the organization of the Kiwanis club of Ontario in 1916. Kiwanis limited its membership to the U.S. and Canada until 1962, when worldwide expansion was approved. Since then, Kiwanis has spread to all inhabited continents of the globe.

Each year, clubs sponsor nearly 150,000 service projects and raise more than $107 million. As a global project in coordination with UNICEF, members and clubs contributed more than $80 million toward the global elimination of iodine deficiency disorders (IDD), the leading preventable cause of mental retardation.

Until 1988 the organization accepted only men as members. By action of the International Convention in 1987, the rules were changed to admit women as well. Currently women constitute about 22% of total members.

Kiwanis serves children two ways: improving the quality of their lives through activities promoting health and education, and by encouraging leadership and service among youth.

In pursuit of encouraging leadership and service, Kiwanis sponsors about 7,000 youth service clubs with nearly 320,000 youth members.

Kiwanis members are involved with programs to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, mentor the disadvantaged, and care for the sick. They have built playgrounds and raised funds for pediatric research.

Are These Service Clubs Too Old To Matter?  With a combined 2.5 million members in virtually every city on earth, these service clubs are able to be on the ground anywhere at any time to do whatever needs to be done to make our world a better place.

Is there value in these old fossilized institutions today?  Yes, because they have not fossilized at all.  They are growing.  Their growth is stronger outside the U.S., but it is strong.  

I am proud to be both a Rotarian (although on hiatus), and possibly a soon-to-be Lion.  Putting others first is about as cool as it gets.

See Other Stories by Jim Luce:

Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis: Are American Service Clubs Too Old To Matter? Originally published in Daily Kos, Dec. 16, 2009.


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