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Rotary International: What Is It and How Does It Work?

April 5, 2022


Rotary International is an international service organisation. Their aim is to bring together professional and business leaders in the prospect of providing humanitarian assistance and to further peace and altruism throughout the world. 

The organisation is non-religious, non-political and open to everyone. Worldwide, they have over 35,000 member clubs, with over 1.2 million members. The members are called Rotarians. Their motto is ‘service above self.’

Their headquarters are currently in Evanston, Illinois, Us and they have locations in over 200 countries and territories. Holger Knaack is the current president, being in this position since July 2020. 

A bit of history

The first Rotary Club was created by Paul Harris, an attorney, in Chicago. He organised a meeting with a few other businessmen on 23 February 1905. One was a mining engineer, another a coal merchant and one was a tailor. The aim was to exchange ideas and build long-lasting, meaningful friendships.

These men chose the name Rotary because they then started rotating between each man’s office for their subsequent weekly meetings. However, within a year of the first meeting, their club became so big that they had to seattle on a single regular meeting place.

Over the years, the Rotary Club’s reach and vision progressively turned towards humanitarian service. 

Structure and organisation

In order to carry out all their different activities, Rotary is structured into three different levels: club, district, and international. Each club is chartered by Rotary International, headquartered in Evanston, Illinois. The 35,000 different clubs across the world are grouped into 529 districts which are themselves divided into 34 zones.

A Rotary Club in the basic unit of Rotary activity. Each club decides who their members are. Initially, the limit was at one club per city. However, Rotary International has since encouraged the creation of more than one clubs in larger cities in order to make it more practical.

Most clubs have weekly meetings at their usual meeting spot where they discuss club business and have guest speakers. Each club is also responsible for organising various service projects within their own local community. They also take part in special projects with other clubs around their district or with ‘sister clubs’ in another country. They also organise a range of social events throughout the year. 

Each Club is responsible for electing their own president, which changes on a yearly basis.

Rotaract is the equivalent of Rotary for young adults who take part in community and international service. There, they gain leadership skills and participate in professional development. The Rotaract Clubs can be either community or university based. “Rotaract” stands for “Rotary in Action”. The Rotaract motto is “Self Development – Fellowship through Service”.

Rotaract first starter as a Rotary International programme. The first club was created in 1968 in Charlotte, North Carolina, US. Rotaract became a membership type of Rotary International in 2019, and no longer just a programme.

Rotary’s causes

Visual of Humanitarian Aid by Rotary Interational

Promoting peace

Rotary aims to promote conversation to develop understanding within and between different cultures. As part of their activities, they train adults and young leaders to avoid and mediate and support refugees who have fled war-torn or dangerous regions.

Fighting disease

Rotary International educates and equips communities to limit or halt the spread of dangerous or life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and polio. They work hard to improve and grow access to affordable or free healthcare in developing regions.

Providing sanitation, clean water, and hygiene

They support local efforts to provide hygiene, sanitation and clean water to increasing numbers of people. Not only do they build wells but they also share their own knowledge and expertise with local leaders and educators to ensure that the efforts succeed in the long-term.

Saving mothers and children

Poor health, malnutrition and inadequate sanitation is responsible for the death of close to 6 million children under 5 years-old every year. Rotary International works on expanding quality care, so that mothers and children can live longer and healthier lives.

Supporting education

Currently, there are over 775 million people who are over 15 years-old and cannot read or write. Rotary aims to increase and improve the ability of communities to provide basic education and literacy, to both children and adults, whilst reducing gender disparity in education.

Growing local economies

Rotary carries out programs that aim to better community and economic development and create work opportunities for both old and young. They also work with local leaders and entrepreneurs within poor communities, and especially women, to strengthen and increase their skills.

Protecting the Environment

Rotarians work hard to tackle environmental issues by developing projects, using their networks to change policies and plan for the future.

Ending polio forever

For over 35 years, Rotary International has made it one of its missions to eradicate polio across the world. They started this initiative in 1979 when they vaccinated 6 million children in the Philippines. Now, polio is only endemic in two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Visual of graduates throwing their hats in the air rotary scholarships

The Rotary programs are aimed at forming the next generation of leaders. They do this by offering funding to make the world better and prioritise peace. The programs are not reserved to club members. You can also make a positive difference within your local community, without being a Rotarian.

Rotary Peace Fellowships

Every year, Rotary International picks about 100 professionals from all across the world to receive a fully-funded academic fellowship at one of Rotary’s Peace Centres.

Rotary Community Corps

The Rotary Community Corps is responsible for bringing together local Rotarians and non-members to bring about positive change.

Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA)

The RYLA is developed specifically for young people and is a leadership development program. The aim is for them to build their confidence and have fun. They organise a range of events such as week-long camps and one-day seminars.

Rotary Youth Exchange

The aim of the Rotary Youth Exchange is for students to discover a new culture, learn another language, and become a truly global citizen.

New Generations Service Exchange

Rotary’s New Generations Service Exchange is dedicated to university students and you professionals younger than 30. It is a customizable, short-term program in which the participants can arrange exchanges that bring together their own professional goals and a wider humanitarian aid project.


The Rotary Clubs have been receiving, for 100 years, grants in order to support humanitarian aid, international exchanges and scholarships.


Every year, Rotary International invests over 7 million USD in philanthropists and future leaders, by funding scholarships for graduate and undergraduate study.

How to become a member

You can only become a member by receiving an invitation. This is to ensure that people join a club that fits their own perspective and interests. Rotary International can connect you with a club that is right for you, making it easy for you to get involved and become a member. Here is how the process goes.

You express interest

You first have to tell them a bit about yourself and what you are looking for in a club. 

Rotary matches you with a club

Rotary will then find a club in your area that fists your expectations, interests and preferences and contact them, letting them know you are interested.

A local club contacts you

A Rotarian will then get in touch with you, either via phone or email, to talk about your interest in Rotary. Once that is done, you will be invited to a club meeting, event, or even to volunteer for a project, where you can get to know the club better

The club invites you to join

Once you have spent some time getting to know your local club and have both decided that you fit in with the rest of the club, they will invite you to join them. Depending on the club, there will be different ways in which you can be welcomed, such as a ceremony.

You’re a member!

You can now take part in the various Rotary Club activities, such as joining the committee, organising a social event, leading a project or anything else to do with your Club.

Brussels Rotary Club

The Rotary Club de Bruxelles, whose founding meeting took place on July 24, 1923, has nearly 120 members, brought together on the basis of their professional qualities and a permanent concern for ethics, around an ideal of friendship, with the aim of serving the community together.

Eminent personalities from the economic, legal, academic, medical, scientific and artistic world have brought their experience and generosity to the Club and stimulated, through their active participation, so many actions of dedication.

The Rotary Club of Brussels has created more than twenty Sponsored Clubs in the region and in the major cities of the country, which have, in turn, generated other Clubs.

The Club works within the framework of the Rotary Foundation, a flagship activity of Rotary International, and the National Association for the Assistance of Persons with Disabilities (A.N.A.H.), active since 1931.

The Rotary Club of Brussels is proud to have, throughout its history, contributed to the launch and development of actions in favor of young people and disadvantaged people in the Brussels region, as well as abroad.

Several of these actions were distinguished by their quality such as:

  • the work of the Pupils which, for more than 75 years, has supported, morally and financially, young orphans, gifted and deserving, in the course of their studies, until their professional beginnings.
  • the foundation of a “Third Age Information Center”, an idea taken up by the Public Authorities, as well as an “Information Center for Single Mothers”.
  • the creation of an exhibition room for the blind at the Royal Museums of the Cinquantenaire.
  • the support given to the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel.
  • very active support for “S.O.S. Jeunes-Prospection Jeunesse”, a project created by a Rotarian of the Club.
  • a direct participation in the Gustave Stoop Foundation.

Recently, the Brussels Club has taken a very active part in providing skills and financial support for initiatives such as:

  • the fight against dropping out of school
  • the work of Silex, a leisure center for adults with mental disabilities
  • Nativitas, which welcomes the needy of the Marolles
  • the creation of a ceramic workshop in Syria
  • support for the HVP Gatagara home in Rwanda, for young people with physical disabilities and blindness.
  • the creation of a water supply for the Illahua Chico community (Ecuador)
  • support for a children’s hospital in Bucharest (Romania)

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