We Rotarians are blessed with the fellowship of our Rotarian brothers and sisters. However, if it weren’t for Rotary, we might find ourselves alone in the crowd, surrounded by throngs of co-workers and business associates, yet bereft of, and longing for, true fellowship. A native of rural New England, this is how Paul Harris felt upon moving to the big city of Chicago. He said of the time that, “…there must be many other young men who had come from farms and small villages to establish themselves in Chicago … Why not bring them together? If others were longing for fellowship…something would come of it.” Paul Harris further admitted that even after four years in the city his “…clients were merely business friends, not social friends. This experience set [him] to wondering why [he] couldn’t make social friends out of at least some of [his] business friends, and [he] resolved to organize the club.” Thus, Paul Harris prepared to form a Rotary club for the purpose of turning his business friends into social friends, a task easier said than done.
That was 1905, and both America and much of the Western world were in the midst of a Golden Age of economic history. While there has long been debate over the nature and influence of markets on morality, the riches of that era were a manifestation of the zeitgeist of a new materialism borne in the wake of the late 1800’s industrial boom. This wave of industrialization, materialism, and disintegration gained momentum through the early 1900s, culminating with the onset of World War I. This was a time not unlike today; Americans saw the appearance of new technologies, the dominance of strong monopolies, increasing collusion between government and business, and controversial military involvement. And like today, it wasn’t always easy to find a friend in your next-door neighbor. This was not a time when the focus of life was on morality and ethics, integration and respect, but rather a time when people were concerned with money and power, riches and fame.
This mindset is also the unfortunate reality of most business circles. Paul Harris’s failure to form a club of his ideals from his clientele was due to the fundamental difference in the binding substance of the relationships between business circles and social circles. In a business circle, relationships are built on a trading level. The fabric of the relationship is woven from what can be earned and gained. The language of conversation is buying and selling. Social circles operate on another kind of capital, social capital. There are no ledgers to tally this kind of capital as there is no need for a bottom line. These social and ideological transactions have no single benefactor, and are built on natural trust and general platforms. No one is looking for a return.
Thus, Paul Harris resolved to establish Rotary club to provide a shelter for Rotarians. Rotary is a place where we can take off the mask we’re forced to wear in the office and be natural and honest. But, Rotary is not just a shelter from the practicalities of the business world. It’s not only where we take solace in true fellowship. It is also where we regroup, flourish our ethos, and plan how we’re going to make the world a better place. Rotary is our base of operations.
In addition to our service projects, Rotary also does good to the world by serving as a mediator between business and social milieus. We often hear horror stories that would lead us to believe, and rightly so, that the market is rife with ethical problems. The news is replete with examples of dangerously substituted ingredients and components, fault cases, and adulterated foods. All of these are against what we call ethics in business.
Rotary’s mediation works to support what we call the “M of M’, the “Market of Morality”. While we are a business and professionally driven organization, the common thread that holds us together is our emphasis on humanitarian values and ethics. Through Rotary we develop and hone ourselves, so that when we enter the marketplace we are not swept along with the current, but rather stand fast and stalwart behind our ethical code and resiliently act as positive moral force in a largely amoral and profits driven marketplace.