It has always felt like a cross between a high-school Student Council and a Boy Scouts for adults. With its goody-goody 'Service over Self' motto and gear-wheel logo, the Rotary Club has been described as a worldwide club of Reader's Digest subscribers.
But ever since it was established on 23 February 1905 in Chicago by the young idealistic lawyer, Paul P Harris, Rotary Clubs have spread across the world with a message of friendship, understanding and cooperation. The network is operated along the same principles as a multinational franchise: a local Rotary Club is registered as a non-profit, activities planned and members swear adherence to four principles of business ethics.
If it was set up today, Rotary Clubs would be called a chain of business groups that believe in corporate social responsibility. It is only in hindsight that it all appears a bit quaint: the table thumping (clapping is not allowed), the national anthem singing and strict attendance monitoring.
As the Rotary network expanded into other continents, its mission expanded beyond serving professional and social interests of club members. Members began pooling resources and contributing to serving communities in need.
The Rotary has strict rules that its member clubs must follow: dues must be paid on time, each club must have a minimum of 20 members of which not more than three belong to the same profession and attendance is required in meetings. The dedication of Rotarians is applied through its 'Four-way Test': Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
In Nepal, the first Rotary Club was established in 1959 under Rotary's Calcutta District, which is the oldest club in mainland Asia. Back then, it was considered a club for rich old men and therefore inaccessible. Only since 1998 did these myths break down. Now, Rotary has grown to 66 clubs in Nepal with 34 of them within Kathmandu Valley.
The 66 clubs in Nepal are still under Calcutta and there is now a move for the Nepali clubs to declare independence from India and have their own district. Rotarian Rajesh Thapa of Mt Everest Rotary Club tells us: "We are very close to becoming a district of our own. Hopefully, by next Rotary year we will be an autonomous unit."
Once Nepal has established its own district, Nepali Rotaries can work towards giving more to society by working under one district governor to approve activities. It will be in direct contact with Rotary International and be able to apply for grants and funds directly instead of sharing funds allocated to the Rotaries in India. This will provide Nepali Rotarians with more leadership opportunities, exposure and the chance to represent Kathmandu at global platforms, says Thapa.
Rotary clubs in Nepal work towards giving as much to society as possible. They have launched the Polio Plus program with the larger scheme of Rotary International's plan to eradicate polio by 2005. Last September, clubs got together for a walkathon and raised Rs 2,500,000 for cancer patients. One of Rotary's biggest contributions was when five clubs came together to fund Rs 30 million worth of equipment for Bhaktapur Cancer Hospital. Now, the hospital has a Cobalt 60 radiotherapy machine. It is mandatory for every club to adopt a village in Nepal and work towards its development, especially the health care of its inhabitants.
The Rotary spirit is spreading in Nepal but being a club is not easy. Diwarkar Rajkarnikar of Bagmati Rotary Club says, "Rotary International demands complete transparency of funds and the working of member clubs. This requires an immense amount of paperwork from each club, which is one of our biggest weaknesses. We are constantly behind on paperwork. We won't be given any grants till the paperwork is cleared."
There is still a shortage of women members. Bagmati Rotary Club has the highest number of women members with only eight. Is Rotary still a rich man's club, then? "Yes and no," says Rajkarnikar, "Not everyone can afford the Rs 10,000 membership fee and other financial obligations. The fact that membership is only through invitation makes it even more exclusive. But it is open to everyone who wants to help society."
Thapa, too, thinks Rotary has overcome its elite image: "After all, Rs 5,000 for six months isn't that much and people spend so much more on temples and other things. This is all for a humanitarian cause."
This week, Rotary clubs marked their centenary with a rally from Patan Darbar Square to Kathmandu Darbar Square, a meeting at the Rotary hall in Thapathali and a celebration lunch at Satdobato Club with music and food for Rotarians.