Meanwhile, from the Other Side of the World

This seems relevant given the heated politics going on now in the U.S. and the U.K. How do Rotary clubs there handle it?

Clubs: The Body Politic

From the April 2016 issue of The Rotarian by Nancy Shepherdson

Rotary clubs are catnip to people running for public office: Rotarians are involved in their communities, civic-minded, and engaged in public improvement. Especially in an election year, clubs are likely to receive calls from candidates in search of a receptive audience.

How a club responds to these requests is completely up to the club itself. For many, it depends on experience with politicians and the preferences of the club officers. Rotary International requires only that clubs not endorse candidates or take sides on public issues.

But the role of politics in Rotary has been debated since the organization’s earliest years. At the 1916 Rotary Convention, R.B. Campbell of Wichita, Kan., opined on how involved clubs should be in political (“civic”) affairs: “I believe that politics should be brought into the meetings,” he said. “We are a business organization, and it is to our interest to see that the government of our city and state is run properly.”

Samuel Botsford of Buffalo, N.Y., took the opposing view: “Rotary clubs have no business in politics.” Politics, he said, was about personality rather than facts, and therefore should not be brought into clubs.

Eventually, it was decided that clubs should educate their members on local political issues and that individual members should do with the information as they saw fit. One hundred years later, that continues to be Rotary’s position on the place of politics in clubs.

Given that freedom, some clubs have embraced a role in local politics. In 2014, Alan Burns, president of the Rotary Club of Cape Charles, Va., saw a chance to provide a service to the community and raise Rotary’s profile at the same time by hosting a candidates forum. Local organizations that had held such gatherings were no longer stepping up, so he asked the members of his club to put on the forum as a community service project. They agreed. “We wanted to be able to educate the community about the candidates,” says Wayne Bell, who organized and moderated the event.

The key to success, says Bell, was the establishment of a set of ground rules. The candidates were expected to answer screened questions from the audience, to respect time limits, and, most crucially, to be respectful of one another. Nearly 100 community members showed up to hear the candidates speak, he says. “It was very successful. We’ll do it again this election year.”

Taking a different approach, the Rotary Club of Bangor, Maine, decided to devote a series of club meetings in fall 2014 to question