History of Districts

Featured writer of RGHF

Calum Thomson

The Rotary District

What do we mean by ‘district‘? I remember that question being asked of me almost six years ago. “It’s an administrative unit” was my feeble and banal reply. Yet, I also knew, for a surly few, it was the bete noire within Rotary: the perceived enemy within.

The idea of the ‘district’ came about in 1915 thanks to H J Brunnier of the Rotary Club of San Francisco whose prescient idea of using a railway schedule map to divide the original American clubs into districts attempted to make the organization easier to manage. The first districts in Rotary comprised of nineteen districts: fifteen in the USA; three in Canada; and one in the United Kingdom.

As Rotary developed, firstly in the USA and then in Canada, important international ties of friendship were created. Under the Brunnier plan, Vancouver and Victoria were to be placed in a West/ Prairie Canadian District known as District 18 encompassing British Columbia, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Vancouver and Victoria did not wish to leave the fellowship they had established with their American neighbors and successfully fought to be re-united with the Pacific North West Rotary Clubs around Seattle. Thus, the first International District was formed – freely, with consent and from the very beginning. This is a very important point.

It was no coincidence that the fourth part of the object of Rotary – world peace and understanding – was penned by a Canadian Rotarian: Donald McRae.

Consider Ireland, or, District 1160. There has only ever been one Irish district. Even at times of tension, violence and civil war, Rotarians stuck to the idea of one district united in service and fellowship. It is easy to underestimate the fact that though the UK and Ireland have more in common with each other than any other nation on earth it was only in 2011 that Queen Elizabeth was able to visit her nation’s closest neighbor.

Today we have many districts that encompass many countries, nationalities and cultures. Some such as the two central/southern African districts of 9200 and 9210 cover huge areas of the continent. Other districts, in the eastern parts of Europe contain a rich variety of nascent nations who formed after the break up of the former Soviet Union.

Such behemoth districts offer tremendous opportunities but also face equally great challenges. Yet, I for one am envious of such districts. WHY? Because within Rotary we have that most important tradition of spreading goodwill and promoting peace and world understanding. Programs such as Rotary Friendship Exchange, Youth Exchange and all of our Foundation programs aim to build better understanding and peace. A multi-nation district seems a wonderful opportunity to build greater friendships and develop sustainable projects that transcend the nation state.

Should Districts be made up of equal numbers of Rotarians and clubs? This was Brunnier’s aim in 1915 but should it be Rotary’s ambition in 2012? Should we not allow for smaller districts covering only, say, one country and language to come into existence? Is this important or desirable? A smaller district , for example, would have less choice when seeking out those who can serve beyond the club level, including District Governor. A smaller district would also have less District Designated Funds (DDF).

The answer is to think positive: finding new members will inevitably create districts with smaller geographical areas, perhaps within a single nation state. Look at the example of New Zealand, a nation of 4.5 million and six Rotary districts with 9,400 members – a nation that ‘punches above its weight.’

Today, I would describe the ‘district’ as being ‘YOU’ -ie, the clubs and the Rotarians within. Over five hundred districts throughout the world enables Rotary International to properly support the member clubs and Rotarians achieve the Object of Rotary.

I can’t help thinking about the cynics out there who see the ‘district’ as something akin to the old DDR Stasi. How they would love to be truly independent and free. My thoughts turn to Rotarians I met a few weeks ago from Beijing and Shanghai – two clubs who have no district. Rotarian members told me they felt isolated and were desperate to belong to a district – for support, friendship and service opportunities.

To paraphrase a Rotary leitmotif, Rotarians and their clubs have their future in their own hands.

Posted 30 December 2011 by Jack Selway