Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rotary President Wilfrid Wilkinson -- business is about more than profits

We had a big shebang at Rotary today...the International President, Wilfrid Wilkinson, came to speak at our club.

You may think of Rotary as the martini soaked gathering of local power-brokers, or perhaps envision it as a phantasm begging us to remember the glories of a society of "voluntary associations". Perhaps you think Rotary is something just old-fashoned that needs to be retired.

At first blush, Wilkinson doesn't help the image. He looks every bit the part of elderly, reserved patriarch. But then he speaks. And he speaks from his heart about the work of Rotary around the world.

Today he spoke of meeting with the Secretery General of the United Nations to present him with an award. The Secretery General, Ban Ki-Moon, says "The UN should be giving Rotary an award of honor" After all, Rotary had been in the business of promoting international peace and co-operation for decades before the UN came into existence. Rotary has been on the frontlines of improving health and human welfare around the world. (And I might add that ...Rotary is a volunteer organization existing off the free will offerings of members and friends...rather than a semi-governmental organization existing on the taxes of people across the globe)
Today he spoke of his experience in Pakistan in 2002, working in a refugee camp just 2 miles from the Afghan border...he personally administered Polio vaccines to children in the camp and saw how Rotary was providing aid and shelter to refugees from the Taliban. He spoke of Rotary's receipt of a $100 million dollar grant from the Gates Foundation to finish off the work of eradication of Polio.
But what caught my attention most was when he spoke as a businessman... a successful accountant who founded his own firm and thrived in it. He reminded us that the bottom line isn't really the bottom line. "In an age of corporate scandal, ethics seems antique. In Rotary, it's how we live. Profit can never be the sole motive of business. Focusing solely on the bottom line is a recipie for disaster"
Wilkinson attributes his business success to the Rotary tenets: "Is it the truth; Is it fair to all concerned; Will it build goodwill and better friendships; Will it be beneficial to all concerned." (echoes of "love your neighbor as yourself" resound in my ears). Simply put, the accountant encourages business people to look to the interests of employees, customers, the community.
He put me in mind of the Economist's recent report on the trend of Corporate Social Responsibility. It seems it has become quite fashonable for companies to tout their "committment to Social Responsibility" ... the problem is that when companies fail to live out their statements. The Economist concludes of Corporate Social Responsibility: "done badly, it is often just a figleaf and can be positively harmful. Done well, though, it is not some separate activity that companies do on the side, a corner of corporate life reserved for virtue: it is just good business. "
Simply put, these ideals are more than veneer to tack on...they are meant to be integral to the core of a business. That's the kind of life Wilkinson has lived. Not martini-powerbrokering...simply living a life of service above self.
Soli Deo Gloria