Service Above Self

Interview with the President of Rotary International, Jennifer Jones

The motto of Rotary International is ‘Service Above Self’ and Jennifer Jones, the organisation’s President for 2022-2023 – and the first woman to hold the office – is a perfect example of that sentiment. Revealing great intelligence, wit and warmth, she spoke to GOLD during her recent visit to Cyprus.

By Athena Yiazou

In November, Jennifer Jones found herself in LImassol for the International Rotary Institute conference, at which important humanitarian issues were discussed in the presence of 300 Rotary officials from 40 countries.
“Rotary to me is a way of life,” Jones told GOLD, explaining how she first encountered the organisation while working as a rookie reporter at a radio station in her native Canada in the late 1980s. “I was covering meetings and, at the time, it was a ‘men only’ organisation, so I would be the only woman in a room covering whoever the newsmaker of the day was,” she recalled.
It was not until 1987 that a US Supreme Court ruling opened the way for women to join and Jones became a member herself in 1996, after being invited by the manager of a local cable station. “I showed up at the club that I now currently belong to – Windsor-Roseland in Ontario – and it just felt as if I had found a home. I knew some of the people and some were new faces but they were all people I respected and admired in my community. It was a really great opportunity to be able to learn from one another and for me to be mentored by some of them.”
Within the first five years of being a member, Jones became president of the club. Going on to serve at various levels, she joined the Rotary International board as Vice President, later on putting her name forward for the Presidency: “I thought that perhaps it was time that our organisation could see a woman in the leadership seat.”
Her hunch proved correct. Now, as the first female President of Rotary International, Jones is keen to break down some of the misperceptions surrounding the organisation, including the idea that it is still essentially ‘men only’.
“Our goal is to have 30% female membership by the end of this year and right now we’re just passing the 26% mark,” she said with obvious pride.
“ We are a vibrant, very relevant organisation in today’s world, comprising people of all ages, gender, cultures, nationalities and religions. Our ‘superpower’, if you will, is that we bring together diverse perspectives so, when we examine a problem, we don’t look at it through the lens of one demographic but through a whole kaleidoscope of opinions. That brings different resolutions to the table, in ways that perhaps even our governments can’t formulate to solve things,” she told me.
As President, Jones now wants to break down even more barriers, while creating greater awareness about what Rotary does.
“We’ve done a really good job of talking to ourselves – to our 1.4 million members – over the years. But, when they hear the word ‘Rotary’, I want the rest of the world to understand our brand, what we do, what we represent: the honesty, the integrity and the voice of civil society that we bring to the issues that we work on every day,” she explained.
Jones also noted that several Rotary International areas of focus are directly aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. With the aim of encouraging lasting change for the better, members have many options when it comes to choosing their own specific actions, from helping with polio eradication to helping the planet and contributing to global peace.
“For example, if clean water, sanitation and hygiene is something you want to spend your volunteer time on, we’ve got an avenue to make that happen. If you believe that the environment is something that we need to tackle right now to protect our planet, you can do that,” she said, noting that, “We have a whole array; a menu of opportunities for people to get involved in.”
Jones also hopes that, by being a woman at the head of Rotary International, she can encourage others to join the organisation, irrespective of their age or background. “I think it provides an opportunity for other women of all ages to perhaps look and say, ‘You know, if she did it, maybe so can I.’ Hopefully it encourages others, inspires others – who see themselves as people of action who have something to offer the community – to believe that there are opportunities for them to achieve more. Look at the Gretas and the Malalas of the world,” she said, referring to the achievements of the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg and education activist Malala Yousafzai.
Jones added that Rotary naturally remains open to men “who can show up as their true authentic selves and be who they are in our organisation.”
She views the present time as “an incredible period in the organisation’s history. There’s too much negativity in our world and we shine a light on the best.”
Rotary International’s theme for 2022 has been ‘Imagine Rotary’ and while it was not directly inspired by John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’, Jones told GOLD that one line of the lyrics does have particular meaning for Rotary and really resonates with her: You may say I’m a dreamer/
but I’m not the only one. “Collectively, our 1.4 million members are dreamers, and I’m encouraging them to pursue and fulfil their wildest dreams,” she said, adding that, “We have the mechanisms to let them do so.”
While the emphasis is on serving others, Rotary also offers its members many benefits, including those related to their professional activities.
“Anyone who is looking to develop a professional network or to increase their leadership skills can enjoy the most incredible mentorship opportunity of sitting next to corporate and civic leaders,” she noted, suggesting that this changes the dynamic to a much friendlier setting than the usual one in which a more experienced businessperson offers advice to a newcomer.
“We help each other out and we make sure that we raise each other up,” Jones added, citing her own personal growth and development: “There’s so much that I have personally gained by being involved in our organisation. I am a better board member, I’m better at corporate governance, better at the financial aspects of running my own business and I’m a better public speaker. The same goes for all of our members. We all benefit.”