If you ask Gordon McInally anything about his upcoming year as Rotary International president, he’ll immediately stop you. “It’s not about my year. It’s about one of Rotary’s years,” he corrects.
“I’m a great believer in continuity, and I don’t see the years in isolation.”
On a blustery October day, Gordon sat down with six members of Rotary’s communications team in Evanston to take questions gathered via social media from Rotary members around the world.
He has a quick sense of humour and an easy banter that filled the room with laughter as a film crew set up boom mikes, cameras, and lights.
In introducing himself as a member of the Rotary Club of South Queensferry, he quipped about his distinctive speech: “Despite the lack of an accent, I am Scottish, and very proud of that fact.”
Gordon’s Scottish heritage is apparent in his office, where a brightly coloured landscape painting by the Scottish artist John Lowrie Morrison adorns a wall. Scotland isn’t always as dreary as it is typically depicted, he notes. “Sometimes it’s a very bright place.”
In fact, there are a lot of stereotypes about Scotland that Gordon is looking to move past. “The tartan, the plaid, it’s very traditional, very stereotypical,” he says.
His presidential tie, instead, was inspired by the bright colours used by Morrison, his favourite artist, along with the colours in the shell from Thailand that helped inspire his presidential theme.
Among other colourful curiosities in Gordon’s office is a giant cardboard rendition of his head, which he received after a Rotary Institute in Minneapolis. Visitors are keen to hold it up for social media selfies. “I think they get more sense out of the head than they do out of me,” he says with a laugh.
Gordon joined the South Queensferry club when he was 26 years old. He and his wife, Heather, had recently gotten married and wanted to put down roots in the community outside of Edinburgh.
I’m a big believer in using Rotary members’ skills, rather than just their chequebooks.”
A farmer they had met invited them to a Rotary social event and then to a couple of Rotary meetings, and before McInally knew it, he was on the road to Rotary membership. (Heather McInally is also a Rotarian, belonging to the Borderlands satellite club of the Rotary Club of Selkirk.)
“I couldn’t see how a dentist working in isolation in Edinburgh could make a huge difference in the world,” he recalls. “But I very quickly realised that by being part of Rotary, I could, and I did.”
He would like to use his year — scratch that, the 2023-24 Rotary year — to spotlight mental health, an issue that has touched his family directly and that is all too often kept under wraps.
Gordon is an ambassador for Bipolar UK, an organisation which supports people with the illness as well as their families and caregivers. Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland recently launched a partnership with the organisation to bring members’ skills to help build a more robust network of support groups around the country.
“I’m a big believer in using Rotary members’ skills, rather than just their chequebooks,” he says.
The following is a condensed version of the interview with Gordon last October. Watch the full conversation here.
What are your core values, and how do they shape how you lead?
Natarajan Sundaresan, Rotary Club of Koothapakkam, India
My core value can be expressed in one word, and that is “caring.” I like to think that I care for people. Professionally as a dentist, I cared for people for many, many years. It’s something that was instilled in me by my parents. It’s something that we have instilled in our own children. And the great thing is I now see it being instilled in our grandchildren.
I think if the world was a more caring place, a kinder place, then it would be a much happier place and a much more peaceful place. Peace is one of the issues that I particularly want to see us move forward.
How can we reignite members of Rotary who appear to have “lost their spark”?
Jannine and Paul Birtwistle, Rotary Club of Guernsey
I know Jannine and Paul very well, and it’s nice to receive a question from them. I think the way to reignite the lost spark in certain members of Rotary is to make sure that the Rotary club experience is as good as it can be, and suits everybody. It’s not a case of one-size-fits-all. Some clubs will want to meet in a country club and spend 2.5 hours over lunch.
Other clubs will want to meet for 45 minutes on a Saturday morning over coffee and a bagel, and then get out and do service.
It all comes down to the service.
We are a membership organisation and a service organisation. It’s not an either/or. We need to be out there doing service, because not only will we enjoy that more, we will also see more people want to come and join us because they can see us.
There is no need for conflict because we’re all trying to pull in the same direction, and we all desire the same thing.”
What concrete plans does Rotary have to address climate change in 2023-24?
Abdur Rahman, Rotary Club of Secunderabad, India
One of the big projects that we’re working on at the moment is planting mangroves in various places around the world, and there are many others. But we have to remember that Rotary, on its own, will not be able to solve the problem of climate change. We need to work at the level we are capable of working at and encourage and advocate governments around the world to ensure that we address the issue of climate change going forward.
How can we motivate more Rotaractors to join Rotary clubs?
Dale Kerns, Rotary Club of North East, Maryland
We need to bring them into Rotary clubs as Rotaractors and allow them to help shape the club going forward. We talk about mentoring. But there’s reverse mentoring, as well. We can learn so much from Rotaractors.
One of the most successful places in the world at integrating Rotaractors into Rotary is in Hong Kong. They move seamlessly from Rotaract into Rotary. As a result, there’s hardly a division. They have a wonderful way of integrating Rotaract and Rotary together. Both sides gain so much from that. People say that Rotaract is the future of Rotary, but it’s actually the present.
What youth programmes are important to you?
Lindy Beatie, Rotary Club of Penn Valley, California
I’m a great fan of RYLA Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. We have seen very successful RYLAs in our part of the world. If you take a high school student with potential to a RYLA experience, the change that can take place is amazing. Sometimes the quiet, introverted young students who go to a RYLA experience have, by the end of it, found themselves and are blossoming. It’s important we send people with potential to the RYLA experience — not the highflyers, because they’re going to fly high anyway. It’s the people we have the potential to develop.
I’m also a great believer in Rotary Youth Exchange. I’m delighted that we are now in a position to reignite the youth exchange programme. Just over the past few weeks, I’ve seen young people flying all around the world for what will be a life-changing experience.
That comes back to the whole issue of creating a more peaceful world. Because if we can take young people and let them meet other young people and live in other cultures for a year, then we realise that basically we’re all the same people.
There is no need for conflict because we’re all trying to pull in the same direction, and we all desire the same thing.
I believe it’s in everybody’s nature to care for other people.”
Rotary keeps creating new partnerships and launching new projects. How can we ensure continuity as one president takes over from another?
Marissa De Luna, Rotary Club of Sweetwater San Diego, California
When I talk about continuity, I don’t just mean doing the same old things year after year after year. What I mean is a process of continually moving forward, continually improving.
To do that, we need to be looking at different projects and at different initiatives, because at any given time, there are different needs and different demands being placed on us. So I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
I think we can be part of new projects, and we can look at doing new things. But we can still be practising continuity, in that we’re taking it forward in the long term and not rushing to conclude things in the space of any one presidential term.
What is the biggest potential you see in Rotary as an organisation that has not been fully realised?
Claudia Arizmendi, Rotary Club of Hermosillo Milenio, Mexico
We saw a great increase in volunteerism during the pandemic. I think we have a great opportunity to connect with those people and encourage them to carry on volunteering through Rotary. I believe it’s in everybody’s nature to care for other people. If we can bring that out of people, and if we can build on the spirit of care that we saw during the pandemic, what a wonderful legacy. About 6.5 million people died as a result of COVID around the world, and so they must not die in vain. If we can connect with the people who reignited their spirit of volunteering during that period, then we will have achieved something.
You can’t gather a group of journalists and not allow them to ask a few questions of their own. Here’s what Rotary magazine’s editors wanted to know…
Tell us about your presidential theme.
The theme is going to be Create Hope in the World. I’m a great believer that everything starts with hope.
While I was in Thailand inaugurating a village that Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland had built after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I met a lady. She looked to be about 70 or 80 years of age, and it turned out she was only about 50. She had lost everything in the tsunami. Her house had been destroyed. And as I looked around her house, there was nothing else there.
This was a new home, but she had lost everything. But she insisted I take a seashell that she had saved for over 30 years. She said, “I had lost everything, including hope. But Rotary has given me hope to continue.” And I have this shell to this day. If people don’t have hope, then they will never be able to make their way forward. It’s a call to action: Create Hope in the World.
What are your priorities?
In terms of continuity, we want to carry on empowering girls and women. Also, we’re going to be encouraging people to do virtual exchanges. That will speak to peacebuilding from the ground up.
It’s not about stopping wars; it’s about stopping wars from starting. Prevention is better than cure. Almost every one of our areas of focus has the potential to do that.
The third thing is a mental health initiative. Coming out of the pandemic, there are a lot of people who are struggling with poor mental health. I think it’s the next pandemic.
I’ve got experience with friends who have suffered poor mental health. I guess we’ve all suffered through poor mental health on occasions. Rotary has to be big enough and brave enough to enter that space and to start talking about where we can make a difference.
At the most basic level, it’s just opening up the conversation about mental health and helping people get access to any professional help that they might need, and then supporting them through that journey.
I lost my brother to suicide. It’s still very painful. I share this not to get people’s sympathy, but to make people realise that everybody is affected by this sort of thing.
We can’t sweep it under the carpet. As a global network of 1.4 million people, we do have an opportunity to make a difference in making it less of a taboo and less of a stigma.
You have also served as president of Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland. What did you learn from that experience that you’ll bring to this role?
I learned how to sleep in different beds every two or three days — I travelled a great deal during that year around Britain and Ireland. I learned that Rotary clubs are all different, and that everybody has a different interest.
Not everybody is as passionate as I am — I’d sometimes feel I’m a bit of a zealot. But everybody has something. And the secret is to tap into people’s interests and to make sure that they’re allowed to do things that they want to do. That speaks to bringing members in as well.
We don’t bring members in and then tell them what they need to do. We bring members in and ask them what Rotary can do for them.
You’re a dentist. If you were a tooth, which would you be?
I’d probably be an incisor, because that’s the first tooth that does the work. You don’t shove anything straight to the very back. You lead with your incisors, and I like to think I lead from the front.
That said, an incisor is no more important than any other tooth, all are equally important in the eating process.