Walk into the Gwent market town of Brynmawr in South Wales, and you’re greeted by a mustard coloured pub, The Talisman, facing the war memorial in Market Square.
Just four doors down is the hair and beauty salon, Kutz N Kurlz – two places inextricably linked to the life of Donna Wallbank, the next President of Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland.
For rugby-mad Donna, Kutz N Kurlz is her business, which was established in 1990, and the 19th century The Talisman, which was once a grand hotel serving a town steeped in coal mining, is where her Rotary journey began in 1997.
“I had gone to lunch at The Talisman on a Tuesday where Rotary met, and a lady came down from the restaurant,” explained Donna.
“Enquiringly, I asked: ‘What are you doing upstairs with all of those men?’ She explained that Rotary wasn’t just men, it was duel gender – and she was a member.
“I was a community-minded person and she suggested: ‘Why don’t you come along next week?’ So I did.”
Donna was 34-years-old at the time.
Unless we change in clubs, districts and at this level by making what we do more bite-size, then we are not going to encourage working people to come forward to take up roles.”
She had also been invited to join the Lions Club which she felt was a more natural fit for her.
But once she found what Rotary was all about – the four-way test, what the organisation stood for, and the adage of ‘service above self ’ – she was hooked.
Donna explained: “When I first went to Rotary I was scared, because to me they were posh people and I wasn’t.
“In my head, the Lions were working class people. Brynmawr Rotary wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.
“They are lovely people, and all of them have gone on to become great friends.”
So why does that perception exist? Donna believes it is because Rotary remains one of life’s best-kept secrets, and we don’t publicise ourselves within our communities enough.
She explained. “We have to be more outward-facing. One of Rotary’s big things is that we keep secret what we are, or what we have done.
“I’m not suggesting that if we gave Mrs Jones £200 because she was on her heels that we should advertise that.
“But I am saying if we have just presented a disabled boy with a new trike and the parents are happy with that, then we should celebrate the event.
“People can see we are people of action, we are in the community and understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.
“I think the things we do, which are outward-facing, bring a massive change to the perception of who we are, what we are and how we are welcoming to people from diverse parts of our communities, including the hairdresser.
“Who would have really believed that a hairdresser was going to lead the association?”
When I am doing Rotary, I am a Rotarian, not a woman in Rotary.”
One key thread of Donna’s presidency will be continuity from the work of her presidential predecessors, including developing the mental health agenda.
And with the inevitable elephant in the room of lowering the average age of Rotary clubs, she has a keen eye on the power of networking as a means of membership growth.
After all, wasn’t that what drew Chicago solicitor, Paul Harris, the founder of Rotary 114 years ago, into creating the organisation?
Rotary should be looking to young professionals who are new to business, sole traders and even home-workers who can use the organisation as a means of networking, explained Donna.
It’s also a means to meet the social responsibility which each of us strives to do.
There are many business clubs out there, but Rotary is an affordable and focused option, she argued.
And perhaps this is a door being left open towards establishing more e-clubs.
“Fellowship is a bit of an old word, but Rotary is about friendships, enjoyment and fun, networking and that hand of help, which is vitally important.
“We all want to be part of something,” she added.
Donna, who has been married to Steve for 36 years, has three children (one of whom Shane, 33, was President of Brynmawr Rotary last year), six grandchildren, a tank of marine fish and a parrot – still intends to carry on working during her year-long tenure as president, though it is going to require juggling.
She firmly believes that Rotary as an organisation has to become more flexible to enable those who are working to come forward to take up roles.
“Unless we change in clubs, districts and at this level, by making what we do more bite-size, then we are not going to encourage working people to come forward to take up roles.
“If what we show, and I mean this with the greatest respect, retired people as RIBI President all the time, that is not going to encourage a younger demographic to come forward.”
I believe I have this role because people voted for me because they knew I could do the role through my track record to deliver.”
As for being a woman – the third female RIBI President in four years – it makes no difference. Donna refuses to wear a ‘Women in Rotary’ pin because she believes it is irrelevant.
“I believe I have this role because people voted for me because they knew I could do the role through my track record to deliver.
“They didn’t vote for me, I hope, because I wore high heels and a dress.
“When I am doing Rotary, I am a Rotarian, not a woman in Rotary.
“You don’t have a badge which says ‘I am a man in Rotary’. We shouldn’t push it on gender. We say we want diversity, but then we are pushing separation.”