Article – RIPE Stephanie Urchick

President-elect sees Rotary’s Action Plan as key to a vibrant future

Leaders from Rotary’s 518 districts worldwide gathered in Orlando, Florida, USA, on 7-11 January for the 2024 International Assembly, which helps prepare and inspire the governors-elect for the year ahead. The annual training is focused on how to increase Rotary’s impact and relevance, and it provides innovative ways to keep membership strong, vibrant, and growing. Rotary magazine recently spoke with Urchick about her vision for the 2024-25 Rotary year.

Interview by Diana Schoberg

It’s late October at One Rotary Center, one of those autumn days that feels like summer, a last blast of warmth before the Chicago-area weather abruptly shifts. In less than a week, on Halloween, nearly an inch of snow will fall.

Luckily, Rotary President-elect Stephanie Urchick isn’t one to wither in the face of change. Instead, she embraces it. On the bookshelf in her office at Rotary headquarters, among the club directories and banners, the commemorative plates and plaques, and — surprise! — even some real books, there is a wooden sign adorned with multicolored leaves that reads, “Fall is proof that change is beautiful.”

“It’s the same reason I like butterflies,” explains Urchick. “They start out in little cocoons and don’t look like much, but then they burst out and become a beautiful creature.”

Urchick, who wears an Action Plan pin this day on her black quilted jacket, champions the Rotary plan as a guide for Rotary clubs hoping to undergo a similar metamorphosis. “I’m all about helping clubs look for ways to change their culture so they become simply irresistible,” she says. “If you look at our worldwide numbers, there’s something like 150,000 people who come into Rotary every year, but there are 160,000 who leave. What that says to me is that some people are not finding value in their club experience. They’re not really leaving Rotary; they’re leaving a Rotary club. We need to get clubs to examine what’s happening.”

A member of the Rotary Club of McMurray, Pennsylvania, Urchick joined Rotary in 1991 and was quickly drawn to the work of The Rotary Foundation. As a new member, she heard about Rotary’s work to eradicate polio and became intrigued. She became the Foundation chair for her club and then for her district. Later, at the zone level, she served as a regional Rotary Foundation coordinator, focusing on fund development, and in 2012-14, she was a Rotary Foundation trustee at the international level. “There are so many great things that Rotary clubs do, and much of it is because they have worked through the Foundation,” she says.

As fall teetered between summer and winter, Urchick sat down with Rotary magazine senior staff writer Diana Schoberg to talk about her past and Rotary’s future.

You’ll be the second woman to serve as president of Rotary. Should we even be making that distinction anymore?

From my perspective, no. It’s about being the best leader for the time. However, I also recognize that people, especially women, will look to the position of Rotary president, and if they see a woman, they’ll say, “Wow, if that’s somebody who could do it, maybe I could do it too.”

I’ll also be one of only a few Rotary presidents who have been single while in office. Lots of people come up to me and say, “I’m single too, and it’s so great that you’re in the position.” To me, having a spouse does not determine whether you’re qualified for this role. But again, it does mean a lot to people to see someone in this position who looks like them or who has the same life status as they do.

It’s like another element of diversity. Do you think the view of diversity at Rotary has shifted over the past few years?

Diversity has always been one of our core values. But I think the way we’ve measured diversity has definitely changed. Today it means so much more than it did 40 years ago when we were an all-male organization. For instance, we now ask people to look at their community and see if their Rotary club mirrors that community. That could mean all kinds of things. It could be age; it could be gender; it could be religion or political affiliation. It could include things like a different perspective, the fact that people think differently. If your club mirrors the community, then you really have a handle on the future. And if it doesn’t, you have an opportunity.

You became a Rotary member in 1991, shortly after women were allowed to join. Why did you join and why did you stay?

Well, I was recently divorced. And when you are married, you tend to do a lot of things together. You go out to dinner together, you go on vacation together, and so on. I suddenly didn’t have that. Much like Rotary founder Paul Harris, I was looking for ways to meet new people. A woman walked into my office and asked me about going to a Rotary club meeting with her. I didn’t know anything about Rotary, but when she talked about the service and the internationality, I got interested. So I went, and I ended up joining.

Originally for me, it was about the fellowship. I wanted to meet new people. And I did; I met all kinds of people. But I also immediately got involved in service activities. By the fourth meeting, I was doing the newsletter, so I was already doing club service. That club was active in Rotary Youth Exchange and Group Study Exchange and Rotary Foundation grants. It was all amazing to me. So like most people, it was the service that kept me engaged in Rotary.

Why did you want to become Rotary president — and what makes you the right leader for the organization right now?

Becoming Rotary’s president was never really on my radar screen. I’ve served Rotary in so many different ways over the 30-plus years I’ve been a member. A special opportunity that really shaped my thinking was chairing the Strategic Planning Committee. We had the chance to look at the organization’s strengths and weaknesses and reach out to the Rotary and non-Rotary world to get information about what people thought would move us into a thriving future.

Rotary had had the same meeting model for decades. We met four times a month; we rang the bell; we took attendance, etc. Clearly the world had changed, but we hadn’t. We really needed to catch up! Now we have e-clubs and passport clubs and satellite clubs and corporate clubs, all different opportunities for people to come into Rotary and to serve.

I started to look at all of that, and I realized that we are positioned to move into a thriving future. That’s what really propelled me to put my name forward. I truly believe that if Rotary districts and clubs use the Action Plan, we can thrive. It’s a future where there are many more Rotary members involved in service and fellowship.

Image credit: Lucy Hewett

What skills from your past professional life will you lean on as president?

I have a background in three different fields. I sang with a band when I was in college and for a few years after that. I had the experience of getting on stage and inspiring people, getting them to dance and have fun. It may sound simple, but it really did develop a set of skills. My second career was in higher education. I worked in college and university settings. For much of that time, I was helping students find careers and jobs. It was both fulfilling and eye-opening. My third career was as a self-employed person at my consulting and business development firm. I did a little bit of training and a whole lot of business development. I don’t think there’s any skill that we leave behind. They all become part of your package.

What was your band name?

The Harmoneers.

 Will there be any Harmoneers music playing as you arrive onstage at any events?

No, I don’t think so. I hope they’ll be playing Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.”

You used that phrase earlier: “simply irresistible.” Is there a significance to it?

That’s what I want Rotary to be: simply irresistible. I’m hoping Rotary and Rotaract clubs will be simply irresistible to community members who have a heart for service and fellowship. They will use the Action Plan to assess where they are and figure out where they need to go. Hopefully the outcome is clubs that are more attractive and will retain more people.

Every club is different. There’s not a cookbook that we can give to clubs and say, “Do this and you’re going to be fine.” Every club develops its own culture. Country to country, Rotary is done differently. You can have Rotary clubs in the same district that are very different. We need every club to take a moment, do an assessment, and look at the four priorities of the Action Plan. Then they must ask themselves, Is there something we can do a little differently, or are we already doing the best we can in this or that category? If you’re already irresistible, then stay that way. But we have to attract people to our existing clubs, and we have to start new clubs. That’s the way to grow Rotary and to have a future.

What’s your theme, and how did you come up with it?

It’s simply The Magic of Rotary. People can put any verb they want in front of it. Believe in the magic of Rotary. Spread the magic of Rotary. Build on the magic of Rotary. Celebrate the magic of Rotary. There are all kinds of words that we can use.

It came from a visit to the Dominican Republic. We were helping install a water filter in a home where a grandmother, a mother, and three little boys lived. We assembled the water filter and then put dirty water in it so that the family could see that it came out clean. The women learned how to use the filter, and we were getting ready to leave when one of the children grabbed my sleeve and said, “Show me that magic again.” That caught me, and I thought: It is magic. We’re helping create a change in their lives.

What will be your priorities as president, and why did you choose them?

Advancing the Action Plan to grow membership is at the top of my list. I love this organization, just like every member of Rotary whom I meet. I want Rotary to have a future.

My second priority is healing a divided world through Positive Peace. There are several ways to get involved. If everyone would live The Four-Way Test instead of just reciting it, we would have a more peaceful world. I hope clubs will rally around The Four-Way Test and use it in creative ways. And there is the peace pole project: Clubs can have peace poles erected in their local park, town square, or college campus. The message of peace on the poles is a visible sign to the community that Rotary is a peacebuilding organization. Additionally, Rotary has a Positive Peace Academy, which is an online activity. Any Rotary member or non-Rotary member can take the time to go through that. And our Rotary Peace Centers are powerful activators in changing lives. We’re opening a new peace center in the Middle East, in Istanbul. In February 2025, we will have a peace conference at that location.

My final priority will be continuity. That means two things: all of us in leadership positions working with our predecessors and those who follow us. It also means looking at the things that clubs have rallied around and things that have taken root. Just because a president leaves office doesn’t mean that you should drop a successful program. What would have happened if Rotary had abandoned its efforts to eradicate polio after Clem Renouf or James Bomar were no longer president?

One of your favorite mantras is “life is more interesting on the other side of yes.” Can you talk about that?

Usually what I tell people is: “Say yes, and then just figure it out.” “Hey, do you want to be newsletter editor?” “Yes.” “Hey, do you want to be president?” “Yes.” “Hey, do you want to do this?” “Yes.” The only time I say no is if I follow it up with the word “problem.” No problem. Life gives you so many opportunities. Say yes to them. You’ll have time to figure out what to do next.

This story will appear in the February 2024 issue of Rotary magazine