They raise more than £150,000 for Swindon each year, but who are the men and women behind the town’s Rotary? Marion Sauvebois goes straight to the source

PHOENIX, Thamesdown, Old Town, North, not to mention the original Swindon branch: the town has been blessed with devoted Rotarians over the decades and, it seems, just as many clubs.

But for all the selfless Samaritans’ good work, most of us would be hard-pressed to match any of the sub-groups with its flagship fundraiser or latest charity campaign.

Who is behind the Santa Run? And is it linked in any way with the similarly named Santa’s Sleigh appeal? How about the Poppy Ball?

“Not many people realise there are five clubs,” concedes Alan Fletcher, Rotary of Swindon North president.

Launched in 1926, the Rotary Club of Swindon was the town’s very first group. It was followed by the Rotary Club of Swindon North in 1966. The Rotary Club of Swindon Thamesdown launched 35 years ago. Ten years later The Rotary Club of Swindon Old Town was born. Last but not least, the Rotary Club of Swindon Phoenix was formed in 2012. Together the branches count 127 members.

Their fundraising efforts rake up a combined £150,000 for Swindon support groups and charities each year.

Each group has its own interests and agenda but all subscribe to Rotary’s fundamental goals to support their community and local charities.

While running parallel campaigns and community events may seem counterproductive, Swindon Phoenix president Geoff Beale believes in strength in numbers. Having distinct clubs has not weakened the cause, he insists, but allowed groups to help a wider range of causes.

“The more clubs there are the more coverage you get and charities you support,” says Geoff, who first came in contact with Rotary after attending a support group for epilepsy sufferers with his daughter originally run by the Thamesdown club.

Bob Humphries, Thamesdown president agrees: “Every year the presidency of each club changes, the new presidents all name a charity to support so all the charities in the town get looked after over time.”

An abundance of clubs has made Rotary more visible and widely accessible, they believe.

“There is something for everybody in the calendar and it gives people flexibility of picking a group with meeting times and dates that suit,” adds Geoff.

Swindon North is behind the Swindon Young Musician of the Year competition. It also runs an annual Swimmathon. Swindon Phoenix holds the annual Santa Fun Run, Dragon Boat Race and Horseless Steeplechase as well as running a refurbishment project in a Kenyan school.

The Rotary Club of Swindon is involved with Swindon Cares and runs the Charity Ball.

Swindon Old Town organises the Duck Race and an annual Sporting Dinner as well as offering a Breakfast Club and supporting a school in Nairobi.

Swindon Thamesdown is behind the Santa’s Sleigh appeal and puts on the Poppy Ball and Walkley Walk.

But individual groups also collaborate on various events. Next Spring Swindon North and Thamesdown will launch the Battle of the Bands. Last Night of the Proms at the Wyvern is the result of a partnership between the Old Town and Swindon groups.

For the first time in Swindon’s history all five groups joined forces this year to back Brighter Futures’ £3m Radiotherapy Centre appeal at the Great Western Hospital.

This alliance brought home the need for greater collaboration between all five groups.

While fundraising is an essential part of Rotary, it is not the charity’s main goal. Bringing communities together through competitions like the Young Musician Awards, educating the town’s denizens or looking after their health through free blood pressure drives for instance, is Rotary’s ultimate priority.

“Fundraising is part of what we do,” says Bob. “It is a tool to do what we do but our principal role is to help our community.”

Fellowship and camaraderie are at the heart of Rotary. As well as an opportunity for members to get involved with a raft of organisations, it is a useful networking platform for members.

“It’s great fun, there is a lot of laughter and great vibrancy,” says Mike Welsh, president of the Swindon Old Town Club and Goddard Park head teacher. “It’s really about friendship and fellowship.”

Bob nods: “My business partner was a member and just said to me ‘Come and see what we do’. I joined thirty years ago. I found a tremendous camaraderie. “ Rotary sprung up in 1905 in the United States. Keen to offer professionals with diverse backgrounds a forum to exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships, Chicago attorney Paul P. Harris formed the Rotary Club of Chicago, on 23 February 1905. The name was inspired by the group’s early practice of rotating meetings between the offices of each member.

In 1914 the organisation moved across the Atlantic and the British Association of Rotary Clubs was established. The association was renamed Rotary International in Great Britain & Ireland in 1924.

As well as running campaigns in their separate communities, groups have since joined forces to back international appeals including a high profile bid in the late 1970s to eradicate polio. After decades of fundraising and large-scale immunisation drives, polio cases have fallen by 99 per cent worldwide.

Today Rotary counts 1.2 million members across 200 countries.

Often perceived as an old men’s club, Rotary is now far more modern and inclusive than many give it credit for, all five presidents insist.

“If you asked me about Rotary four years ago, I would have said it was a room full of old bank managers,” admits Geoff. “It was my perception and I was wrong. I knew they did good work, but unless you find out for yourself you don’t know how it works.”

Originally a men-only organisation, with wives and daughter relegated to groups’ affiliated Inner Wheels Clubs, Rotary finally opened its doors to women 20 years ago.

Women now make up around 25 per cent of the Phoenix and Old Town clubs. Michelle Leighton is the second female president of the Rotary Club of Swindon since 2007 (her predecessor headed the group for two years). As for Swindon North it has so far appointed two women leaders.

Next year Swindon Phoenix’s president will also be a woman, putting the group’s all-male image behind it.

Despite sweeping changes over the last two decades, challenging perceptions, raising the groups’ profiles and attracting new blood in the town has remained one of Rotary’s biggest hurdles.

“Unfortunately people think that Rotary is on old gentleman’s club,” says Michelle. “We need to prove to people we’re modern. It’s for all ages and for men and women.”We are here and we’re committed to help as much as possible.”