The Rotary Code of Ethics

At Rotary's Second Convention in Portland, Oregon, Rotarians adopted a platform that included the language of the Seattle Platform along with the Arthur Sheldon definition that became a Rotary motto, "He profits most who serves best." Since then, in conventions in Duluth, Buffalo and Houston, there had been discussions regarding the creation of a code of ethics.


On the morning of 22 July 1915, after a night that included some partying and having fun in Chinatown and along Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, the delegates to the Sixth Annual Convention of the International Association of Rotary Clubs adopted a resolution that formalized the Rotary Code of Ethics.


A preamble was proposed, but it was not adopted because it appeared to violate one of Paul Harris's first principles of Rotary, as Rotary was not to be either a religion or a substitute for one. The denied preamble: "By recognizing and applying these attributes contained in this Code of Ethics, we fortify our faith in Divine Providence a guide post to a richer and fuller life." Unanswered questions remain, including, "When was this preamble made a part of the original discussion?" And, "Why did it take four years to adopt the Rotary Code of Ethics?" What we can only surmise is that the answer to one may also explain the answer to the other.


But Evolution was afoot. Rotary and Rotary clubs were beginning to change from business clubs to service clubs. 1916 found RI defining "community service." 1922 saw the organization's name changed to Rotary International. The following year, the RI Board passed Resolution 23-34, "the policy of Rotary towards community activities". It was a complete expression (so far as Community Service is concerned) of the policy of personal rather than corporate responsibility already enumerated in 1916.


1927 found the Rotary International Convention passing the Aims and Objects Plan. To become the "Avenues of Service", the plan was devised by British RotarianSydney Pascall and R.I.B.I. Secretary Vivian Carter and introduced into R.I.B.I. in 1925. In 1927 it was officially adopted for the whole of Rotary and an Aims and Objects committee established, however, the plan originally consisted only of Club, Vocational, and Community Service. International Service was added a year later. (Pascall was to become the first European elected International President in 1931)


That next year during the RI Presidency of Arthur Sapp, the RI Board of Directors then heard from the Aims and Objects Committee that the wording of the code of ethics needed to be improved.  As its roots were in the era of the business club, and it was directed at "Businessmen of All Lines," it didn't seem to fit with "Aims and Objects." The RI Board appointed a committee on "code of ethics revision". The evolution continued the next year, when the board agreed that it would be best to give emphasis to the Object of Rotary, rather than to the Rotary Code of Ethics. In 1931-32, the board agreed to continue the policy of publishing the "Code of Ethics" in the Manual of Procedure but to give the code no special circulation or general publicity.


Then, in 1932, Chicago Rotarian Herbert J Taylor took over bankrupt Club Aluminum Company. We don't know what effect the Rotary Code of Ethics played when Herb Taylor laid his head on his desk, and the words of the Four-Way Testcame to him, all we know is the effect the Four-Way Test had on Club Aluminum, and subsequently, on Rotary International. Members of ROTARY/One, the Chicago club, found out about the Test in 1939 upon the election of Herb Taylor as club president.


From that introduction to Rotary, it spread like wildfire. Just four years later, in January of 1943, the Board of Directors of Rotary International officially adopted the Four-Way Test "as a means of furthering the vocational service phase of the Rotary program," but it wasn't until the RI Presidency of Frank E. Spain during the 1951-52 Rotary year that the distribution of the Rotary Code of Ethics was discontinued by the Board of Directors. They did agree that a copy of the "Code of Ethics," as adopted at the 1915 convention, may be obtained upon application to the general secretary of R.I., with the understanding that in any such distribution a background statement should also be included.


Moving forward to the 1977 Council on Legislation, the delegates adopted the following resolution:


"WHEREAS, Article XVI of the bylaws of R.I. provides for a code of ethics andWHEREAS, publication of the code of ethics has been discontinued, andWHEREAS, it is the consensus of this council that, at this point in time, the entire world needs to revive its ethics,IT IS RESOLVED by Rotary International at its sixty-eighth annual convention that the board of directors is requested to revive the publication and dissemination of the Rotary Code of Ethics."


Later that year, after the new Board of Directors had taken office, it adopted the following position vis-à-vis the COL's (Rotary's Council on Legislation) action: "Responding to the above resolution, the board of directors recognizes that the code of ethics, as published by R.I. in 1915, requires careful review for possible revision and updating prior to re-instituting publication and distribution of the code. Further, the board recognizes that any such revision cannot be effective without action thereon by the council on legislation." (Board of Directors minutes 1977-78)
The concept, terminology and need of the Rotary code of ethics, including a possible revision and updating, were carefully considered the following year by the RI Board. It was concluded, "because of changes in the realm of business and professional life since the adoption of the code, any revision and updating for the purpose of re-instituting the publication and distribution of the code would be ineffectual." Accordingly, the board agreed that the Rotary Code of Ethics not be revised and updated and that it be withdrawn from any possible distribution or circulation among Rotarians and Rotary clubs. (Board of Directors minutes 1978-79.) At the 1980 Council on Legislation, reference to the Rotary Code of Ethics was deleted from the by-laws of Rotary International.


Subsequent publications, including Rotary International's own website and hundreds of Rotary clubs around the world, have referred to the Four-Way Test as Rotary's Code of Ethics, but it never was so designated. Cyndi Beck, in the RI Archives, has stated, "The Four-Way Test is not a 'code' and the Rotary Code of Ethics was deleted from RI Bylaws in 1980."


Sources include Rotary International and its archives, numerous issues of The Rotarian, numerous Convention Proceedings, and Oren Arnold's book, The Golden Strand.


Doug Rudman


The Rotary Code of Ethics

For Businessmen of All Lines


My business standards shall have in them a note of sympathy for our common humanity. My business dealings, ambitions and relations shall always cause me to take into consideration my highest duties as a member of society. In every position in business life, in every responsibility that comes before me, my chief thought shall be to fill that responsibility and discharge that duty so when I have ended each of them, I shall have lifted the level of human ideals and achievements a little higher than I found it. As a Rotarian it is my duty:



To consider any vocation worthy and as affording me distinct opportunity to serve society.



To improve myself, increase my efficiency and enlarge my service, and by doing so attest my faith in the fundamental principle of Rotary, that he/she profits most who serves the best.



To realize that I am a business man and ambitious to succeed; but that I am first an ethical man and wish no success that is not founded on the highest justice and morality.



To hold that the exchange of my goods, my service and my ideas for profit is legitimate and ethical, provided that all parties in the exchange are benefited thereby.



To use my best endeavors to elevate the standards of the vocation in which I am engaged, and so to conduct my affairs that others in my vocation may find it wise, profitable and conducive to happiness to emulate my example.



To conduct my business in such a manner that I may give a perfect service equal to or even better than my competitor, and when in doubt to give added service beyond the strict measure of debt or obligation.



To understand that one of the greatest assets of a professional or of a business man is his friends and that any advantage gained by reason of friendship is eminently ethical and proper.



To hold that true friends demand nothing of one another and that any abuse of the confidence of friendship for profit is foreign to the spirit of Rotary, and in violation of its Code of Ethics.



To consider no personal success legitimate or ethical which is secured by taking unfair advantage of certain opportunities in the social order that are absolutely denied others, nor will I take advantage of opportunities to achieve material success that others will not take because of the questionable morality involved.



To be not more obligated to a brother Rotarian than I am to every other man in human society; because the genius of Rotary is not in its competition, but in its cooperation; for provincialism can never have a place in an institution like Rotary, and Rotarians assert that Human Rights are not confined to Rotary Clubs, but are as deep and as broad as the race itself; and for these high purposes does Rotary exist to educate all men and all institutions.



Finally, believing in the universality of the Golden Rule, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them, we contend that Society best holds together when equal opportunity is accorded all men in the natural resources of this planet.



RGHF members, who have been invited to this page, may register.


If a DGE/N/D joins prior to their year, they will have more exposure to Rotary's Global History by their service year.

This will be beneficial to all concerned.

*Based on paid members, subscribers, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, mobile app users, History Library users, web pages, and articles about Rotary's Global History


RGHF Home | Disclaimer | Privacy | Usage Agreement | RGHF on Facebook | Subscribe | Join RGHFRotary's Memory