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Apr 2021 15 min read

Optimizing Global Communications – A Study of Success

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Rotary International's Journey

I love hearing stories and experiences about translation and global marketing from people I meet. Some are stories about failures and lessons learned, yet others are about journeys toward success. One such success story is Rotary International.

I had the pleasure of learning Rotary’s story from Patrick Nunes, the Director of Global Communications and Design. He’s been with Rotary International since 2009 and was a key member of the team that worked to improve their global communications and processes for standardizing Rotary’s message throughout the world.

Thank you, Patrick for sharing your story and Rotary’s journey with me.


Communicating across languages inspires fear in many people. Yet, there are processes and quality controls companies can use to “speak” in more than one language. CommonSense Advisory developed the Localization Maturity Model (LMM) to show the stages of development of organizations as they master being truly global communicators.

In this analysis, we’ll look at Rotary International’s journey along the LMM. Rotary, a global organization, wanted to create a consistent global message and communications process to unite the Rotary organizations around the world. We’ll review how they progressively moved from a reactive stage on the LMM (Level 1) to a well-developed globally oriented organization (Level 5).


About Rotary International

Rotary is a global network of 1.2 million neighbors, friends, leaders, and problem-solvers who see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change. Rotary’s guiding principles have been developed over the years to provide Rotarians with a strong, common purpose and direction. They serve as a foundation for relationships with each other and the action taken in the world.

Rotary's Mission

The mission of Rotary International is to provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace through its fellowship of business, professional, and community leaders.

Rotary's Culture

Rotarians have a strong culture of doing good works and not bringing attention to themselves for doing it. They are clear in (a) the objectives of Rotary, (b) giving everyone the 4-way test and (c) the avenues of service (all defined below). With over 35,000 clubs and more than 1.2 million members, Rotary International has a strong internal culture, yet is restrained in talking about themselves outside of the organization. As I will discuss later, one issue the brand faced was high name recognition but low understanding of what the organization does.

Rotary's Endeavors

Founded in 1905, Rotary has a long and productive history. In 2019, Rotary donated close to $80 million in more than 1000 grants to support good works. Grant funding included the following:

  • $7.1 million to mother and child projects
  • $2.8 million for peace projects
  • $16.5 million for water, sanitation, and hygiene projects
  • $10.6 million for education and literacy
  • $32.7 million in disease prevention and treatment
  • $9.8 million in growing safe and productive local communities

Some of the funded projects included:

  • Rebuilding homes after the hurricane in Puerto Rico
  • Creating clean water sources for villages in Ghana
  • Launching an incubator for peace projects
  • Funding a learning center for girls in India
  • Providing relief for residents in Bahamas after the storms

One of the biggest accomplishments of Rotary is global eradication of Polio. Members worked hard to eliminate this disease and eliminated 99.9% of it. Efforts in the last few countries with the disease continue to eliminate the remaining cases.

To increase reach and opportunity, Rotary partners with organizations such as USAID, Peace Corps, the UN, the Gates Foundation, the CDC, among others. In addition, for the last 11 years, Charity Navigator has ranked Rotary at 4 stars which means that they are in the top 1% of charities in using donations for good works.

Rotary Image

Overcoming Challenges

Rotary has a global presence, multitude of accomplishments, enthusiastic supporters, incredible connections, and admirable goals. Yet, as they continued to grow, they faced marketing, communications, and organizational challenges. In 2013, Rotary's volunteer leadership started discussing revitalizing the organization's brand and looking at solutions to a few of the identified obstacles.

For their first initiative, they decided to tackle identifying the key challenges that Rotary faced in strengthening their global brand presence.

Marketing Challenges

Although Rotary is a large, global organization with tremendous success, they realized that they had an image, or more accurately a lack of image, problem. In surveys, they learned that 60-70% of respondents have heard of Rotary but only 35% were familiar with what the organization does.

Quite a few people thought of Rotary as being a secret society like Masons or the Illuminati and only members can know the real purpose and mission. This creates a recruitment challenge as potential members are unfamiliar with the organization’s mission and accomplishments.

In addition, the corporate organization, based in the United States, mainly created US English-dominant communications materials, and translated as an afterthought. There was no brand promise, no cohesive global message, and lots of local communities doing their own marketing with no corporate communications standards.

With the heritage of doing good work and not advertising their achievements, it makes sense that Rotary had an image problem outside the organization. They needed to figure out a way to talk about their accomplishments without bragging. And, they had to develop a way that integrated a unified message for connecting with global markets.

Multilingual Communications Challenges

Rotary identified their ten official languages - English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, Italian, German, Swedish and Traditional Chinese. Russian was not an official language, yet translation was done on an ad hoc basis.

As stated previously, marketing created materials in English with US dominant wording and messages. This content would go through different processes for translation into the 9 languages. They had teams for translating into Portuguese, Spanish, French, Japanese and Korean; individuals handled the translation for Italian and German; external contractors were hired for Traditional Chinese and Swedish translations and to support or supplement internal resources. There were no procedures or requirements for the process or for assuring quality. Nor were there guidelines as to which projects would be done in house and which outsourced. Under this unstructured process, Rotary was spending $500,000 for outsourced written translation and over $300,000 for spoken interpretation services.

And, since messaging on the material was US-centric and did not connect with the international markets, in-country people created and translated materials to use locally with no corporate guidance on a consistent message or brand standards.

AI-driven translation debuted in early 2023. Read about its early benefits and dangers, and the future of the technology within the industry, here: AI and Language Services: Will AI Translation Eliminate the Need for Human Translators?

rotary global communications

Organization Challenges

Rotary was founded in the United States as an organization for businessmen to come together to give back to their community. When it started 116 years ago, the businessmen in the US spoke English, shared similar life experiences, and had a common goal.

As the organization and society evolved, their corporate culture needed to catch up.

International expansion and increasing membership grew the organization, yet the internal culture and operations did not keep pace with the changes. For example:

  • To attract women, diverse, and younger members, changes had to happen. Women have only belonged for 30 of the 116 years and some chapters still do not have women. In addition, for Rotary to be more inclusive, they needed to develop sensitivities to alternative lifestyles, for example using the word “partner” instead of “spouse.”
  • To be a truly global organization, Rotarians needed to think globally from the start of each initiative. Instead of the US-focused marketing team taking all the preparation time to develop US-centric strategies, programs and messages, the international teams needed to be included from the start to make sure the initiatives worked outside the US. This meant allowing time for development and testing across all priority languages and cultures.
  • To succeed in integrating communications, management needed to give a voice to the language experts and local participants when language or cultural issues or questions arose. For example, the team started participating in photo shoots and other marketing and visual media activities in-country, before, during and after the activities, to be able to provide knowledge/nuanced information to help support the overall product.
  • To be united as an organization, the English speakers had to learn to accept that not all words and meanings have a direct translation in another language. They had to understand that internal and external communications would take more time since things could not just work as is. For example, the words “inspire”, “empower” and “mentor” have only one word in Japanese. What was three distinct words in English lost meaning in Japanese. Instead of finalizing the English words and expecting them to translate accurately, they needed to include people who spoke the other languages in their brainstorming sessions.

Adjusting to a more inclusive culture that welcomed all types of people took time and work. Rotary knew that embracing differences would enrich their organization and being mindful of the cultures in their international locations would help them deliver their mission around the world.

Organizational Goals

Once the team identified their biggest globalization challenges, they had to establish goals to work towards as a group to overcome those challenges. After hours of deliberation, the team came to a consensus on the following goals:

  1. Create one consistent message for the global organization with adaptation for local experience in each country/locale
  2. Increase understanding of what Rotary does
  3. Develop efficiencies in global communication

Although, they had clarity on the overarching goals, they also understood that this would not be a short-term initiative, and that it could take 5-8 years to get to where they wanted to be. This initiative would affect the whole organization, and many of those affected would be used to a certain way of doing things that did not include an understanding of best practices in global marketing and communications. The team knew that they needed some quick wins and a clear plan of their vision and action steps needed to reach their goals. In addition, education of stake holders in the organization was necessary.

In the goal setting meetings, they captured key tactical actions and documented the deliverables needed to support the achievement of their goals.

  1. Develop brand standards and messages for writers and speakers representing Rotary
  2. Elevate the content and graphics for a global audience
  3. Improve writing skills for easier to localization
  4. Global English standard writing, not just US English
  5. Change internal culture to think global at start of all initiatives

Creating a Vision

After the team identified their current issues and established goals, they stepped back to create an overall vision for the organization.

Patrick Nunes, who is now the Director of Global Communications and Design, attended a GALA conference where he leaned about CommonSense Advisory’s “Localization Maturity Model” that illuminates the stages organizations pass as they become proficient at managing global communications.

LMM Stages

He and the team agreed that Rotary fell within Level 2 in how they handled their global communications – they had a repeatable process and some controls around who did the translations. Yet, rather than being visionary and inclusive, translation was an afterthought in most projects.

The team set a vision of having global communications ultimately reaching “Level 5 Transparent”. They understood that getting to Level 4, where there would be a Localization Department that provided excellent language services, would be easy relative to pushing the organization that last step to Level 5. Reaching the final stage would mean that the whole organization thought of the Global Communications Department as the experts in global outreach – as the department to be consulted at the start of EVERY initiative. They understood that it would take time, attention, and lots of change to the current way of thinking.

Moving Toward the Vision

LMM path

Movement up the LMM scale is often not a linear process.

As we explore each stage of Rotary International’s progress along the continuum toward Level 5, Transparency, I overlay our intake framework to show how they evolved. When a prospect asks us about doing a new project, we assess their LMM stage by asking them about the following: Strategy, Process, Technology, and Quality. This lets us understand where on the Localization Maturity Model they fall, what they want to accomplish and helps us guide them toward a more proactive level to simplify future needs.

LMM stage 1bAt Level 1, Reactive, companies are not proactive.

Since Rotary operates internationally, they already had some procedures in place for translation, they did not start at Level 1, in a completely reactive position. Companies new to translation start by scrambling to get translation done – there is no strategy or technology, and typically, the person responsible for procuring translation has no understanding about the different levels of quality, they just aim to get it done.

LMM stage 2bAt Level 2, Repeatable, a process starts to evolve.

In 2009, Patrick observed that this is where Rotary started.

Strategy – At this point, management knew that Rotary needed to communicate globally. Yet, there was no defined global communications strategy. The Translations Department did the best they could to provide translation of English materials.

Process - the marketing team considered themselves as “creative rule breakers,” that deadlines were optional, and did not screen creative agencies for experience with cross cultural and language work. Marketing would create content, tag lines and images and then send it over to the translation department. When the language team brought back issues with the initiatives, marketing pushed back on the translation team to “make it work”. They had no understanding of global marketing.

The issues showed in written and visual initiatives. Remember the example above when the words the marketing team chose to describe Rotary as an organization that inspires, empowers, and mentors, yet in Japanese, they translated into one word? The feel and impact of the message was completely lost. Another example was an image used on marketing campaigns that showed hands holding a globe. While in the US this relays a feeling of caring for the world together, it didn’t work globally since it was found to be offensive in some cultures.

Even with these issues, the translation team worked to adapt the US-centric campaigns without including the local, in-country teams. By the time the local teams got the materials, they looked at them with dismay because they still didn’t work, so the local teams created their own campaigns saying the materials provided were just “not right in our culture.”

These disconnections led to an inconsistent global message, fractured communication, and nothing tested and appropriate.

As this disjointed process grew, the translation department also jumped around to fulfill requests for translation and interpretation services. This led to a convoluted structure built out around languages.

For some languages, an internal team with a supervisor and translators provided the translation. For others, there was an individual tasked with the projects. And for the remaining languages, and to supplement internal staff, the team would outsource to freelancers. The manager (Patrick Nunes) had 30 people in the department, with some inconsistent processes, reporting hierarchy, and few controls.

Technology – The company did not use any technology for translation memory, leading to inconsistency of voice and message. Individuals retained completed projects because there were no document management, resource management, or organizational programs or procedures. This led to issues with version control and no central location for completed projects/documents.

Quality – As you can imagine from the process described above, quality suffered. At Level 2, Rotary understood the importance of quality and hired experts to provide quality translation, yet the convoluted process left many opportunities for error and areas for improvement.


LMM stage 3bAt Level 3, Managed, companies optimize and centralize processes.

At this stage Rotary’s “Language Services” became the “Global Communications Department.”

Strategy - The team recognized that changing the name to the Global Communications Department helped position the department as the group to consult with on global communications rather than as a support function. This started to set a vision for the value the department could offer with communications around the world. Slowly, they started to get involved with marketing initiatives at the start instead of as an afterthought. In addition, Rotary identified and agreed upon their nine official languages.

Process – Once they clarified their official languages, the Global Communications Department knew that streamlining operations to have a consistent process would benefit them all. Instead of having a different process for each language, Patrick established units organized by geography – Latin America, APAC, Africa, and copy editing. This change allowed for easier management and internal service delivery.

Technology – The team still did not leverage any platforms besides an internal server to assist with translation management.

Quality – By streamlining the internal department processes, consistency of delivery improved. Yet, the department still struggled with the marketing department working alone in their silo and the global communications department not including the local, in-country teams.

The process of setting the vision and making departmental changes took time and buy in from organization and department leaders.

LMM stage 4bAt Level 4, Optimized, companies introduce technology and track results.

To reach Level 4, the team recognized that they would benefit from a translation management platform.

Strategy - To move to the next level, the Global Communications Department needed to optimize their delivery. They set a goal to find a translation platform that could develop glossaries for consistent terminology usage, manage documents, accept requests, and be used by all.

Process – The work that they did in the prior two stages of developing consistent processes across languages helped them as they looked at technology platforms. To fully transition to using a platform, they had to formalize processes for: requests, review, quality assurance, and communication between marketing, local markets, and the Global Communications Team. With clear, written, and agreed upon processes, they could look for a platform that met their needs.

Technology – After reviewing multiple platforms, they picked a platform to meet their needs. The platform became the repository for their global communications, a streamlined way to manage global communications, and a contributing factor to managing consistency of voice in their work.

translation technology Quality – With a standardized way to manage global communications across the organization, quality improved again. Once a translator used terminology, the translation management platform captured that translation and suggested the same wording for that translation on all future matching content. Speed and consistency of delivery also increased.

Again, this process was not simple or quick. To successfully implement the right technology platform, the team had to clarify and document internal processes and then find the right platform for Rotary.

LMM stage 5bAt Level 5, Transparent, companies have a truly global process across all departments.

To reach this level, it took everyone asking, “Is it truly global?”

In 2018, after three years of working through the prior stages, Patrick understood that achieving Level 5 would be the biggest challenge. Success at this level meant that everyone from the start to delivery of an initiative needed to think about global communications. Together the marketing group, global communications representatives, and local team members needed to work together on each initiative from the start. Projects would take longer and may be more expensive, but the return would far outweigh not doing this.

Reorganizing the department and renaming the language services department to Global Communications and Design contributed to increased communication and enhanced process improvements. Instead of the language services department being an afterthought and reactive, the Chief Communications Officer recognized that by elevating global communications to be equal to marketing, communication and visibility would improve. The new department structure became the following:

rotary new org chart

Rather than marketing being the lead to work with other areas of the organization like membership, fundraising, and training, now the whole department would have access and relationships with each area of Rotary that needed global communications.

Now let’s look at how Rotary improved in each area as a global company.

Strategy – At level 5, strategy guides actions, and the team works together with a global vision. All messages and graphics are vetted in key countries before launch. Representatives from each group participate on choosing vendors so that they are screened for global capabilities and experience. Instead of outsourcing all projects, the team talks about available in-market resources to fulfill some needs, like testing messages. With involvement from people all over the organization in developing marketing initiatives, each group feels a sense of ownership over the messaging, stories, tag lines, and communications.

The closer communication between teams also gives the marketing and global communications members current insight on happenings and successes in each country.

Process – With the work in the earlier levels on process and with a clear strategy on what Rotary wants to accomplish, people understand how to get things done. The communications department now includes global communications earlier in the process so that global messages get included in the creative, testing, and launch phases. The shared goal of global communications gives understanding of who to include at each step. The company has eight action words that work in their priority markets, and an agreement that if a specific campaign does not work in a market for any reason, that campaign can be dropped. When campaigns need modification, people involved have guidelines for the modifications and approval of the changes. Establish brand standards exist for people to access logos, taglines, and approved assets. Local market voices are heard in the creative and testing phases, so they cannot say “it doesn’t work in our market” and change it on a whim.

And, with clarity on the process, if local team members want to create an initiative, they know where to go for support on local materials and campaigns; they have guidance on creating messaging; clarity on who creates, translates, pays for formatting and printing (the corporate office pays for formatting and printing) and performs final reviews.

The process is clear, consistent, and communicated.

Technology – The platform that the team chose in level 4, supports their strategy and process rather than adding a challenge or forcing them to adapt their vision. Approved employees and volunteers can access both original content and translations through one global portal. This allows for consistent usage and adherence to brand standards. Updates can be done immediately across the globe from one place.

Quality – All this thoughtful work contributes to their consistent and clear global communications. By including the right people, at the right time, in the right way, they developed messages that global Rotarians embrace. For example, Rotarians around the world consider themselves people who take action to do good in the world. After lots of research and testing, the English slogan became “People of Action.”. The concept worked across all countries, yet the translations had to capture the meaning.

Back translated into English, the slogans are:

  • German – We do something
  • French – Make way for action
  • Italian – Ready to act
  • Portuguese – People in action
  • Japan – People of action who change the world
  • Korean – People who step up to take action
  • Chinese - We act actively
  • Spanish – People of Action

In addition to the slogans, the global communications team developed verbs that local teams could use consistently to keep the global messaging intact. Here are examples of verbs that can work across the different regions:

  • Together, we connect
  • Together, we transform
  • Together, we end polio
  • Together, we inspire

As the group built the process for flexibility, quality became consistent with variations for different countries. For example, in Brazil, they launched a campaign geared to women, while the U.S. launched one against bullying. With guidelines and flexibility, the countries can vary yet keep consistent across images, verbs, messages, and visuals.


Party, Travel, and Talk...

After all this work, the team who worked on the vision understood how the communications department “should” work. Yet, with over 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide, the team needed to communicate their strategy, explain the new processes, and launch the technology to get the consistent and high quality they wanted.

To do this, they created a “launch” and started communicating with the goal of getting people to understand what they could do as long as they kept within the corporate standards. For example, they wanted people to understand that they could hire outside vendors, but they had to keep within the brand standards and guidelines. They could create in-region materials, but all communications must have Global Communications approval prior to using them.

To make it fun, and engage corporate employees, the Global Communications Department hosted a party in the home office with presentations, games, prizes, quizzes, fliers, show and tell, and global food. Over a third of the employees attended and became additional “voices” to spread the word.

Then, team members went on a global road show to explain and teach. One of the main goals of the Global Communications team in this journey was to empower the regional teams to create original regional content, including blog posts and managing the social media channels in languages other than English, while following the Global Communications guidelines. By educating leaders in the regional markets, they expanded their reach and enlisted more advocates.

In addition, the global content team and regional teams, both part of the Global Communications Department, held training sessions on Global English writing and speaking. Although English is not the global language, by teaching teams how to write and speak clearly, they make it much easier to translate clear, well written/spoken messages into another language. That also helps better communicate the message to those whose English is not their first language, and whose native language is not part of the main Rotary languages.

Finally, they also recruited employees in the international offices to serve in a hybrid role as an extension of the Global Communications team. They support Global Communications by training members in expectations, and performing, marketing, PR and brand positioning activities. By having in-country experts, Global Communications achieves the goals they set out to accomplish.

Today Rotary Continues the Work

On The Global Marketing Show podcast, Patrick Nunes talked about Rotary’s journey and where they stand now. He says they continue to focus on improving and communicating. As he reflects on where they were and where they are now, he can see what they did well, the fears that they had to work through, and what went wrong. He says they still work on improving.

When you consider the updated Localization Maturity Model, you can see that it is not a linear journey and that there is no real end point. Yet by continuing to improve, organizations can work towards level 5.

If you have read this far, you are probably looking for ways to improve your global communications. First figure out where you are on the LMM and then set goals as to how you can improve in the next year. Slowly, and surely you can reach a point where your organization has a plan to support your global communications.

For a free consultation or more information, contact us.

Rapport International specializes in multilingual communications, providing language translation and interpretation services that are accurate and culturally appropriate.  We use the right voice, correct terminology to avoid liability, customize services to your needs, and deliver on time and within your budget. And with our 100% satisfaction guarantee, you can trust that it’s done right.  Contact us today if you would like more information or to get a free quote

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