I don’t remember the exact year, but it was soon after my year as club president in 2006/07 that attitudes started changing. The concept of prioritising engagement over attendance started floating around in the late 2000s. I can distinctly remember then RI Director Stuart Heal proclaiming that “Makeup belongs in the bathroom” in a speech during his directorship sometime between 2010 and 2012. Soon after, attendance rules started to ease. District brass were no longer chasing club attendance records, and whilst makeups didn’t go directly to the bathroom, it has been quite some time since I’ve heard the term in Rotary circles. But I would stress that my last five years of Rotary membership have been in a non-meeting-centric club.
But Rotarians are Creatures of Habit, and old habits die hard. The culture of meeting veneration and importance placed on attendance was, and in many cases still is entrenched. Despite Council on Legislation (CoL) changes to meeting frequency rules and member attendance rules, the overwhelming majority of clubs are still meeting on a weekly basis, most with a high expectation of member attendance. For the longer serving members of the organisation, and I’m talking 30, 40, 50+ years in some cases, weekly attendance at a Rotary meeting is welded into the calendar. It’s not simply a component of their Rotary membership, but a routine part of their lives. I can completely understand why this is something that so many of our longer serving members would cherish, and it doesn’t really surprise me that the prospect of fiddling with meeting frequency would draw such a backlash. The prospect of fiddling with the plethora of seemingly indomitable rituals and practices that accompany said weekly meetings is similarly perilous.
Over the last 25 years Rotary’s membership base in Australia has declined from 40,000 to 25,000 (37.5%). We certainly cannot blame population, which has grown from 18.3m to 25.7m over that period. In 1996, one in every 457 Australians was a Rotarian. Now it’s only one in every 1,028.
25,000 Rotarians cannot make the same impact as 40,000. I don’t have data on the average age of an Australian Rotarian in 1996, but it was surely much, much lower than the 71+ it is now. That would suggest the impact decline would be considerably higher than the 37.5% membership decline.
As the average Rotarian age has crept up, the average club membership has crept down. The number of clubs in Australia has been on a steady decline as well. As clubs face the perfect storm of ageing members and declining numbers, our output can only decline. I would suggest as the club's output (and therefore, impact) declines, so does that club’s relevance. And the vicious cycle begins: declining impact, declining relevance, declining recruitment, declining numbers, declining capacity, declining output, declining impact.
Make no mistake. Our number one priority as Rotarians, as clubs, as a global organisation should be impact. Of course, we should be enjoying ourselves. Of course, we should be growing as humans, building friendships, and getting something out of our contribution. If you ask any long-term Rotarian why they’ve been a member for so long, chances are they will tell you that they get so much out of their membership, but I will guarantee you that those who are getting so much out of Rotary are those that are putting so much into Rotary. They are making a contribution, and that contribution is making an impact. There is literally nothing in life that will give you a return before you make an investment. Whether it be a financial investment like property, or a business or the share market, or an investment in relationships, your education, or your health. Rotary is no different. For those prepared to roll their sleeves up and make a contribution, the returns will come. But for those who leave Rotary because they feel they’re not getting anything out of it, I would question how heavily they’ve invested and what sort of impact their efforts have made.
And guess what? Simply turning up to meetings is not investing in Rotary. I would suggest the clubs most at risk of handing in their charter are the clubs that are no longer making an impact. It may be the case that they’ve made an enormous impact in the past, but the impact tap has been turned off, and holding weekly meetings is pretty much all that can now be managed.
I was recently approached by a concerned Rotarian who was looking for some direction with regard to turning around the membership decline in his club. I asked a number of questions in an effort to get to the nub of the problem. It took a bit of poking and prodding, but it finally revealed itself when I asked what should have been a fairly simple question to answer.
Apart from meetings and barbecues, what does your club do?
The protracted response which included a few “umm”s and “ahh”s, but mainly silence told me a number of things. It didn’t just tell me that he didn’t have a good answer. It told me that the question genuinely caught him off guard, and his response, or non-response immediately identified the cause of the problem. This was a very meeting-centric club which was making very little, if any impact in its community. The meetings may well have been enjoyable and well attended, but the club was losing its relevance. He even went on to make some comments about a promising new recruit that could no longer attend regular meetings because of a job change, and therefore “had to leave”. I questioned if the club couldn’t find other ways for the member in question to make a contribution. That question evoked a similar response to the previous one, which cemented in my mind the position that, like so many other clubs, meeting attendance is seen as the essence and primary obligation of membership. The member in question may have had enormous energy and capacity to make a difference in the community, but because she couldn’t attend regular meetings, she was discarded.
If I’ve heard this story once, I must have heard it over a hundred times. Clubs somehow manage to attract young professionals with a humanitarian focus who initially flourish in an organisation which promises an enormous capacity for humanitarian outcomes, but eventually they lose interest (or are terminated) because they are unwilling or unable to commit to regular meetings. More often than not, those meetings are seen as an unproductive waste of their valuable time. They don’t add value to their busy lives.
I have attended more Rotary membership presentations than the average Rotarian, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been at a District Assembly or Presidents Elect Training Seminar where I’ve seen a checklist of meeting benchmarks that clubs should hold themselves to. The audience gets schooled on the importance professionally run meetings with an agenda, venue suitability, guest speaker appeal, food and beverage service standards, audio/visual equipment, etc. These are all important considerations, but I feel the most important question about meetings is never asked, and here it is:
Are your meetings an effective and productive use of your volunteers’ time?
This is another question that often draws a blank response. Prospective members might not verbalise it, but I can guarantee they’re thinking it. And I can guarantee most club leaders are not. Busy people do not have a lot of free time, so the time they give must be used productively and effectively.
I’ve easily attended well over 1,000 Rotary meetings in my time, and I would have to say I’ve enjoyed most of them. I probably sound like all I ever do is bash meetings, but I’m not suggesting they don’t have their place. I would like to believe the vast majority of Rotarians find their club meeting environment happy, comforting and informative. I’m not calling for that to stop, I’m simply calling for our organisation to become less obsessive about meeting culture and for Rotarians to spend more of their valuable spare time out in the community where we can best make an impact. And I’m also calling for more flexible clubs and membership options that are inclusive of and welcoming to the huge contingent of community minded volunteers amongst us who desperately want to make a difference, but don’t want their volunteering experience to be dominated by unproductive meetings.
The bottom line? If you’re wondering where the future members of your club are, I would suggest you start offering something exceedingly more valuable than meetings; impact.