Friday, 29 July 2022

A Leap of Faith

There have been two constants across my Rotary journey, which began as a Rotaractor in 1986: disturbing membership decline and pathological resistance to change. To suggest they are not interrelated would be delusional. This resistance to change became immediately evident to me as a Rotaractor in the early 90s. Rotaract was always an organisation with both males and females; that was part of the allure! At the time I joined Rotaract, I really didn’t know too much about Rotary. I was 18 and didn’t really know too much about anything. I certainly didn’t know the organisation was staring down the single biggest change in its (then) 81 year history: the introduction of women. Whilst I could not possibly imagine a Rotaract without women, it soon became apparent that there were plenty of Rotarians who couldn’t imagine a Rotary with them.

Club autonomy has always been important in Rotary, and every club had to vote independently on whether they would accept women into membership. At the time I was in the Rotaract Club of Edwardstown, which was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Edwardstown. It took that club a few attempts to get the naysayers over the line, but they eventually got there. Some members resigned over it. 30 years later and there would not be one member of that club who could possibly regret that decision. I would suggest their only regret was that it took them so long. But some clubs took much, much longer to make that decision. It’s incomprehensible to me that some clubs have steadfastly remained all male to this day, a day in which our RI President is female (finally).

Clubs across Zone 8 will have another important decision to make in a few months’ time. They will be voting on whether Zone 8 participates in a regionalisation pilot. But there’s a major difference in the wider ramifications of this vote. Unlike the vote to accept women into membership, where the clubs that voted to reject female membership didn’t impinge on other clubs’ capacity to accept female membership; any “NO” votes (or abstentions, which will count as a “NO”) to the regionalisation pilot will have a flow on effect right across the zone. All districts across Zone 8 require a two thirds majority of clubs voting “YES” for the pilot to proceed. To clarify, if just one district across the zone has 34% or more clubs voting “NO” to this proposal, the opportunity to run our zone in a way that best suits our region and its many cultures will pass on to another zone. And there are plenty of zones lining up to jump at this chance if we let it slip through our fingers. 

I’ll go into what’s at stake in more detail later, but first I will analyse our recent history of membership decline and its coupling with resistance to change. There is no doubt in my mind that the admission of women into Rotary in the early 90s was the biggest ever rule change from a membership perspective. Most (not all) of the organisation eventually came to its senses and decided that excluding half of our membership market was counterproductive. I am about to detail several changes implemented since then, all of which were designed to either directly or indirectly help Rotary reach new markets and strengthen its membership; and as you will see, every single one of them without exception faced opposition.

In the late 90s we relaxed our qualification criteria for membership. The former “able to hire and fire” rule disappeared and was replaced with “demonstrate good character, integrity, and leadership; possess good reputation within their business, profession, and/or community; and are willing to serve in their community and/or around the world”. The intention was to recognise that there were people amongst us who could make valuable contributions to our clubs and communities that weren’t executives and business owners. But many opposed this move, fearing Rotary would lose its element of prestige and dilute its professional culture. What many failed to accept however, was that Rotary had for some time been losing its relevance to the business elite, many of whom were increasingly time poor. This elitist mindset is still alive and well in Rotary.

The world’s first Eclub was chartered in 2001, ushering in a very new style of club which catered for a less geographic demographic. These clubs would cater for the nomadic, the FIFO, the shift worker, the isolated volunteers, or those who would otherwise struggle to attend regular meetings but wanted to contribute. But at the time there was still a strong feeling that the primary mission of a “good Rotarian” was regular meeting attendance. Because Eclub members weren’t physically turning up at a pub every week to order a chicken dinner, hand over their hard earned to a sergeant and listen to a guest speaker, they weren’t considered “true Rotarians” by many. It’s a mindset that still exists today.

This is not photoshopped!

A few years later there was a strong push to prioritise member engagement over member attendance. This was something that immediately resonated with me at the time. The concept of a “service” club which prioritised meeting attendance over service has always sat uncomfortably with me. Every member had to achieve a certain percentage of meeting attendance. It mattered not how productive the meeting was, we just had to be there. And if we couldn’t be there, we were to do a “make up” by attending another club meeting. 

It was around this time that “flexibility” became a bit of a buzz word in Rotary circles. It was well understood that our rigid structures were affecting our ability to grow our membership. The cost of membership, and those 50 odd chicken dinners and sergeant sessions was clearly becoming a barrier too. Those attendance rules were relaxed at the end of the decade, I can’t remember exactly how, but I think it was primarily a lowering of the expected meeting attendance percentage. And guess what? The traditionalists complained about that too. 

The 2013 Council on Legislation (COL) allowed for project work to count for attendance, i.e. it enabled Rotarians to use participation in a service project to count as a make up, to keep the attendance wolves from your door. Just imagine the aliens landed and we had to explain to them that in our service club our prime objective was attending meetings, and only if we exhausted all other options to attend meetings, could our sins be absolved by contributing time to make an impact in our community. They’d surely be questioning if there was intelligent life on Earth. But this was the Rotary way for close to 100 years.

From 2007 – 2013 RI offered a pilot program to a number of clubs across the world which allowed them to experiment with their meeting frequency. Another pilot program ran between 2011 and 2014 where 500 clubs were selected to trial associate and corporate membership, satellite clubs and other innovative and flexible options, all of which did not fit within the rule book of the time. These programs were oversubscribed. Thousands of clubs applied, but missed out on the opportunity.

The resulting feedback from those trials led to major changes being introduced at the 2016 COL. Corporate membership models were initiated, the requirement to meet weekly was removed and other meeting flexibility measures were introduced. New club models were introduced, including satellite clubs, passport clubs and hybrid clubs. I personally think the removal of the weekly meeting requirement had the opportunity to be a game changer.

So, how do you think these measures were greeted by the Guardians of the Status Quo? In the subsequent (2019) COL, proposals made it to the floor to wind back those massive changes of 2016. Fortunately, none of them got up.

The superseded pre-2013 logo (L) and the current logo (R)

In 2013 RI introduced new branding. 9 years later, that branding is still being rejected for largely nonsensical reasons. Many proponents of the old logo are ignorant of the process that led to this change. The 2013 branding update was introduced in response to the findings of a landmark review commissioned by RI into our branding and strategy.

Global strategy, design and experience firm Siegel + Gale conducted a survey of Rotarians and stakeholders from 17 countries, and reported their research findings to the RI Board in 2012. The presentation to the board is documented in Revitalizing Rotary, where amongst other things, it identified that Rotary had an identity crisis. But many are still contributing to that crisis, some wilfully.

I've no doubt there are many, many other examples of resistance to RI leadership’s attempts to modernise the organisation, but I feel I’ve conveyed a fairly comprehensive history of the steadfast rejection of progress in all forms. Meanwhile, our membership has declined by 24% across the zone over the last 10 years. It's important to note this is a 24% net loss. We've actually recruited 31,000 new members over that time, but have seen 41,000 leave (or die). Our inability to turn this around is not caused by a lack of knowledge, but a lack of will. And I am concerned that a lack of will, combined with an abundance of apathy, will see us miss the boat on the opportunities this regionalisation pilot could bring us. We can learn from history the perils of missing the boat. The primary reason so many of the Titanic's life boats weren't full was the belief that the ship was unsinkable.

I am currently part of a team of District 9510 presenters rolling out a presentation to every club in our district on the importance of this rare opportunity. Every club across the zone has been given the opportunity to see this presentation and ask questions. In my own district, it looks like every club will see it, and I hope that’s the case across the rest of the zone.

This is not the place to go over the entire presentation. If you’re in Zone 8 you will all get a chance to see it if you haven’t already. But I do want to illuminate a few aspects of this pilot that I see as important. And let’s be very clear with the definition of “pilot”. It’s an opportunity to experiment and trial new ways of doing things. If we do get the approval to enter this pilot, we hope to find ways to improve opportunities and support for our members and clubs, to better communicate our message on a wider scale and to lower member fees. Anything we discover will not just automatically be adopted. There will be considerable consultation across the zone on what gets implemented and what does not. But we won’t have the chance to discover anything if enough clubs vote “NO”.

Speaking with one voice.

Trying to deliver a consistent message across our country or zone is akin to herding cats under the current system. Every district has to agree to the content and delivery of broad scale campaigns, and that agreement is not always easy to get. District boundaries are pretty arbitrary. Apart from Tasmania, which is currently a one district state, the lines that separate our districts have very little geographic meaning and form anything but natural markets. They cross state and country borders in a method that theoretically encapsulates a quantity of Rotarians to make administration easier for RI Headquarters. Over many years of re-districting, borders have shifted and entire districts have been subsumed. District 9830 (all of Tasmania) has 47 clubs across an area of 68,000 km2. My district (9510) includes most of (but not all of) South Australia plus parts of the Northern Territory, New South Wales, Victoria, and even a part of Queensland where there are no clubs. This is an area of about 1.5 million km2 with 82 clubs. Why do I mention this? If Rotary leaders in Tasmania wanted to run a state wide marketing campaign, it would be much easier to organise than my district, which zig zags across state borders and intersects advertising markets.

Past RI Director Stuart Heal recently commented (I will paraphrase) that if the head of Toyota wanted to strike up a marketing deal with Rotary across our zone, they would have to deal with over 20 districts. It would be much easier to speak with one person.

Inconsistent branding at a club BBQ.
Meanwhile, we can’t even get all clubs to update their branding to reflect a global change introduced nine years ago. Even within clubs, branding is often remarkably inconsistent. Regionalisation could address this.

Quality and Consistency of Member Training and Development.

I have been fortunate to have been given a unique and rare perspective on member training across the zone. I have presented on membership at PETS, District Assemblies, Conferences, and dedicated Membership Seminars in almost every district of Australia, and both islands of New Zealand. I’ve met some truly remarkable people and have experienced a broad depth of pedagogy in this field. Some of what I have seen has blown my mind. But some has been somewhat underwhelming. The average Rotarian might attend a District Assembly or PETS run in their district 2 or 3 times over their Rotary journey, and would not have any consideration for the training taking place across the rest of the zone. But for some of us who have seen a lot of it, you begin to question the consistency. I believe every district and RI fee paying Rotarian across the zone deserves the same access to best practice training, and right now, it’s a bit of a lottery depending on where you are. Regionalisation could address this.

Membership Development.

Similarly, the members of District 9640 (Gold Coast and surrounds) have experienced unprecedented club and membership growth over recent years. Why is this district so far ahead of the pack, when most districts decline in numbers year on year, forcing the re-districting which has and will continue to happen? Because there are some extremely passionate, talented, and visionary individuals when it comes to the science of marketing and membership development, but they are not evenly distributed and accessible across the zone. Regionalisation could address this.

There are many other resources that are not consistent or universally available to every member in every club across the zone, especially those clubs in remote locations. Some districts do youth exchange really well (COVID ramifications notwithstanding). Some have amazing vocational programs. Some run much better conferences. Some have extraordinary public image campaigns. Some have modest levies; some are much higher.

Keeping costs down.

For those who doubt that regionalisation can drop member fees, understand that districts have already been returning unspent funds to RI and members. Some of this underspending is due to COVID related travel and accommodation expense decline. Regionalisation will look at how District Governors Elect are trained too. A respected RI staffer recently reported that 85% of RI expenditure is directed to current District Governor costs and training their successors. Surely it's worth exploring if there are more efficient ways to govern our organisation, and if our current district structure is fit for purpose. There must be savings available from the removal of duplication across the zone.


I recently had a brief chat with a good friend of mine who happens to be a Past District Governor. His comment was that he hadn’t seen enough detail, so he’d be inclined to vote “NO”. It was immediately obvious to me that he hadn’t seen enough detail, because individuals aren’t voting on this; clubs are. And it’s one vote per club, no matter what size the club is. I guess there’s a “better the devil you know” mindset we have to overcome. I can empathise with the “not enough information” mindset, because the rollout of that information has only just started. The architects of this pilot have been caught between a rock and a hard place. If they had prepared a comprehensive outline of what the pilot would deliver, our members would have every right to condemn the lack of rank-and-file consultation. But by putting forward a skeleton with such little meat on the bone, the concerns are in relation to a lack of information. But considerable information is available for those who want to see it.

Rotary CEO John Hewko recently identified the six biggest challenges facing Rotary International, and one of them is “Resistance to Regionalization”. This pilot has been awarded to only two zones, one encompasses Britain and Ireland, assumedly because they already have a regional leadership structure in place, and the other is here in Zone 8 because so much work had already been done over the last few years on a similar plan. Make no mistake. If we pass up this opportunity, there will be many other zones wanting to take it on. RI Leadership are heavily invested in these pilots, and the RI Board of directors are dead keen for this to get up and learn what they can from the process. If our example can uncover a better model, it could spread across the globe. If another zone makes a good fist of it, we could soon be moving to the beat of their drum rather than our own. 

A common question asked of the presentation team during their club visits, is "How exactly will the regionalisation pilot address our membership decline?" We need to understand that membership decline is not the illness, but a symptom of the illness. Some medical interventions address symptoms only, but some address the illness itself, which in my mind is predominantly about declining relevance and attractiveness to the volunteer market. If we can build and consistently convey our narrative, create new, attractive, inclusive and impactful clubs that people will want to join, lower the cost structure and better train and develop our members, I believe we can again make Rotary relevant to the public. The membership spoils will follow. But the question I would ask relates to that other aforementioned constant, "How exactly can we move beyond our historical resistance to change?" 

The number one reason clubs don't actually follow through on innovation opportunities is the crippling fear that change will mean losing members. Guess what? We're already losing members. 24% of them over the last 10 years. I will concede that we do lose a few members who feel the pace of change has been too fast. But I will guarantee we have lost many more because the pace of change has been too slow, not to mention those who never join us in the first place.

In addition to the information campaign currently under way, I am calling on the army of progressive changemakers within the zone to rally the troops and do whatever you can to foster a “YES” mentality in your club. I've mentioned apathy, and I've mentioned resistance. But there is also outright opposition to this pilot from certain quarters. I would encourage you all, in the face of such opposition to question the motives of those opposers, and maybe ask them to elucidate their superior plan to reverse our membership crisis. If there is one, I'd be keen to hear it. 

Please take the time to visit the Creating Rotary Tomorrow website, where you'll find everything you need to know about the Regionalisation Pilot. Let’s not look this gift horse in the mouth. In the end, we only regret the chances we didn't take.


Thursday, 16 December 2021

Fingers in the Dike

Seven years ago, I faced considerable opposition and denigration locally for daring to initiate a campaign to start a new club; a response that I know has been meted out to fellow club instigators across Australia and other parts of the Western world. To be fair, I did also receive some incredible support, but my name is still mud in the eyes of some local Rotarians. I wanted to build a different club which focused on impact and volunteering instead of meetings, and I feel very grateful for everyone who played a part in the journey to create and grow the Rotary Club of Seaford. Ours is a club that has been recognised globally as an example of innovation and vibrancy. We’ve just celebrated our fifth birthday.

It’s always nice to be ahead of the curve. It's not a place Rotary beauracracy tends to occupy. Since our success at Seaford, I’ve been calling for more leadership and direction from RI on the need for new and innovative club models, and it would appear the penny has finally dropped. As a follower of numerous Rotary bloggers and influencers, I am starting to see increasing online content about “new style clubs”; content which is starting to reach and inspire a growing audience of Rotarians who are unhappy with the status quo. I genuinely feel that right now we are witnessing the swelling of a wave that could genuinely turn around Rotary’s membership fortunes in the West if enough people are bold enough to ride it. I cannot deny the sense of vindication as one of the many Rotary mavericks around the world who played a role in starting this movement given the opposition from some quarters along the way.

This blog is aimed squarely at the crop of district governors elect who will soon be participating in the 2022 International Assembly to prepare for their role as District Governor 2022/2023 and their district committees. 

I am yet to meet a District Governor who isn’t interested in growing membership. I suspect I’ve attended more Rotary district training events in and outside of my own District 9510 (formerly 9520) than the vast majority of Rotarians, many as an invited speaker. If there's one phrase I can always count on hearing at such events, it's this one: "Membership is our top priority". I'd actually be concerned if I didn't hear it. I’ve been very lucky to have met an extensive list of amazing District Governors and Governors Elect, some of whom I would consider close friends. They have all been hard workers and well intentioned, but those who have actually overseen net growth over their term in office form an extremely small minority. 

So why, if district membership growth is apparently such a priority, is it so rare? I'll answer that question shortly, but here is one undeniable fact about those districts which have achieved it. They’ve done it by starting new clubs. So lend me your ears, district leaders in waiting. Here, in a nutshell, is what you need to do to have any hope of growing your membership. 

You need to start new, innovative clubs, and most importantly, you need to take district ownership over the process. I will guarantee that you will get a better return on this membership investment than any other initiative. There are people right under your nose in your community that would be great for Rotary, but they don't see a version of Rotary that would be great for them. So we can either kid ourselves, believing that existing membership challenged traditional clubs will suddenly work out a way to attract and retain them, or we can build new clubs that will offer a more attractive value proposition. 

There are numerous initiatives district leaders can implement to foster membership growth, at club and district level. I should know, because I've had a crack at all of them. We need to be delivering inspiring membership messages at district training events such as PETS, District Assembly, dedicated membership seminars and conferences, but we also need to be spending time with clubs which need help. We need to be sharing examples of best practice and innovation to stimulate club growth. We need to help clubs with recruitment and retention, and we need to train our members on building our public image and effective social media use.

But we also need to be conscious of the time constraints and work loads of our district leaders, and be mindful of directing our efforts where they can do the most good. I was constantly praised for my hard work as a district membership chair and was often complimented for inspiring so many Rotarians with my membership messages. Positive feedback is always nice, but the only thing that grew was my ego. The district numbers continued their downward trendline across my three-year tenure. 

It took me a while to work out where my strategies were failing. It wasn’t the message or the delivery method, but the lack of willingness for clubs to wholeheartedly support change. This clearly was not unique to D9520. Over the last 5 or 6 years I've had literally hundreds of one-on-one conversations with Rotarians all over the world about their membership challenged clubs. They often come about after someone has seen me present at a conference or on a video or Zoom meeting, or read my book. The same story gets relayed over and over again. They like the ideas and concepts I've conveyed, but they struggle enormously getting them implemented.

This is not the first time I’ve made this statement, and it won’t be the last. Our global membership challenges are well understood and we have the answers. I’m not suggesting I personally have all the answers, but the answers are known. Our inability to turn around our membership fortunes is not due to a lack of knowledge, but a lack of will.

For those who haven’t heard it, let me share the number one reason that the Rotary Club of Seaford was born, or more to the point, why I personally instigated the process. I was frustrated with the lack of tangible results from my efforts as a district membership chair. I knew the ideas I shared (not all my own, many were borrowed from successful clubs elsewhere) would work if only they could be implemented. So, when the opportunity arose, I went for it. With the help of a small group of hard-working colleagues and the initial interest group, we got the club off the ground, and it has been a huge success. Why? Because we do things differently. You wouldn’t believe how many times I have heard comments from other clubs (not always to my face) that the things we do at Seaford wouldn’t work in their club. The reason these things won’t work in other clubs is pretty simple really; it’s because they would never try them.

So, I’ve been off on a tangent for a while, and now I’ll come back to the circumference. Why am I so bullish on the prospects of growth through new clubs? Because the advantages of starting a new club with a blank slate are simply enormous. Sensible, flexible, contemporary, proven club innovations routinely rejected by traditional Rotary are readily adopted by those who aren’t cast from the traditional Rotary mould. District leaders have historically invested heavily in futile attempts to modernise faltering clubs, and have left the investment in new clubs in the “too hard” basket. 

Of course we cannot ignore clubs that need (and ask for) our help, but from a return-on-investment perspective, the evidence suggests that new club formation is a smarter bet. I’d go as far as to say, it’s a no-brainer. In fact, I’ll go further than that, and make a bolder statement. The ONLY way we will ever GROW this organisation in the West is with new clubs. Every other membership initiative we invest in is at best holding our fingers in the dike. We are haemorrhaging members. Even if we do everything else really well, the best outcome we can possibly hope to achieve is to hold current numbers where they are. At best.

I’m not going to pretend that the process of getting Seaford off the ground was easy. It was the hardest undertaking of my Rotary journey. But we got there, and it is immensely satisfying; not just for the club’s members and the local community which has benefited from our work. It is also immensely satisfying to see how our club has inspired innovation elsewhere.  Of course, there are so many other great new examples of contemporary Rotary springing up about the place too.

I’ve talked a lot about return on investment, and this where I want incoming district leaders to pay particular attention. I’m not solely talking about the investment of time and effort, which of course are critical. Districts must budget for and finance new club startup initiatives if they are to be successful. For most of Rotary’s history, new clubs have been sponsored by existing clubs. I've no doubt this is still happening, and Satellite Club formation is playing an increasing role in growth. But it strikes me that these days, fewer and fewer clubs are in the position to sponsor new clubs. They have their own battles to fight, and finding new members for other clubs is often (justifiably) seen as a conflict of interest. It’s time for district leaders to take the bull by the horns.

Earlier this year I spoke at a training event interstate and gave a presentation called “The Case for New Clubs”. My parting challenge for that district is a challenge I lay down for all districts.

  1. Establish a team tasked with investigating new club opportunities and partnering with local clubs and stakeholders to implement action plans.
  2. Work to foster a growth mindset amongst all Rotarians in the district.
  3. Fund new club startup costs.

Part 3 is especially important. If your district does not have a dedicated budget for new club start-ups, why not? I was very fortunate to get a $2,000 grant from our district public image budget to cover some startup costs at Seaford. Amongst other things, this paid for domain name registration and hosting for a website, flier printing and distribution, some advertising in a local paper and a catered information day. You cannot expect individual Rotarians and potential charter members to cough up for these expenses if you’re fair dinkum about starting new clubs. I know of examples right now where passionate Rotarians are trying to get new clubs off the ground. Some of these efforts are driven by district leaders. Some are not, but at least they enjoy good support at district level. But some get no support whatsoever, and in one example, a district governor stymied efforts. 

The growth we covet is possible, but we have to want it hard enough, and we have to work to achieve it. I've often heard commentary that we need our district governors to be leaders, not managers. Well, I can't think of a better way to lead. Stop talking the talk about membership growth, and start walking the walk.

In closing, I wish to share a wonderful short video from PRIP Mark Maloney on the importance of starting new clubs, even where existing clubs operate. I hope you take the time to watch it. 

Sunday, 17 October 2021


By now my followers should be under no illusion about my position on our meeting-centric culture. I fully appreciate that Rotary’s name arose from the initial practice of rotating meeting venues, but it intrigues me that 116 years later, the meeting remains at the centre of the Rotary universe for the overwhelming majority of clubs, and seemingly a large majority of Rotarians. I suspect a major contributing factor was the historical practice of measuring the value of a Rotarian by measuring their attendance at meetings. I cannot imagine that this started in 1905, but it was most certainly still happening in 2005. It strikes me that when an organisation has a motto of “Service Above Self”, the best way to measure the success or worth of that organisation should never be by counting the number of meetings its members attend. We really should be measuring service, or the product of that service; impact.

If you’re new to the organisation (or not a member), you should find this bizarre. When I joined Rotary in 1997, there was an expectation that you attend regular club meetings. If you couldn’t attend a meeting, you were expected to do a “makeup”. The preferred way to attain a makeup was to attend the meeting of another club. For the record, I think it is a really good idea to visit other clubs, but not primarily for the reason of satisfying your club’s attendance officer. There were other makeup options, such as district events. I think a district conference or international convention was worth two makeups! As a backup plan, if you couldn’t attend another club meeting, you could participate in a service project. No, I’m not kidding. I distinctly remember a culture where the primary expectation of a Rotarian was not serving the community, but attending the next meeting. If you weren’t at almost every meeting; you weren’t a “good Rotarian”.  This culture still exists and I’ll prove it later. If you didn’t meet your attendance requirements, or if you missed a few consecutive meetings, you could expect a phone call from your club president. I remember our club attendance officer giving an attendance report every week, which had to be forwarded to district leaders. God knows what they did with them! Each year at our changeover, the outgoing president handed out 100% attendance certificates. I think I received at least six of them. The culture of attendance was prevalent in my Rotaract years too.

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.

We cannot simply see Service Above Self as a motto. It should be our raison d'ĂȘtre. The contribution Rotarians make to the world is enormous. We have so much to be proud of, but still so much more to do. And we can’t do it without members.

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.

Does membership decline always precipitate impact decline? This is more a chicken-or-egg conundrum than you might think. I am convinced declining impact precipitates ageing and declining membership. You’re probably wondering, “How could declining impact make members age and numbers drop?”. It comes back to relevance. If a club is seen as relevant, it will attract new, younger members. But if a club is making little or no impact, it can be seen as irrelevant.

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.


Saturday, 21 November 2020


Throughout this pandemic year I must admit my innovation juices are running a bit dry, and as a result the blogs have become somewhat sparse. After a few fortunate years which have involved a good deal of Rotary travel to speak at conferences and seminars, COVID has well and truly clipped my wings in 2020, but it has been nice to have had numerous opportunities to speak about membership matters to clubs and districts online. I feel very blessed to have been introduced to so many new Rotary friends worldwide this year and the book sales have been very encouraging too, for which I feel very grateful.

These times are challenging for us all. Depending on your location it can be very hard for some clubs to serve their communities. It can be especially hard to raise funds. And whilst I have always maintained we have become too meeting-centric, I will openly admit that meetings do play an important role in bringing people together, sharing ideas, networking and general camaraderie, and those important aspects of the Rotary experience have been challenging to maintain.

But I feel the hardest job for Rotarians in this climate is the job of membership development. This is a hard enough job at the best of times, but when we are limited in our capacity to congregate and be physically present and active in our communities, it makes this challenge harder than ever. Of course the task of growing membership is not a problem for the vast majority of Rotarians, because the evidence is clear that the vast majority of Rotarians do not consider membership development their job. It’s always someone else’s job.

I believe that the future of the entire organisation relies heavily on a comparatively small segment of members who are active in the membership development sphere at club, district, zone and international level. The problem is that passionate and hard working, growth minded Rotarians don’t grow on trees. Those who are able to comprehend the nuances of our membership crisis and innovate our way through it are rare. And here’s the bigger problem. Those rare Rotarians blessed with the aforementioned skillset and energy to attack our membership conundrums are often themselves under attack from saboteurs. I have often found myself in their crosshairs.

I’ve written extensively about our resistance to change, but this blog is somewhat personal for me, because it’s about the disdain that exists in far too many quarters for the change makers. This is about venerating the innovators and exposing the Guardians of the Status Quo.

Before jumping into my tirade, I want to acknowledge that my journey as a membership specialist has been enormously satisfying and I have enjoyed the most uplifting support from the overwhelming majority. My three-year stint as District 9520 Membership Chair (DMC) was served under three extraordinary District Governors: Jerry Casburn, Dick Wilson and Sam Camporeale who gave me unwavering support to do the job my way and had my back on every occasion. The support I have received as an author is something that continually humbles me, and the numerous requests to travel interstate and overseas to present have given me some of the greatest highlights of my Rotary journey. To everyone who has supported and joined me on this journey, I say a heartfelt thank you. 

But that journey has not been without roadblocks and detours. In an organisation that desperately needs innovation, it's perplexing how unwelcome innovators can be made to feel. One of the most regular pieces of feedback I hear at a membership event, be it in person or virtual, is that it's a shame how many people weren't there, and it's usually the people who most desperately needed to be there. As a DMC I found it curious that the smaller clubs struggling to retain members were usually those least interested in hearing from me. I remember receiving a strongly worded email from a president after holding initial conversations with a few members about plans to rejuvenate his club at the request of the DG. The club in question had not seen double-figure membership in over a decade. It was at the time I was building the Rotary Club of Seaford in the same region. His message conveyed unambiguously that my input would not be welcomed. A few years later after launching the Rotary Club of Seaford, a member from that same club that banned me asked the DG what district was doing to support them. The vitriol directed my way during those times was considerable.

I've encountered duplicitous saboteurs at various leadership levels, and not just in my own district or country. I have on a number of occasions been invited to speak at district and zone events, only to have been soon thereafter disinvited. This is what happens when a member of an organising committee wants their audience to hear something provocative, but someone lurking in the background with inordinate influence thinks otherwise. Admittedly my presentation style is not for everyone. If you're looking for a comfortable and uplifting presentation, sorry, but I'm not your man. If you're looking for someone to tell your audience what it wants to hear, I'm not your man. I won't be trading my authenticity for approval, and have developed a pretty thick skin, but alas, I still bleed when I’m cut. But it's really not my own blood that I'm worried about. Whilst there are some resolute Rotary innovators out there, some of our pioneers are not so bullet proof, many of whom have shared their shameful stories with me.

Sadly, it seems par for the course that new club instigators attract a barrage of abuse from local Rotarians, but we should at least be able to expect more maturity and support from district leaders, especially given the emphasis on growth through new clubs at successive international assemblies. In one recent Australian example, rather than supporting the new club proponents, district leadership sided with an aggrieved group of clubs in the region and wouldn’t even allow online self-promotion of the provisional club before it was chartered. 

A friend of mine is a current DG trying desperately to innovate and grow membership in his district, and for his efforts he is the constant target of invective. His wife recently reflected on their experience in starting a new, flexible club, saying:

“It’s the aggression and the nastiness of those Guardians [of the Status Quo] that really upset me. In starting the last club, we have encountered incredible nastiness. How as an organisation do we deal with that? To me, that’s not Rotary.”

A friend in New Zealand recounted his story of a seemingly successful satellite club launch. The satellite club was functioning exceptionally well, making an impact in their community and steadily growing with a more contemporary and flexible style of Rotary, but the parent club’s constant interference and demands that the satellite club members attend their regular club meetings ended up destroying it.

If I bothered to document every example like this, I dare say I could reach triple figures. The same story is being told over and over again. RI has given us the opportunity to grow with flexible and most importantly different versions of Rotary to attract a new generation of volunteers, but rather than backing these promising new initiatives, the Guardians of the Status Quo fight tooth and nail to derail them. They seem far less interested in service and more interested in self. In the end we not only lose the opportunities to grow Rotary, but the innovators who create them, who choose walking away rather than the persistent banging of their heads against brick walls of Rotary tradition and ritual. And who could blame them? I regularly hear these stories and just shake my head. How Rotarians can cite the Four-Way test and treat their fellow Rotarians this way beggars belief. So drunk are they with power and obsessed with comfort and familiarity, they have forgotten what Rotary stands for.

The problem with the Guardians of the Status quo is that they want to have their cake and eat it too. They believe prospective members should be attracted to their 20th century version of Rotary and therefore see no reason to modernise, but they fight against the formation of new, contemporary clubs because they fear they will dilute the essence of Rotary and attract members from their catchment zone. This was the precise argument I had with some members of a nearby club when I first started building the Rotary Club of Seaford. They had steadfastly refused all modernisation efforts but feared a new club in the region would steal their potential recruits. My position was and still is that if they were so confident with the version of Rotary they had on offer, they should have no reason to fear a new club with a modern operating platform.

I’ve previously written about the need to use the word “and” rather than “or” in our Rotary conversations. I must admit when I started my journey as a membership specialist, I was ready to tear down traditional Rotary and build a more modern version. But my attitude has changed considerably over the years. I now recognise that there can be a place for traditional Rotary AND a place for modern Rotary, working side by side. If traditional clubs are active, impactful and growing, I see no reason to abolish them. There are of course many examples of traditional clubs that are thriving. But there are also many where traditional Rotary is largely inactive, impotent and dying. I am often reminded of the importance of bringing our members along with us on a journey of change. In principle I agree with this sentiment, but the bus driver has to understand that not everyone wants to get onto the bus. Sure, you have to stop, open the door and wait a while, but sooner or later you need to shut the door and continue on your journey. Those already on the bus are counting on you.

When you’re a volunteer, you have to be careful how you divide up your hours. And when it comes to largely inactive, impotent and dying clubs, I have little time left to give. I’ve invested a lot of it over the years, but sadly have seen very little return on investment. There are often within these clubs frustrated individuals who struggle to drag them into the 21st century, but invariably the Guardians of the Status Quo win. They prefer to remain seated on the comfortable lounge suites on the Titanic as it slowly sinks into the water rather than get into those cold, crowded, uncomfortable lifeboats.

The little spare time I have for Rotary these days I prefer to use in support of the innovators, the mavericks, the crazy ones who look at things differently and are probably the only ones capable of turning things around. I have seen how so many of them right around the Rotary world are regularly ostracised and derided because they don’t fit the pigeonhole that traditional Rotarians expect leaders to occupy. Some of them are currently serving as a District Governor, some already have and some are in line to do so, and I say good on you for making this massive sacrifice. I also know some who would desperately like to serve their district at this level, but sadly those with the influence in their district to put them there don’t recognise their value.

I once aspired to the role of DG myself but it’s not on my radar in the foreseeable future. I’ve come to realise I can accomplish much more by not having to toe a Rotary line. If for the rest of my Rotary journey I am kept out of certain Rotary circles because I never served as a District Governor, then so be it. I kind of like the circles I’m in. 

Here’s what I really want to achieve with this blog. I want Rotarians out there to recognise, celebrate and support my fellow Rotary mavericks in their journey to innovate Rotary out of its membership crisis. 

We're not all cut out to be membership leaders, but we can at least follow those who are. Stand up and be counted when they need your support, and don’t be a bystander to their sabotage. If we continue to bully our change-makers out of the organisation we are doomed. Bad things happen when good people do nothing.





Saturday, 28 March 2020


For a number of years, successive Rotary International leaders have been calling for disruption. Well, now we have it. COVID-19 clearly wasn't what they had in mind, but I'd suggest it will act as the biggest peacetime disruptor Rotary has ever seen.

I recently received a phone call out of the blue from a Rotary friend interstate. I won't name him here, but he is a fellow maverick and out-of-the-box thinker with an impressive record of membership development across a number of clubs, and a fellow new club initiator. He rang me to ask if I had any thoughts on how COVID-19 would affect Rotary's membership. My initial response was that I hadn't really had time to think about it. I've recently had a change in career path and Rotary has fallen a rung or two on my list of priorities.

But as the conversation with my friend unfolded, I had to admit to myself that I had indeed been thinking about how Rotary's membership predicament would be affected by our current pandemic, but I didn't really like what I'd been thinking and had been trying to push those thoughts out of my head. Until now I've been pretty confident that I understood our challenges well and had a pretty good plan for turning things around. But for all my talk of getting Rotarians out of their comfort zone, I'm now finding myself out of mine. The disruptor has been disrupted.

We are all in uncharted waters. Unlike every second Tom, Dick and Harry on Facebook; I'm prepared to admit I am not an expert on communicable diseases. I'm also not an expert on global economics. But I'd like to think I have a few runs on the board when it comes to membership commentary, so in this blog I'm going to share a few thoughts, observations, concerns, and even a few predictions. But I'm not going to pretend that I have the answers. Instead, I might just pose a few questions.
The experts are telling us that COVID-19 seems to induce generally mild and manageable symptoms on most of the healthy population, but it can be deadly for the vulnerable. I would theorise that this pandemic and our social isolation measures have the potential to affect Rotary clubs in similar ways where the survival of the fittest will be at play. Healthy and flexible clubs will hopefully ride out these challenging times. But I fear the most damage could be inflicted upon vulnerable clubs, and some may not survive it. With an average member age now above 72, we have a huge cohort within that more vulnerable population. Very few experts seem keen to predict timelines, but even when the brunt of this pandemic is behind us, the readiness for our clubs to return to business as usual won't be helped by our age profile. We will still need to be cautious.

I'm sure we would all agree that poor member engagement is the biggest enemy of retention. Member engagement was a challenge for Rotary before COVID-19; before strict isolation measures were implemented. Now that our members can't get together in person, member engagement will be harder, but I would suggest more important than ever.

I've been really delighted to see so many clubs moving to an online platform for meetings. Of course e-clubs have been doing this successfully for almost two decades. It has been refreshing to observe the growth of non-traditional (meeting centric) clubs in recent years; such as e-clubs, passport clubs, hybrid clubs, Rotary Nomads, and those offering more flexible and informal meeting platforms. These clubs seem to attract a more innovative and entrepreneurial cohort of members into our organisation who are very dedicated to humanitarian causes, yet averse to meeting obsessed dogma. I suspect that this style of Rotary and Rotarian is the best prepared to survive this pandemic, despite the claims of many of our traditionalists that "this is not Rotary".

But as I have been commenting ad nauseam for years; we must be about more than meetings. The innovation in meeting methodology has been welcome, but I'd really like to see innovation in service endeavours. Sure, COVID-19 is occupying a lot of our thought space and headlines at the moment, but the pre-existing humanitarian needs of the world haven't disappeared. What are we doing to serve those that still need our help?

My own club is heavily reliant sausage sizzle income. We've probably lost between $3K and $5K of expected income in the near future with the cancellation of these and other local events. And even if they were still going ahead, how much loose change will be in the pockets of the average citizen given business closures, employment uncertainty and toilet paper hoarding? I've seen many other examples of clubs being forced to close their thrift shops and markets, and abandon their art shows and quiz nights; all of which provide the funds that allow us to do our work. The Rotary Foundation has grants available to assist in some COVID-19 health initiatives, but I wonder how well insulated the Permanent and Annual Programs Funds are from economic and share market volatility. TRF certainly took a hit during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. 

A big test will come in a few months when club treasurers start to issue renewals for member dues. I wonder what sort of response they will get from members who have seen very little action over the preceding months, and could be waiting many more months for meaningful involvement. We've been fearing the "approaching cliff face" for a number of years now. This is the expectant sharp drop in membership as many elderly members leave this Earth or are forced to resign for health or financial reasons. I'm not suggesting COVID-19 will dramatically accelerate this process, but it certainly won't slow it down. I wonder if RI will need to re-evaluate its due collection process, whereby clubs get charged half of it for members on their books as at June 30, especially if Rotarians are still in some form of personal isolation or lock down at the time. Many districts calculate their levies the same way, and given some have had enormous financial hits as a result of District Conference cancellations at short notice, they too will be relying on that income.

Every club seems to have its mix of truly dedicated and committed members who will stick through this crisis without question, and conversely those that were already questioning their membership before this pandemic. Many clubs also have members that make little if any contribution whatsoever, my own club included. I wonder how many of our 1.2 million members world wide are genuinely active members, and how many are just turning up for the weekly chicken dinner and speaker. There's an old joke about a guy who walks into a business and asks the receptionist "How many people work here?" She replies "About half of them". Is it uncharitable to make the comparison? 

I know I've started a lot of sentences with "I wonder", but here come another few. I wonder if we could face considerable membership decline over this pandemic, yet lose very little in terms of service capacity. I wonder if globally we could collectively cancel a whole swag of meetings, yet lose very little in terms of impact. I've always venerated quality over quantity. Does the very question open a can of worms? Am I perhaps being disrespectful of those senior Rotarians who have served with enthusiasm and dignity for many years, and now just want to enjoy the twilight of their years in Rotary with friends over a meal on a weekly basis? I understand how it could sound that way. But I keep coming back to our motto of Service Above Self. Service isn't optional for Rotary. It's our raison d'ĂȘtre.

Here's a quote I often use in presentations: 

Change is coming whether we like it or not. We can either be the drivers of change, or become victims to it. 

We've been talking about change in Rotary for at least the 22+ years I've been a member. Our leaders have given us the tools through successive councils on legislation to make our clubs more flexible, adaptive and contemporary environments for today's volunteers. Some clubs have taken the bit between the teeth and modified the way they do things. Plenty of new clubs have started with a new and improved formula. But many are still welded to an outdated,  traditional and ritualistic model which could struggle to survive this change that has been forced upon us. Comfort remains the enemy of progress, and right now comfort will be the enemy of survival. I regularly hear stories of Rotarians who would rather remain on the comfortable lounge suites on the Titanic as it calmly sinks into the water, than get into those crowded life boats with uncomfortable seats. Well guess what? We've just hit an iceberg.

Whilst I'm feeling very anxious about this dreadful COVID-19 pandemic, I'm taking advantage of my enforced break from Rotary. The 2020/21 year will be the first one for me in 19 years that I haven't either sat on a club board or held a senior district position. I've been doing Rotary at full steam for so many years now and I'm ready for a break. We all have an opportunity to re-evaluate how Rotary works, and I'm sure there will be more innovation ahead of us when we eventually come out the other side of it. I feel with strong, agile and responsive leadership at club, district and global level Rotary International is well placed to position itself as a premier provider of support and direction in a post COVID-19 world. I know my club will be in a great position to get back out in our community and do what we do best: Service Above Self. Will yours?

Please stay safe and healthy, and be kind to one another.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The Two Camps

When it comes to Rotary District Conferences, chances are you’re in one of two camps; those that go and those that don’t. I am happily in the conference goer camp, and have only missed a few over my 22 plus years in Rotary, but I am clearly in the minority.

I've lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had with every-day Rotarians in the “goer” camp about why more Rotarians do not attend their district conference. I’ve also heard many a Rotarian suggesting that we need to be opening up our conferences to the general public and using the event to showcase our work. That is of course a laudable aspiration, but let’s tackle one challenge at a time. It occurs to me when the majority of Rotarians aren’t interested in attending such key events, we have our work cut out for us engaging non-Rotarians.

In the same way people weigh up the pros and cons of Rotary membership, it's only natural that Rotarians will weigh up the pros and cons of attending their district conference. I reckon I’ve attended around 15 of them in my own district plus a few in others, and memories start to fade over the years, but I can’t remember any that I haven’t enjoyed.

The first pro I see is camaraderie; spending quality time with your own club members and getting to know new friends from other clubs. The change of scenery is a pro; the touring, shopping, dining out, and other experiences of an environment away from home usually make for a pretty enjoyable experience. There’s an entertainment factor from a variety of informative and inspiring key note speakers, plus the odd musical act, and again, that’s mainly positive, although it’s unreasonable to expect every delegate will fully appreciate every speaker. But I'd like to think there's always something for everyone on most programmes. The other big benefit I derive from these events is the expansion of Rotary knowledge. There are often amazing Rotary experiences, projects and fundraising initiatives shared by the speakers and in the Rotary showcase. The wall-to-wall tables full of scones and slices at morning tea time are a pro, although I can't say that about the lengthy queues to the coffee stations. 

I'm one who sees the district conference cup as more than half full, with the pros outweighing the cons, but not everyone does. And we cannot pretend those cons don't exist. The cost of attending a District Conference is a major barrier to many. Registration is a cost; not for one particular district I visited recently, where every Rotarian across said district pays an inflated district levy to cover registration costs for those who attend their district conference. In that district, you only have to pay for the meal component of the conference. Some would see that as an innovative approach, but some may be questioning if it’s fair to all concerned. Accommodation is a cost and travel is a cost. It has been my experience that the sum of registration, travel and accommodation is unlikely to leave you much change from $700, or well over $1,000 for a couple. This is not insignificant.

But as I am often keen to remind people, the cost of involvement in Rotary is not solely monetary. There is a cost to giving up your time as well. Giving up a weekend in some districts and (depending on travel and programming) up to four days in others, is a big time commitment. One question that seems to come up most in conversations about district conferences is “Where are all the young people?” Well, before answering that, understand that we’re not exactly drawing from an evenly represented pool. 50% of the general population is aged under 50, but only 12% of Rotary’s membership in Australia is aged under 50. I would suggest the same things keeping younger people out of Rotary; such as relevance and competitors for their time and money, are keeping younger people home during district conferences. That’s basically it in a nutshell.

There's an unambiguous parallel between the overwhelming majority of conference goers and the overwhelming majority of Rotarians; they’re retired. I regularly hear from younger people that they can’t attend district conferences (many of which start on week days here) because they can’t get the time off work. And if they can, it’s either without pay, or eating into their annual leave allocation. But if you’re retired, you have more spare time and chances are you’re looking for activities to fill some of it. It would also appear for this demographic, the further the veune is from home, the more popular. Now it is true that some younger people make it to district conferences. Some of them have more flexible work arrangements or are indeed willing to make that extra sacrifice in giving up work hours to attend, because they feel like me, that the pros outweigh the cons. But they’re in the minority. My longest run of missed conferences occurred during the period that I ran a catering business, because weekends were when I made 90% of my income. I simply couldn’t afford to knock back the work at the time.

So, back to that question, “How do we get more bums on seats at district conferences?” Well first I want to answer the question that no-one is asking, which is “How could we ensure we see less bums on seats at district conferences?” The answer to the latter question is to drastically change our conferences. What? Wait a minute? Did you just hear me right? One of Rotary’s greatest advocates for change suggesting that drastic change is NOT the answer? Yep. Let me explain.

We can't be throwing our babies out with the bath water. We first need to understand our target audience for district conferences, and what makes the people who attend pretty much every year different from those who rarely, if ever attend. One of my very first blogs was called Ham and Pineapple Rotary. You can read the full blog here, where I proposed that some people want a pretty basic version of Rotary; a version I call “Ham and Pineapple Rotary”. Some people don’t want all the trimmings. They’re very happy in their little club cocoon and aren’t interested in the wider Rotary world. They aren’t attracted by activities or events of other clubs, or anything at district level, and it wouldn't matter what you offered them; they won't ever turn up to a district conference. They're simply not in that camp. The routine of meetings and BBQs suits them just fine. For some, even that is a challenge. And as much as I’d like to see more Rotarians expand their horizons, we need all of these people. 

Personally, I find ham and pineapple pizza a little uninspiring, as I do with ham and pineapple Rotary. I want all the trimmings (except olives). I want super supreme Rotary. The Rotarians who attend district conferences regularly, often with their partners, might not be into super supreme Rotary, but they definitely want more than ham and pineapple on their Rotary pizza. They are the people who generally see all pros and no cons when it comes to district conferences. They may only make up around 20-30% of the total district membership base, but I would suggest they can be counted on to turn up to every conference, year after year. They are in that camp.

One of the big mistakes political parties often make is to ignore their base in the hunt for more votes, and I would suggest it would also be a big mistake if conference organisers ignored their base (i.e. the Rotarians who can be relied upon to turn up to conferences every year) in the hunt for more bums on seats. I'd have to question if there is any way to significantly change the format of the current traditional style of district conference to attract a new audience without alienating the existing audience. Sure, you can tweak things. I’ve always wanted clubs and districts to innovate and push boundaries, and district conference organisers should be looking to do the same. Part of the initial planning is about considering different venues, food options, entertainment, cost and accommodation options, and of course relevant and inspiring keynote speakers are really critical. They obviously want their conference to be unique and memorable, but I doubt a district conference can ever be all things to all Rotarians. Any salesman knows it's easier to keep existing customers than find new ones.

I’ve learnt a hell of a lot throughout my journey as a membership specialist, but I have only recently started to fully comprehend the concept that “and trumps or” (no reference to POTUS intended).

Earlier on in my journey, I was a bit of an “or” guy. I used to look at many aspects of Rotary with a view that we should be doing Option B instead of Option A. But in our mission to become a more inclusive organisation, I have come to realise that asking members and clubs to choose one option or the other is perhaps the antithesis of inclusivity. My mindset has slowly evolved, and I now believe our chances for growth improve when we offer Option B in additon to Option A. I was once hell bent on replacing traditional Rotary with newer versions of Rotary, but in later years I’ve come to realise that there is still a place for traditional Rotary clubs (provided they are still active and impactful), and that we need to complement traditional Rotary with newer versions of Rotary. It took me a two year process of starting a new club to fully understand that one size does not fit all. 

What’s this got to do with district conferences? Well, maybe the attendance problem at conferences requires an “and solution”, not an “or solution”. Maybe we need to keep the traditional style of district conference to attract the traditional style of conference goer, and provide a different style of event for a new market of Rotarians and non-Rotarians. How about a one-day event designed with a younger audience in mind, with speakers and activities more relevant to that audience. Like a TEDx event. Costs can be lowered by holding in larger metropolitan centres meaning the majority would not need to travel or find accommodation. Regional delegates could be offered free home hosting if required. Our senior/retired members love the Rotary getaway, and have more time for it. I'm not sure that's always the case with our younger members, who don't necessarily want Rotary involved in their getaways.

Optional food, or even the ability for people to bring their own food would help keep costs down and help those with special dietary needs. Involve Rotaractors and other alumni in planning, logistics and organisation. Have a blend of top-notch speakers from the business world and experts on current hot-button topics, but also include impactful presenters on Rotary issues who can inspire Rotarians and non-Rotarians alike. I have organised big events, and I’m convinced it’s doable. 

Consider the example of cricket, and how it has been forced to innovate to reach new audiences. My readers in the USA and other non-cricketing countries might just have to tune out for a moment here. Test cricket has always been the purest form of the game, lasting up to five days. But in order to appeal to a wider audience, limited overs cricket took hold in the 70s with games completed inside one day. In more recent years, T20 (20 overs per side – lasting around three hours total) cricket has rapidly gained in popularity, especially with young families. If I’m completely honest, I can take or leave limited overs cricket; I’m a test cricket tragic. But it has served a purpose in finding a new audience, and has also led more people to take up an interest in test cricket. If a shorter version of the game can work for cricket, why can’t it work for district conferences?

I've got another massive year ahead of me in 2020, with a number of appearances at conferences and training events. I always look forward to these events, but I expect my biggest highlight will take place in October, when I will be making my first ever trip to the United Kingdom.

I have been invited to speak at the District 1110 Rotary InterXchange in Portsmouth. This two-day event is replacing a traditional district conference and has a strong focus on community engagement and social enterprise. Planned activities and topics include a showcase of how local clubs are working with their communities, a social enterprise pop-up market, discussion on Rotary’s position on the social change revolution and a people’s festival.

Tim Mason
District Governor Elect Tim Mason is passionate about Social Enterprise and is excited about the possibilities for Rotary in this space. Tim is a fellow Rotary maverick who thinks outside of the traditional Rotary box. According to Tim, “We need to be part of the Social Change revolution; not observers on the side!” As excited as I am to be visiting the UK, I am especially excited to participate in this style of event. I’m not sure at this stage as to whether it will end up being an “and” or an “or”, but either way, I’m delighted that it’s happening. Kudos to my friend DGE Tim for refusing to go where the path may lead, instead going where there is no path with a view to leaving a new trail.