|This is not photoshopped!|
|The superseded pre-2013 logo (L) and the current logo (R)|
|Inconsistent branding at a club BBQ.|
|This is not photoshopped!|
|The superseded pre-2013 logo (L) and the current logo (R)|
|Inconsistent branding at a club BBQ.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.