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'être. 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'être.

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.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

The Base and the Apex

This is not the first article I’ve written about widespread resistance to change in Rotary, and it probably won’t be the last.

Since publishing my book Creatures of Habit early in 2018 I’ve been asked to speak at a number of conferences, training events and membership seminars across Australia and New Zealand, and have been genuinely delighted to have met so many people who are committed to improving the organisation with a view to attracting and retaining more members. 

Without question, every one of these events has been enormously positive, and I always feel extremely privileged to get invited. There’s much to be said about surrounding one’s self with positive people, but I’m also conscious of living in an echo chamber, and one cannot take it for granted that the progressive views promulgated at such events are reflective of the wider Rotarian mindset and attitudes back in club land.

In my recent presentations I’ve been keen to outline the considerable list of rule changes and tools that have been made available to us by RI’s leadership to inject flexibility into the organisation over the last 30 years. I often hear commentary from every-day Rotarians that club innovation is being stymied by the apex of the organisation who are forcing restrictive rules on us. But it is my experience that the problem is not with the apex, but the base. Below is a timeline of the changes I have spoken of.

  • In 1989 we formerly allowed women to join the organisation. There is nothing else on this list that comes close to this one change from a membership development perspective.
  • In the last half of the 1990s we relaxed our classification and qualification criteria for membership to allow for a wider range of people to be eligible for membership.
  • The first E-club was formed in 2002, allowing for a more flexible way to participate in Rotary.
  • In the mid 2000s there was a strong push towards prioritising member engagement over attendance, and towards the end of that decade our attendance rules were relaxed, and formerly allowed for the participation at events or on projects to “make-up” for missed meeting attendance.
  • RI introduced a number of pilot programs for a limited number of clubs worldwide. From 2007 - 2013 a meeting frequency pilot allowed for 200 clubs to meet not weekly, but whenever they chose. Then from 2011 - 2014 another pilot program saw 500 clubs trial corporate and associate membership options, and experiment with innovative and flexible club models, and trial satellite clubs.
  • In 2013 Rotary conducted a rebranding exercise in response to a report from global brand strategy, design and experience firm Siegel + Gale commissioned by RI in 2011 to analyse its branding and public image concerns. A new logo was introduced.
  • Then at the Council of Legislation in 2016, partly in response to intelligence gleaned from the aforementioned pilot programs, some monumental constitutional changes were introduced. By far the biggest was the removal of the weekly meeting requirement. In my view, from a membership development perspective, this has been the biggest rule change since we admitted women in 1989. Other developments at this landmark COL were corporate membership options, flexible meeting options and the introduction of new club styles, including satellite, passport and hybrid club models.

It’s possible I’ve missed a few developments over the last thirty years, but we cannot deny that we’ve been given ample encouragement to get with the times, and build a more contemporary version of Rotary to keep pace with a rapidly changing society and volunteer landscape. The problem is; the Guardians of the Status Quo have been pushing back against these changes at every step. There are of course exceptions, but in many clubs these changes have been met with robust opposition, and there are inexplicably still clubs here in Australia which will not admit women. As I’ve said before, the problem is not the apex; it’s the base. 

At the recent 2019 Council on Legislation there were even proposals tabled (which means they were approved at district level) to wind back those considerable breakthroughs of 2016. Those proposals were all quashed, and I imagine pity parties were held. But it is unambiguously clear that many Rotarians still pine for that pre-90’s style of Rotary where classification, attendance, elitism, formality and rituals were king, and women were absent, and they’re trying their darnedest to take us back there.

Some would have us believe that our membership woes only commenced when we started relaxing our eligibility and attendance requirements, and had we kept our bloodline pure by accepting only those who could “hire and fire”, demanding that they attend every meeting or do a make-up, we’d have queues of corporate executives beating a path to our meeting venue door. That’s just fanciful; at least in the West anyway. I can readily accept that in many developing nations where growth is strong, Rotary still has a glint of prestige which attracts society’s movers and shakers, but this is very much a cultural thing. In the more egalitarian West, we have to offer a different value proposition. Our world has changed and we have failed to keep up with it. 

"But we mustn't change for change's sake", is the well worn retort to our would-be innovators. I would argue that we mustn't remain the same for tradition's sake either. Here's the thing. I have no problem whatsoever with traditional club models if they are making a worthwhile contribution to their community. If these clubs are strong and impactful, I don't really care if they uphold some of those 20th century practices which keep their members happy. But the rear view mirror must not obscure our view of the road ahead. When things start to go pear shaped, membership drops, members age, and our capacity to do good in the world is impeded, maybe it's too late for change. The transition from healthy to catatonic doesn't exactly happen overnight, but clubs rarely see the point of no return before it arrives. Surely we should always be aiming for best practice and constantly reviewing our procedures while we are in a position to do so. 

Barely a week goes by where I don’t receive an email or read a Facebook post from a disconsolate Rotarian who has been fighting against this obstinacy for years and is ready to call it quits. These are people who are passionate about Rotary’s future, have seen their club membership dwindle and feel helpless to turn things around. Not because they lack the inspiration or the tools, but because they feel their efforts are futile. Here is an exact quote I received in an email from a long term and enormously respected local Rotarian, I am so sapped of energy by my current club that I would walk if I was not committed for the next 18 months.” 

It’s true that we do indeed lose some Rotarians because they feel the pace of change is too rapid. But here’s the part that many of us are struggling to come to terms with. We lose far more who feel the pace of change is too slow, and these are the most productive amongst us.

Then there are the thousands who never join in the first place because we've failied to keep pace with a changing world. When the Guardians of the Status Quo threaten to leave, it's usually all bluff, and they're attempting to hold the club to ransom.  

I’m reminded of a great quote from Colin Powell. “Good leadership involves responsibility to the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organisation.”

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve spoken at PETS (President Elect Training Seminar) in my own or other districts, but it would easily be in the 20s. In my own district I spoke about membership at four PETS in a row at one stage, and noticed something quite concerning. Each year I did my best to disseminate some inspiration and best practice membership development strategy to a group of soon-to-be leaders. Each year they got fired up with a vision to transform their respective clubs when they took office. But then I would speak to their successors at the following year’s event, and could tell that the majority of their predecessors’ plans were never implemented. As a one-term president or District Governor, you may not be aware of this phenomenon, but when you do this a number of years in a row, it really hits you. We have this paralysing fear that any meaningful change to club processes will see members leave. But this fear is irrational; because members are leaving us anyway. We’ve lost a third of our membership base in Australia over the last 22 years. Does anyone seriously think this has happened because the pace of change in Rotary has been too fast?

I regularly hear calls for our Rotary Clubs to be representative of our communities, embracing diversity on all levels. Maybe in a perfect world every club would offer sufficient flexibility so as to welcome people from all walks of life. But we're not living in a perfect world, and I feel we need a larger variety of clubs offering a larger variety of flexible service options. Sometimes we fail to realise just how inflexible we are.

I recently signed up for a new gym membership, and couldn't help but see parallels between the process of researching a gym membership and the process that prospective Rotarians might go through when seeking a Rotary club to join.

A number of gyms had websites that either didn't work, were outdated, were unwelcoming or lacking the important information a prospective member needs. I narrowed down my search to two local gyms and decided to pay them a visit. One of them was very modern, but the staff were seemingly disinterested in my enquiries. The other was not so squeaky clean, but the woman at reception, herself a former competitive bodybuilder, went to great lengths to answer my questions and show me around. As I walked through there were a number of clients working out who all greeted me. This was the gym for me.

I asked about their fees, and was advised it was $299 for a year, and I could visit whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, as many times as I wanted, 6.00am to 9.00pm Monday to Friday, and 9-5 weekends. And that's where the similarities ended. Many Rotarians are also paying upwards of $299 per annum for their membership, but it's not like we can choose to engage whenever we want. Imagine if gyms worked like Rotary clubs, and prospective members were told that the only time they could work out was on a Tuesday night, and they had to buy a meal. If that doesn't suit you, there's another gym down the road, but you have to work out there on a Wednesday morning.

We often see a lack of member engagement as a problem with the member. But I see it as a mismatch between the array of service opportunities we offer and the lifestyle demands of the member in question. And this is why we need to offer more flexible ways of doing Rotary. I'm impressed with the flexibility offered by emerging styles of Rotary Clubs such as eClubs, Passport Clubs and Hybrid Clubs, where busy professionals only get together in person once a month (or less), but spend their time collaborating on service projects that fit around their busy lifestyles.

This style of Rotary is growing, but sadly is not offered in most regions. I only wish more district leaders had the gumption to invest in these options, because I genuinely believe if we cannot snap out of our meeting-centric operating system, we're doomed.

But I do feel we should use the word "and" more than the word "or". The purpose of engineering new club models is not to threaten or replace the traditional club model, but to complement it. Many of Rotary's traditionalists feel the sky is falling when they hear of any Rotary model different to their own, but it's actually our way of keeping the Rotary sky up!

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

The Rotary Theme Park

Everyone loves a theme park. What's not to like except maybe the impact on your credit card statement? But seriously, who attends a theme park for the themes? We're in it for the rides, the souvenirs, the Kodak moments and the highly processed high sugar, high carb, high fat and high priced food. I don't imagine anyone joins Rotary for the themes either, so in this blog I want to examine if Rotary International's annual theme actually serves a purpose or if it's simply another exhibit from the "We've always done it this way" department.

We're now most of the way through changeover season; that time of year when one Rotary annual theme gets dropped like a bad habit, and we all line up to salute a new one. Club secretaries are busy changing letterheads, and webmasters and Facebook admins are hopefully uploading the new theme logo. I stress hopefully. A few weeks ago I spotted the "Rotary: Serving Humanity" logo on a club website. Sadly that was the newest thing on it. The changeover dinner is that special event where your chicken breast costs that little bit more, the president's collar gets that little bit heavier, and we officially replace our themed lapel pins and lower a new lectern theme banner over the old one.

But I've noticed the Rotary annual theme appears to be losing its intended alignment with the July-to-June Rotary year and has all but transitioned into a February-to-January popularity cycle, as a result of the pomp and ceremony surrounding the announcement by the Rotary International President Elect of his (I normally try to avoid gendered pronouns, but in this case 'his' is the only pronoun applicable) theme for the year ahead. 

The fervour was so intense this year that someone who shall remain nameless pushed a button about 48 hours before they were meant to, releasing Mark Maloney's 2019/20 theme before it was officially announced at the International Assembly. Social media being what it is, much of the Rotary world saw it prematurely; myself included. Awkward! When I first caught sight of the 2019/20 logo in isolation it crossed my mind Rotary was mounting a program to eliminate Zika virus.You can't deny the resemblance!

As we all know Rotary training season commences in February when District Governors Elect return from San Diego, and concludes in May or June depending on your district. I've been heavily involved in it for over ten years now, in my native district and many others. First as a club president, then as a district leader, and more recently as a key note speaker. It's a crazy few months which calls for those involved to jump between parallel universes. There's the regular Rotary universe in a club under a current president observing a current annual theme. Then there's the training team universe; where we trainers, leaders and speakers participate in the journey towards post June Rotary. The leader of this universe is the DGE who is trying their hardest to fire up said leaders with yet another Rotary annual theme. A theme which is embargoed inside the regular Rotary universe until July 1, but is plastered everywhere in the training universe. For those new to impending presidency and/or leadership positions; this should be an exciting time, if not a wee bit daunting. There are massive opportunities to learn about Rotary and compare notes with one's contemporaries, and it's a priviledge to have been involved so many times. But even this enthusiastic Rotarian is starting to feel a "Groundhog Day" effect in the face of new theme hyperbole.

Annual themes are like a box of chocolates. You never know what your gunna get. To be honest I'm not convinced our annual leadership churn is a good thing either, but that's a blog for another day. At the risk of upsetting people (not that it's ever stopped me before), I want to convey why I'm not a fan of annual themes in Rotary. Although I don't expect I'll be upsetting too many outside of our new crop of District Governors and Presidents; each of whom have been galvanised behind said new theme, and may well see this blog as a thunderstorm on their parade.

I will outline my reasoning behind my position shortly, but first; a little history. In 1949/50 Rotary International President (and please, can we stop using the term 'World President'? They are not the president of the world, they are the president of Rotary International) Percy Hodgson outlined a list of key objectives for his presidential term. It is understood this was the inception of the concept whereby Rotarians world wide aligned themselves with key emphases of the RI President. Shortly thereafter, RI Presidents started trumpeting shorter, punchier themes, and today Rotary has built an entire industry on work-shopped themes and logos, together with a vast array of matching merchandise.

A quick rummage through my sock
 drawer and look what I found.
Understandably many Rotarians question what this costs us, but to be fair Rotary International makes a good deal of money from the licensing of the new theme and logo as it is reproduced on all manner of promotional materials. That income more than covers the costs of articulating an annual theme and designing its accompanying logo. Invariably they help keep our RI dues down. 

But the pins, banners and ties which are given out each year are not free. Somewhere these all appear in district budgets which inevitably get passed on to rank-and-file members. I have acquired a comprehensive collection of Rotary theme ties over the years, and I haven't (directly) paid for one of them. Most came my way as part of the deal when serving at district level, and others have been gifts. For the record I do appreciate a nice tie, even though these days I don't wear them as often as I once did.

50 Shades of Blue - My Rotary Theme Tie Collection
What was Gary Huang thinking?
But in this age of questioning our traditions and rituals, and asking "what purpose does it serve?", rather than blindly repeating a practice because we've always done it that way; surely it's not unreasonable to ask if we really need a new theme every year.

2005/06 RI President Carl-Wilhelm Stenhammar took the position at the time that an annual theme was unnecessary. He was quite candid with his beliefs it was counterproductive, but when given no option, he decided to use our motto: Service Above Self as his theme for that year. Of course, being the creatures of habit we are, we have continued to change themes every year despite his protestations. You know when a practice is well entrenched when the RI President himself cannot change it. So what is the rationale? The theory I’ve heard is that Rotarians need to be reinvigorated every year, and the annual theme gives a common focus to unite behind. Personally I find the people we meet and the doors we open for social impact far more invigorating than a 70 year old ritual. 

District Governors Elect, having just returned from the International Assembly, an event which I have only ever heard described in glowing terms, exhibit an amazing drive and enthusiasm for their year ahead. One cannot blame them for their enthusiasm and veneration of the approaching annual theme. Those District Governors Elect then have the job of not only training, but energising and emboldening their incoming district and club leaders, and I don't doubt that a well crafted and defined annual theme can play a strong motivational role. I have served under many motivated presidents and a few less than motivated presidents. The difference was not a theme, and I remain somewhat sceptical as to how well a theme can motivate the rank-and-file. No doubt it resonates with some presidents and members, but if we expect all Rotarians to jump through themed hoops on command we'll likely be disappointed. I recall the late Connie Tremethick, the first female president of my former club, the Rotary Club of Edwardstown being less than impressed with the theme for 2001/02, one of two years she served as president. The theme in question was "Mankind is Our Business", and this proud feminist was unenthused by a theme she saw as less than female friendly in an era when women were starting to ascend to senior leadership roles in Rotary.

Conversely when it was my turn to be Edwardstown's president in 2006/07, I was very happy with "Lead the Way" as a theme, and my theme banner, personally signed by Bill Boyd still hangs proudly in my office. But I still think this Rotary ritual is more about tradition than direction. Thus far I still haven't outlined why I'm not a fan of the concept, so here are my top 4 reasons.

1. Sustainability.
In an era where we are constantly asking consumers to consume less, I think of all of the Rotarians across the world hoarding those piles of lapel pins in their sock drawers, not to mention ties and neck scarves in their wardrobes. My daughter is 13 now but I recall when she was much younger, one of her Barbie dolls sported an outfit fashioned from a Rotary themed ladies' neck scarf. I think of all of the theme banners that have made it into landfill. Hopefully most of the theme specific stationery has been recycled, but I cannot imagine how many theme specific items of memorabilia, apparel, banners and desk weights are still in Rotary merchandise store rooms and will never be sold. RDU Supplies are still trying to flog 2016/17 themed products. As someone in the gourmet food industry, my biggest enemy is the "USE BY" date. Every theme specific product ever made has a June 30 use by date, and that is the antithesis of sustainability.

2. Cost.
I've already mentioned the cost implications. Every Rotarian pays more in club fees, be it via their contribution to district or RI levies, to proliferate the Rotary world with theme specific products with a 12 month lifespan.

3. Yet another process.
Our obsession with process at the detriment of outcome could well be our undoing. Meals, menus, venues, sergeants, fines, songs, toasts, prayers, collars, flags, bells: they are all processes, and Rotarians seem to consume way too much time and energy on them. The generation and promulgation of annual themes fit into this category too. Do we really want to be known for any of this minutia? Or do we want to be known for humanitarian service; such as the eradication of polio, youth programs and medical clinics? Some of our processes bring about outcomes, but many do not.

4. Narrative Inconsistency.
One of the greatest ironies in Rotary themes was produced in 1999/2000: "Act with Consistency, Credibility, Continuity". Just pause to think for a moment what this is saying: Be consistent, be credible and be continuous; but only for 12 months, then be something else. Give me strength! It's easy to say that no harm could come from annual theme changes, but I believe the process is far from innocuous. This is about our penchant for shooting ourselves in the public image foot. One of our biggest challenges as an organisation is controlling that public image. By and large, the general public really don't know what Rotary does or what Rotary stands for.

In contrast, when you think of organisations such as Amnesty International, RSPCA, Greenpeace, Red Cross, etc., you immediately understand what they're about. But when it comes to Rotary; most Rotarians have trouble conveying what it is we do. So can you blame the public for being somewhat confused? How do we address this confusion? Our best chance is with strong, consistent messaging. But instead we have a motto, a vision statement, core values, strategic priorities and objectives, six international areas of focus, five avenues of service, a four way test, three french hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. And to top it all off, we go and change our theme every year. Bravo! We have now done everything in our power to mix our messages and confuse our audience.

But here's what I think we could do instead of glib, focus group approved, work-shopped slogans. We could go back to Percy Hodgson's example and identify a key priority for the year; a humanitarian focus which could actually get a good deal of Rotarians behind it. Foci such as homelessness, child slavery, clean waterways, even saving bee populations. How about reducing waste and landfill? We could lead by example by eliminating theme specific products that only have a 12 month life. We could even have a serious tilt at global CO₂ emissions if only we weren't so addicted to flying people all over the world for meetings. Sakuji Tanaka was on to something with his "Peace Through Service" theme, which when combined with forums and other peace related activities throughout 2012/13 did help articulate a message beyond Rotarian ears.

But I'm a realist, and I don't see these ideas getting up either. Love them or loathe them, annual themes are here to stay. And yes; some do love them (seemingly none so much as the theme for their year). If you're motivated by a Rotary theme, that's great! It's doing its job. And hats off to those who step up to take on club and district leadership positions. You are not the target of my cynicism. Let's at least recognise the raison d'être of our annual theme, and use it for the purpose it was intended: as an internal leadership motivation tool. I suspect the vast majority of Rotarians have little more than a passing interest in our annual theme at best. But I'm convinced the general public are completely oblivious to it. As someone who has played a role in shaping our narrative for close to a decade, I think we'd be wise to segregate it from our external messaging strategy. We are deluded if we think for a moment that our muddied narrative can be clarified by incorporating a theme which changes every 12 months. Our audience is not remotely interested in our navel gazing.