Wednesday, 4 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'ĂȘtre 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.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Show Me The Money

At a recent training event, a room full of Rotarians was asked a question that few Rotarians ever ask, let alone attempt to answer; "What do you want your club to be known for?" It's a long time since I studied marketing, but I remember two particularly important concepts worth discussing from a Rotary perspective.

One was the Unique Selling Proposition (USP). What is it that makes your operation stand out from your competition? What do you do that is special, different, noticeable? From a Rotary perspective it's not specifically about standing out from other Rotary clubs, but all competition for the time and attention of our prospective members and supporters; including other service clubs, volunteering organisations or interest groups, in fact any other way people can fill in their spare time.

The other concept is positioning. Author of Marketing Management Philip T Kotler defines positioning as "the act of designing the company’s offering and image to occupy a distinctive place in the mind of the target market". What does this mean for a Rotary club? Whether you're aware or not, Rotary already occupies a position in the eyes of the general public. Our position is where we currently sit. Positioning is about recognising where we want to sit, and working to get ourselves into that place (or position). I've included a great little video explaining positioning at the bottom of this page. I don't imagine the average Rotarian loses much sleep over these concepts, but we really do need to get a grasp of how we are viewed by the non-Rotary world if we want to grow the organisation, and we need to understand how our actions and attitudes contribute to those views.

Back to that training event. One of the answers given to that question what do you want your club to be known for left me somewhat disturbed. "We are known for fundraising" was the response proudly offered up by one Rotarian in the room, who went on to proclaim "we raise a fair bit of money as a club, and that gives us the ability to spread that money around." It doesn't really surprise me that some Rotarians think their mission is to raise and redistribute funds, but I don't recall hearing someone openly admit to it, let alone wear it as a badge of honour. Being known for fundraising is hardly a USP. It strikes me that this selling proposition is anything but unique, and I reckon any prospective member would agree. It actually sounds more like the answer you'd give when you can't think of a better answer, rather than a coveted club attribute.

But this blog is not about criticising hard working Rotarians who give up their time to raise funds, and it's certainly not about questioning the financial contributions we make and who we choose to make them to. It's about how a "raise money, donate money" mindset is affecting our public image. What Rotary is "known for" will vary depending on whom you ask, but those perceptions aren't universally beneficial. There's a certain futility in working hard to break stereotypes while many Rotarians are doing their darnedest to reinforce them.

And when it comes to reinforcing fundraising stereotypes, nothing conveys the wrong message quite as spectacularly as the big cheque. I've never tried to hide my disdain for the big cheque photo opportunity, but I've probably never taken the effort to explain exactly why I abhor the practice.

It all comes down to processes and outcomes. I'm convinced one of the contributors to Rotary's membership decline in the West is our preoccupation with process, usually at the expense of outcomes. We have an unhealthy obsession with meetings, attendance, procedures and rules. Why else would we spend north of US$3 million on the monumental festival of process that is our triennial Council of Legislation?

Assumedly if we're financially supporting an organisation, it's because we're supportive of the work that organisation is doing to bring about better outcomes. So when we support an organisation financially, we need to be celebrating those outcomes that our money facilitates. The club pictured above supported a health clinic with their donation, and all power to them, but let me pose a question. What do you think will generate more interest and goodwill with the public? A picture of someone getting vital treatment in a health clinic, or a picture of men in suits holding a big cheque? Let's say your club donated money to support guide dogs training. What do you think would inspire the public more? A picture of a big cheque presentation, or a vision impaired child hugging a guide dog? Most of us wouldn't admit to it, but when we do the big cheque promotion, we're patting ourselves on the back and venerating process (a financial transaction). It's yet another reflection of our process fetish. Big cheque photos may make our members feel warm and fuzzy, but do they make the public feel warm and fuzzy? No. Do they elicit an emotional response? No. Do they convey our impact? No.

I've mentioned before that the first 19 of my 22 odd years in Rotary was spent with the Rotary Club of Edwardstown; a fairly traditional club, and notwithstanding my love for that club and its members, I wanted to create a different model at the Rotary Club of Seaford. I knew fundraising would still be important for us, and naturally figured the ubiquitous sausage sizzle would play its part, but I must admit I was really hoping to insulate this club from the well held perception that Rotary was about barbecues. Yet in a region with little if any existing Rotary footprint, from day dot we've been asked to do a hell of a lot of barbecues. My fellow members are working at one right now as I type! It seems calling the local Rotary club when you need a barbecue cooked is becoming as customary as calling a plumber when your drain is blocked. I'm sure this association was not deliberate, but it's more than accidental. It doesn't help that some Rotarians characterise sausage turning as a project. Throughout my time at Edwardstown I noticed a pattern emerge that I know is replicated in many other clubs. It goes like this: Cook sausages, raise funds, hold meeting, listen to guest speaker with their hands out, write cheque. Then start again. A good percentage; maybe half of the guest speakers at our meetings were representing a cause; a cause that was looking for money. 

This formed part of my rationale for attempting to shield Seaford from the traditional Rotary platform built on meetings and guest speakers. Initially we had a fairly strict rule at Seaford that we didn't invite guest speakers to our meeting unless they could directly help the club with a project or cause we were addressing. I must point out that we have always invited the young leaders we had sponsored on Rotary youth programs to speak about their experience. My plan was that we would be focused on service, not meetings; and the meetings we held would be focused on productivity, not entertainment. Our USP has always been "less meeting; more doing". We still have more meetings without a guest speaker than with one, but it's obvious there's a well held perception in the community that Rotary meetings require guest speakers. I can't tell you how many people have approached me to see if they can speak at our club, and this will probably sound callous, but most of the time all I hear is "Show me the money". And I know I'm not imagining it. Almost every time we've had a speaker at Seaford that doesn't fit the rules I mentioned earlier, they've been after a donation. Hey, good luck to them. Those charities and pet causes championed by guest speakers at Rotary meetings are all trying to make the world (or at least their patch of it) a better place, and many of them have truly amazing stories to tell. If you don't ask; you don't get, so I can't blame them for trying. But I can't help but think they should be able to turn their own sausages.

I'm not the only sausage turner in my family. With a son in Navy Cadets, and a daughter in a gymnastics club, all four of us Huddlestons have taken to the tongs to raise money for our respective clubs. But there's a key difference when Rotary does it compared to pretty much every other group: we raise funds and hand them over to someone else.

Substantial fundraising capacity might be one measure of a club's success, but it certainly isn't the only one. I'd like to think impact is the best measure, but impact is about more than sausages and big cheques.

I suppose I should be congratulating those clubs that regularly support other causes, because at least they're not squirrelling money away for a rainy day which never comes. I'm aware of clubs sitting on six figure bank balances, which just seems obscene. So I really don't want to criticise clubs for donating to worthwhile causes. As I said earlier, I'm more concerned with our positioning.

Back to that question, "What do you want your club to be known for?" Do we really want to be known for fundraising? Or barbecues? Meetings? Guest speakers? A soft touch for donations? How do you think those lofty ambitions inspire our would be recruits? Trust me - they don't. Why? Because they are all processes. They lack aspiration, inspiration and innovation, and are no way to define a Rotary club. I want a Rotary that is proactive, rather than reactive. I want a Rotary with a leadership mindset, not a follower mindset. I want a Rotary that sets its own agenda rather than genuflecting to someone else's. Are we so void of ideas that we simply see ourselves as fundraisers for those who have them?

More than anything, I want Rotary to be defined by its outcomes, not its processes. If the world sees Rotary as an organisation defined by meetings, guest speakers and barbecues, it's not their fault; it's ours.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Would You Like Fries With That?

About 20 years ago whilst driving around town running a few errands, I was feeling a bit peckish at lunch time and found myself in the drive through of a local KFC store. When I got to the service window, the girl told me, “I’m terribly sorry sir, but we’ve run out of chicken.” I don’t often find myself stuck for words, but this was one such occasion. I was flabbergasted. For crying out loud, the “C” in KFC stands for chicken! It crossed my mind that a KFC store without chicken seems pretty pointless. More on that later.

I’ve probably given more membership presentations over the last 12 months than the previous five years, and I have been commencing these talks with my theories on how we got ourselves into this membership crisis. I list a number of reasons, but the first one I talk about is relevance; more particularly how I feel we have lost it in the eyes of the general public. I believe we are struggling to appear relevant for a number of reasons, one of which is quite literally a “first world problem”. More to the point; a lack of first world problems. Consider for a moment our Rotary Foundation six areas of focus: Water & Sanitation, Maternal & Child Health, Basic Education & Literacy, Peace & Conflict Resolution, Economic Development and Disease Prevention & Treatment. Whilst we must always strive for improvement, I think even the harshest critics would have to admit by global standards Australia would get a tick in most of these areas. By and large, Rotary’s focus is justifiably on the developing world when addressing those issues. So I think in part, our relevance challenges are tied to living in a lucky country where we really don’t want for much. It’s reasonable for the public to ask, “Well, why do we even need service clubs?”

Since I joined Rotary in 1997 we’ve lost 30% of our membership base in Australia. We’ve seen a net loss of 100 clubs, and those remaining have become progressively smaller, from an average club size of 33.5 down to 25.3 members. Over this same period our average age has risen from the mid 50s to the low 70s, and a many more of us are retired; an estimated 50%.

How do you think the combination of fewer and smaller clubs, older members and more retirees affects our public image?  Well here’s what I think. I think our perceived (and often actual) capacity to network and serve our communities is very much diminished. Older and fewer members means less capacity to serve, and once retired, our professional networks begin to atrophy. I would suggest in some clubs the capacity to network and serve our communities has all but disappeared. I know I’m not drawing a long bow here, because I’ve seen with my own eyes some of these clubs which are down to 10 or fewer members, all aged well over 70. Many (definitely not all) are just not making an impact on their communities any more, and they will admit they have approached everyone they know to join Rotary, and now have no-one left to ask. How appealing do you think these clubs are to prospective members, assuming they can find any? Every year there’s a battle to find another president who hasn’t already done it 3 or 4 times. That is often the point at which clubs decide to hand in their charter.

Have a good, hard think about this. Rotary was built on networking and community service. We started as a networking organisation, and soon morphed into a service club. If we have clubs amongst us which have lost their capacity to network and serve, what do they have left to offer? I put it to you that networking and community service are to Rotary what chicken is to KFC. Without them, we can appear pretty pointless.

I can already hear you saying, “But those clubs are still providing valuable fellowship and camaraderie opportunities to those remaining members and we shouldn’t discount that.” Yep, I get that. But our motto is not “fellowship and camaraderie above self”.  My fear is not only that many of our once strong and active clubs have now been diluted to a fellowship group, but that we’re comfortable with the concept. I suppose that KFC store still had plenty of sugar laden coleslaw and that sloppy potato mash with gravy on the day I visited too. But that wasn’t what I was looking for, so I just drove on, and I think likewise; many membership opportunities are being lost because our prospects aren’t finding what they’re looking for either. They’re just driving on.

Last year I attended a joint District (9500 & 9520) forum in Adelaide where young (mainly aged under 40) Rotarians and alumni including Rotaractors and RYLArians were asked for their perspectives on the impending merger of our districts in 2020. There would have been at least 40 in the room. I had run a similar event back in 2015, so I must admit I didn’t really hear too many comments that I hadn’t heard before, but what really thrilled me was the collective love for Rotary amongst the group. They had all benefited from their brush with Rotary and seemed genuinely keen to continue their association with Rotary in some manner. But what became abundantly clear from the majority in the room who were not already Rotarians, was that they just didn’t see a sufficiently attractive version of Rotary on offer from any existing clubs. At the time I was myself involved in district merger conversations, and tried to make the case that we needed to start a few new clubs to take advantage of this interest, but I feel my efforts were in vain.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The best opportunity for membership growth lies in new clubs. I’m not going to pretend the process of getting Seaford off the ground was an easy one, but in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Nothing worth having was every achieved without effort.”

If we can’t turn around these clubs offering little to attract new members, and we’re not bold enough to start new clubs, what are our options? How often do we hear of businesses, sporting teams or organisations resorting to “back to basics” thinking when things start going pear shaped? It’s about recognising what your core principles are and making sure you do them well. Surely for Rotary those core principles are building a healthy, mutually beneficial network and providing tangible and impactful service outcomes for our local and international communities. Everything else is peripheral.

Col. Harland Sanders was a Rotarian. Note the pin on his collar.
I’ve often been asked by Rotarians about the secret formula behind the success of the Rotary Club of Seaford. There is an assumption we’ve developed some complicated strategy to grow and flourish against a background of drastic membership decline and club closure. Well, in our case there are no eleven secret herbs and spices. What we do isn’t complicated; it is simple. We’ve done away with so many of traditional Rotary’s distractions (many of which are attached to our obsession with meetings) and we focus heavily on local hands on projects and networking. Guess what? It works. If you’re questioning the direction your club is heading, check to see if you’ve run out of fried chicken. 

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Escaping the Heat

It’s the middle of summer here in Adelaide, where I’ve lived my entire life. The last week saw the local temperature exceeding 40°C (104°F) on a number of days. Whilst I am currently typing in air-conditioned comfort, it’s fair to say most Adelaidians know a good deal about heat.

Meanwhile, Rotary’s future district leaders are at the International Assembly in San Diego being trained up for their important role commencing July 1, and of course to deliver their own training to club and district leaders in the months between now and then. Not having served as a District Governor myself, I only have second hand accounts to go on, but I get the idea there’s a good deal of heat experienced by incoming and serving District Governors, and I’m not talking about the heat you feel when you step outside at this time of the year in Adelaide. I’m talking about the heat to continually increase our membership. There will no doubt be a comprehensive agenda of training and inspiration delivered on all areas of Rotary leadership, but I suspect the number one thing on the mind of all District Governors Elect as they return home will be the prime directive: get the numbers up!

In his opening speech, Rotary International President Elect (RIPE - we really need to work on our acronyms) Mark Maloney announced his first emphasis was to grow our membership so that we can achieve more. “Last year we set a record for the number of people who left our organisation. We need to address the root causes of that member loss. Membership is all that stands between a Rotary that serves and a Rotary that disappears.” You can view his address in full here.

I was a District Membership Chair for three years, and I can assure you, I felt the heat. I would imagine a good deal of club presidents feel the heat too. I am very proud of the work I did in that role over three years, but live with the constant regret that despite my efforts, the numbers went down every year. I’ve often used the analogy of running up the down escalator. You have to work pretty hard to even stay in the same place, and if you relax for a moment, you get dragged down immediately.

I’m starting to work out why some of us work really hard on membership, yet see so little in the way of results. It’s because most Rotarians don’t feel the heat. I’m sure if we surveyed all of our members, the overwhelming majority would respond that they would like to see the organisation grow. You’d probably even get a majority that would agree that the organisation needed to change. But if you conducted another survey and asked the question, “In order to grow the organisation, are you willing to have your Rotary experience change?”, I reckon most would say no. Most people will begrudgingly accept change as long as they are not the ones who have to do the changing; as long as they don’t feel any heat.

I put it to you that we already know what we need to do in order to turn around our membership fortunes, but there are just too many who aren’t prepared to do it. I strongly believe that the biggest change we have to make is to transform from a meeting-centric organisation to a service-centric organisation, but attending meetings with a meal and a guest speaker is so embedded in Rotary culture, and it seems hard to see where how such a shift in priorities would ever occur. Our last Council on Legislation in 2016 delivered serious options for clubs wishing to provide more flexible meeting formats, but in many clubs the Guardians of the Status Quo fight very hard to make sure Rotary remains stuck in the 20th century, doing things the same way we’ve always done them.

Sadly there are too many Rotarians who won’t lift a finger to help grow the organisation. It’s not their job. They want everything to stay the same, because staying the same means staying comfortable. I do have some sympathy for those senior members who have worked hard and made a great contribution over the years, and want to enjoy their remaining years in the organisation. We all need to enjoy our Rotary experience, and get something out of it. But that enjoyment cannot come at the cost of progress in all forms. We must evolve and find new ways to serve, and attract new people to serve. Service Above Self is our motto and service must be our priority. If we’re blocking progress; we’re blocking growth. And if we’re blocking growth, we’re reducing service capacity. 

Maybe we can shield those long-standing members from the heat, but club leaders still feel the heat, and must be free to respond to it. The challenge for club leaders is that they're copping heat from both directions. They feel the heat from district leaders who are constantly at them to grow membership, and they feel the heat from the blockers within their own club who fight against change. No wonder so many are happy to get out of the kitchen when their term expires. That’s a lot of pressure on those people who have volunteered to lead the club.

The very highest levels of Rotary’s global leadership desperately want to grow the organisation, or at best prevent it from declining. On the surface at least, a bigger organisation means greater reach and greater capacity to deliver tangible outcomes for those who need our help. But there are also enormous operational costs in keeping our massive organisation ticking. Those costs must be met by the membership base, and despite increasingly frequent conversations about membership flexibility; there is exactly zero flexibility when it comes to RI recognising you as a member. If you pay RI dues; you’re a member. If you don’t; you’re not.

I have often asserted that our best opportunity for growth lies with creating new clubs. I have been through the process myself, and I’m not going to pretend it’s easy, because it’s far from it. But it’s doable, and the opportunities for new clubs are infinite. The greatest factor that allows a new club to thrive is what I call the “baggage free zone”. By starting with a blank slate, there are no rituals or traditions to follow. No-one barking at your heels with comments such as “But we’ve always done it this way”. That freedom is invaluable, and it’s something I have noticed first hand at the Rotary Club of Seaford. We do things differently because we are allowed to do things differently, and we’re not held back by those who are accustomed to things being done the same way for decades. As a result we can create a more flexible style of Rotary that is more attractive to more people.

It would appear President Elect Maloney agrees. Here are a few other snippets from his opening address. “We must grow Rotary by forming new clubs. We need to form new clubs not only where Rotary does not exist, but in communities where Rotary is thriving. We need to start new model clubs, offering alternative meeting experiences and service opportunities.”

And here’s an extract from CEO John Hewko’s address at the same event in 2018:
“We need to unleash the creativity of our 35,000 clubs, because every club is a potential beta tester for different club models and models of service. Some will work and some will fail, but the important thing is to think differently.”

But here’s where things get challenging. The Guardians of the Status Quo do not appear satisfied merely with denying progress in existing clubs. They also want to block innovation outside of their own clubs. As if there aren’t enough challenges faced by the trailblazing Rotarians who have the foresight and gumption to start a new club. I faced considerable opposition from neighbouring clubs when I announced plans to start the Rotary Club of Seaford, and I’ve come to learn this is pretty much par for the course. I have a Rotary friend in another Australian district who is facing similar opposition right now to his moves to get a new club up and running from clubs in the region.

I won’t mince my words. This disgusts me. It’s what happens when SELF gets in the way of SERVICE. I know how the argument goes. It’s the very same argument I heard near Seaford a few years ago. “You’re intruding into our recruiting zone.” 

There’s a mindset held by many Rotarians that sooner or later, the new members will just come. Well, in some cases they do. Sometimes new fish are attracted to old bait that has been sitting in the water for a while. But more often than not, there are no fish interested in the sort of bait you’re dangling overboard, and you need to change your bait.

The reason we found the 20 new recruits we needed to charter a new Rotary club, was that we were offering a completely different version of Rotary than that which was already on offer in the region. The existing clubs were never going to attract the people we recruited. New clubs have that opportunity to offer something new and attract new people. And the blockers know it, but they want to have their cake and eat it to. They want their version of Rotary to stay the way it always has been, but they want to attract the people they have never been able to attract.

My message to the blockers is this. Your district leaders will shortly return to your district, full of enthusiasm with new ideas and a drive to grow the organisation. They in turn will pass those messages and enthusiasm onto your new club leaders, who will then try and bring progress and growth to your club. How about this year, we don’t stand in their way? How about we give them the freedom to escape at least some of the heat? Maybe it's time to direct some heat towards the Guardians of the Status Quo.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The Baby Elephant Principle

I am at times in Rotary reminded of the practice of training captive elephants in circuses or as working farm animals. The keeper starts with a baby elephant and chains one of its legs to a long stake which is driven into the ground so it cannot escape. A baby elephant will try for a while to pull that stake out of the ground, but soon realises it is not strong enough, and just gives up. This same practice is followed all the way through to adult life. An adult elephant could easily pull that stake from the ground, but they have been conditioned to believe that they cannot wander beyond the length of the chain, so they don’t even try.

You've probably realised this blog is not about elephants. The baby elephant principle is also used to describe human behaviour. It implies that we humans often fail to reach our true potential because we limit our risk taking and only live our lives within those barriers we've been conditioned to apply to ourselves. Most of us only play within the length of our chain. We fail to be bold.

Today marks the second anniversary of the chartering of my Rotary club; the Rotary Club of Seaford. Since chartering our club has experienced considerable growth; not just in membership, but in capacity, exposure and most importantly; impact. We conducted a "Yass Plan" inspired recruitment campaign over the last few months which culminated in an information night on November 8. Close to 50 turned up that night, and it appears we will have at least 8 new members to induct in coming weeks, which will take our membership to the mid 30s.

One of our hardest working members is Ian Renshaw, an experienced marketing specialist. Ian personally put in an amazing effort to get bums on seats for our information night, and following the success of the night made a comment which hit the nail on the head. "It's all about the product. We have a great product to sell". The list of projects and events our club has undertaken over the last two years is nothing short of extraordinary. We're very, very busy. I constantly get feedback from outside the club that many Rotarians cannot fathom how we fit so much in. Well, there are a number of reasons.

Our average age is much lower than that of most clubs, so we do generally have a higher capacity for hands-on work. The proportion of active members is fairly high. I would imagine this is usually the case when clubs are new. Because we're only meeting twice a month, members have that extra energy and enthusiasm to give. They're not having their valuable time wasted in unproductive meetings. But I've come to realise that there is one underlying advantage we have that is more powerful than any of these reasons, and I will share it with you shortly.

In a speech at the International Assembly in January (above), CEO John Hewko challenged districts and clubs to be bold. He also promoted an initiative of "The Rotarian" magazine whereby each month it would feature a club which was a great example of innovation. It was an enormous thrill to see the Rotary Club of Seaford featured in the January issue, which was displayed during his presentation.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few years speaking at membership conferences and seminars across Australia and New Zealand, and I normally dedicate part of my presentation time at these events to outlining the Seaford operating system, and my thoughts on why the club has thus far been so successful. It's my hope that this inspires delegates to also be bold; to try a few new things in their own clubs.

I remember speaking at a few Presidents Elect Training Seminars (PETS) last year, and after outlining the Seaford story getting a lot of similar feedback from soon-to-be presidents at both events in separate cities. They loved what we were doing, but lamented "that stuff would never work in my club". I can't give a lot of guarantees when it comes to club innovation, but one guarantee I can give is that if you're not prepared to try something, it won't work. You miss 100% of shots you don't take. 

So, what was that incredible advantage I hinted at before? What is the secret to our boldness? Quite simply, we have no baggage to contend with. You cannot imagine the freedom and power you have to drive a club forward when there’s no baggage to hold you back. I can’t even begin to put a value on it. We have never been even remotely constrained by doubters. There were certainly a few people outside of the club that had their doubts that the club would ever get off the ground, and I suppose that’s understandable given our district had lost 10 clubs in the preceding 10 years. We did have challenges getting those initial 20 charter members required to start the club, but I always thought once we were chartered, we would encounter sustained growth. And that we have.

We have a strong "let's give it a go" mentality. I see a lot of Rotary clubs that could probably achieve a lot more if they only got a bit inventive and tried doing things differently; if they were bolder. But their members have been restrained by conditioning to only do things the way they have traditionally been done. 

Starting a new club from scratch however meant that chain was never shackled to the baby elephant’s leg. The elephant grew up unconditioned; allowed to roam free all of its life. Uninhibited thinking leads to greater innovation and more risk taking, and clubs can reach their true potential in every facet, including the way meetings are scheduled and run, the types of projects and fundraisers taken on, the way the club promotes itself, the partnerships built with other NGOs, schools, businesses, and of course, the diversity of our members.

I have written extensively over many years about our resistance to change, and I have often (perhaps unfairly) levelled the blame at those more conservative Rotarians amongst us that like things to be done the way they have always been done. I still don't doubt that the guardians of the status quo are at times holding us back, but I do wonder if there's also an element of the baby elephant principle at play here. Is it possible that it's not solely our senior, tradition loving members holding us back, but also that fear of wandering beyond the length of the chain? If humans fall into this trap, I would theorise that Rotary clubs are also limited by the way their members have been restricted by their conditioning.

I've been very lucky to be a leader in a club that is not restrained by decades of habitual Rotarian behaviour. Imagine being the jockey on the best horse in the Melbourne cup and having your handicap removed. You'd probably win by the length of the straight. It's time to lose the weight from our Rotary saddle bags and pull the stake out of the ground. Unencumbered Rotarians can achieve anything they set their minds to. Let's be bold.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Weapons of 4% Destruction

This blog is not about Rotaractors. It's about how Rotary has failed in some regions to understand and cater for them and other volunteers under the age of 30. Not all commentary on Rotary is easy to give, and I'm about have my objectivity severely tested. It’s hard to be completely objective about something you love; something that has given you so much, but in this year in which both Rotaract and I turned 50, I feel it’s time to talk about the future of Rotaract in Australia. This will likely be a very polarising blog. Some will agree with my sentiments, and many will not, but what makes this particular topic very unique for me is that it’s a subject I have changed my mind on. I’ll admit I can be fairly opinionated, and whilst I generally will consider issues from a range of perspectives, it’s not often that I allow things to change my long-held opinions. And I’m prepared to admit that’s a character flaw. But if nothing else; my ten plus years in Rotaract and 21 in Rotary qualify me to comment.

Over the last few months I have spoken at a number of membership events interstate and in New Zealand. I’ve cherished the opportunity to catch up with old friends, but I also really enjoy meeting new friends and discussing something we’re all concerned about; Rotary’s declining membership (in Australia, New Zealand and most of the western world). 

The topic of Rotaract has been raised (not by me) at each of these events. I recall a District 9520 event maybe 5 or 6 years ago where a PDG made the statement that he thought we should abandon the concept of Rotaract, because they (current and potential Rotaractors) should just become Rotarians. I can recall finding this a very confronting statement at the time, because I had never previously heard those words said. But over the years since, I’ve heard it said more and more, and again during each of my recent travels. And here’s the thing: I’m starting to agree.

The Rotaract Club of Edwardstown circa 1993
My Rotaract experience was life-changing. I joined shortly after turning 18 in 1986 and was a Rotaractor until I joined the (sponsoring) Rotary club of Edwardstown in 1997. The ten plus years I spent in Rotaract were the best ten years of my life. I met my wife Debra and literally hundreds of amazing young people. I learned a lot about myself, and started to take an interest in the needs of others. Rotaract gave me a rudder, and undoubtedly made me a better person. There was never a weekend without Rotaract activity. If our club wasn’t doing something, a group of us would be turning up to another club’s event, or someone’s birthday party. It was non-stop action. And it was Rotaract that introduced me to Rotary.

But my Rotaract experience, and the Rotaract experience of my fellow Rotaractors and their predecessors can really only be measured against an 80s and 90s zeitgeist. When I entered Rotaract in 1986 there were 20 or 30 clubs and thousands of members across my own district (then 952) and our neighbouring District 950 (now 9520 & 9500 respectively). Those who experienced Rotaract before me report those numbers being much larger still. But sadly, the Rotaract train started to lose puff in our region in the second half of the 90s, and had all but derailed by the turn of the century. I have never been able to put my finger on the precise reason(s) this happened, but I can speculate that the decline started in the early 90s when rules compelling Rotarian oversight were relaxed. It was once compulsory for each Rotaract meeting to have a Rotarian present. But in an effort to see Rotaract stand on its own, this requirement was dispensed with. Whilst correlation does not equal causation, I believe it was no coincidence that Rotaract's local decline started around the same time. Then came the internet boom of the late 90s, and I feel that played a role in accelerating it. Suddenly young people had an online world to take some of their attention. Again, I don’t think this caused Rotaract’s general decline in Australia, but I think it played a role.

I saw this decline coming and (as a Rotaractor) begged for Rotary’s support. And whilst I will always acknowledge the amazing support offered by our sponsoring Rotary Club of Edwardstown, support for Rotaract at a district level seemed difficult to garner. It was only after clubs started dropping like flies that wider Rotarian interest was piqued. And then it was too late. I joined Rotary in 1997 and lost count of how many times I was asked by Rotarians to assist in Rotaract resuscitation efforts, all to no avail. I came to the conclusion in the early 2000s (as a Rotarian) that the era of Rotaract as we knew it had passed, and all we could do was remember the good times.

I get the idea that a directive to start Rotaract clubs is part and parcel of district governor training each year. Over the last decade there have been a number of efforts in Adelaide (both in D9500 & 9520) to relaunch Rotaract, and there has been some success, albeit limited. A few clubs seem to be doing well, and a few clubs burned bright for a while, but then burned out. There were some herculean efforts mounted by a handful of extremely dedicated and enthusiastic Rotarians who gave it their all, but I still can’t shake my core belief that today’s climate just doesn’t seem conducive to Rotaract: at least not in my neck of the woods.

So let’s for a moment talk about current Rotaract success stories. And I will stress I don’t have hard figures here. It doesn’t really help that Rotary doesn’t seem to have a mechanism to record Rotaract membership; at least nothing as sophisticated as its own database on Rotarians. It’s estimated there are over 10,000 Rotaract clubs worldwide, yet only 40% have confirmed their existence.

Barry Rassin visiting Rotaractors in Mumbai
There seem to be patches around the world where Rotaract is going gangbusters. I’m aware of districts in India with over 25,000 Rotaractors. Multiply that out by the number of districts in India alone and that’s a very big number indeed. There are clearly some massive Rotaract success stories, and it would be disingenuous of me to exclude these successes from the conversation. I understand Rotaract is still reasonably popular in its birthplace, the US. So what happened to Rotaract in Australia? Well, there are also some success stories in Australia right now, but population density seems to have a lot to do with it. I can understand districts with 25,000 Rotaractors in a country of one billion people. I can also understand Rotaract’s sustained success in the US given its population. So I guess it’s reasonable that most of the remaining Rotaract activity in Australia is in our larger population centres.

But for some time I’ve thought there must be some cultural differences over and above population density which have led towards Rotaract’s decline in Australia. I now have a theory on why Rotaract used to be so successful in Australia, but is now in decline; yet is growing at a staggering rate in places like India. Despite my constant carping that Rotary isn’t changing its culture quickly enough, there are considerable differences between the Rotary I remember at arm’s length as a Rotaractor (1986-1997) and the Rotary world I inhabit today. 

Back then Rotary appeared quite stuffy and elitist, and the classification system was king. Rotary was full of those captains of industry: doctors, lawyers and corporate high fliers. There appeared to be a certain level of prestige attached to being a Rotarian. Whether it was intentional or not, to an outsider there was a sense that the Rotary establishment looked down its collective noses at those who didn’t make the grade. But Rotaract gave 18-30 year olds a glimpse at this world. It allowed them to learn from business leaders and work alongside them, and this had a certain attraction even though we were unlikely to ever be accepted in their ranks.

In many ways, Rotaract back then was a form of Rotary for younger volunteers who couldn’t otherwise fit into the broader Rotary machine. But Australian life has become much more egalitarian over the last three decades, even Australian Rotary life. There are still pockets of elitism in Rotary in Australia, but I think they’re pretty rare. I feel the main difference now is that Rotary has become more accepting of younger volunteers joining our ranks, regardless of “classification” or socioeconomic standing. Our eligibility criteria have changed, and our collective attitude has generally caught up. We have become increasingly classless. Whilst I will stress that Rotary still has a problem attracting younger people, we have less of a problem accepting younger people. More on that later.

Egalitarianism appears to be increasing in much of the western world where Rotary membership is in decline, but that certainly cannot be said in other parts of the world where the growth in both Rotary and Rotaract are off the scale. It’s been a long time since Rotary was admired as an esteemed and prestigious organisation to belong to in Australia, however it still occupies an exclusive position in the many developing nations where it is growing. But membership is harder to attain in these areas for those who are less than elite; either socially or professionally.

I can hear you saying, “Get to the point Mark”. My theory is this: Where Rotary is still exclusive and revered, Rotaract is a way for those who are keen but otherwise might not be welcomed, to work at arm’s length with, rub shoulders with, and be mentored by those Rotary elites. But where Rotary doesn’t hold such a high standing in a more equitable society, despite being generally more accepting of younger and less professionally senior candidates, we struggle to attract them. There are many reasons Rotary is not as attractive to a younger generation, including the cost of membership, and Rotaract still offers a less expensive version of service whilst still connected to Rotary.

The transition of Rotaractors to Rotary globally still remains pathetically low at an estimated 4%. And that rate is common globally. In Australia (and I suspect most of the western world) it’s because Rotary just isn’t sufficiently attractive. In those emerging nations I suspect it’s more about elitism and exclusivity. Let me put this another way. In the west we’re keen for young people to join, but can't seem to attract them. Elsewhere we’re attractive but we’re not so keen to have them. It strikes me there must be a massive cohort of Rotaractors in developing nations who drift away from the Rotary family once they age out at 30, but the population is so high and the membership so strong, that it’s not seen as an issue.

RI President Barry Rassin is looking to double the number of Rotaract clubs and Rotaractors. I’m not sure how you double a figure that is unknown, but mathematical semantics aside, I’m not sure what this sort of aspiration achieves. I admire him for supporting Rotaract, but doubling it? In a recent speech delivered to a leadership seminar in Greensboro, North Carolina, (and I must stress I this is a summary of his speech, not a transcript) President Barry reportedly described Rotaract as "Rotary’s secret weapon" for increasing membership with young professionals, but later conceded what we already knew, that only 4% became Rotarians. Any weapon that can only hit 4% of its targets should remain a secret. He was also quoted as saying, “Having a community-based Rotaract Club is a suitable strategy for Rotary Clubs that are challenged or not accepting of young professionals in their own club.” And there we have it in a nutshell. I outlined this problem a few paragraphs back. Why on Earth are Rotary clubs “not accepting of young professionals in their own club?”

A while ago I blogged about the danger of picking the low hanging fruit, where I expressed concerns that if Rotary focuses only on people in their 50s as prospective members, it stops us from evolving and progressing our organisation to a point where it is attractive to younger members. A Rotarian friend said almost exactly the same thing to me at one of these recent seminars. Her words were “it’s lazy”. We can keep change in the “too hard box” if Rotaract remains our strategy for anyone under 30.

Here’s the bottom line as I see it. Where Rotaract is strong; let’s keep it strong. Where Rotaract is not strong, but still alive in pockets; let’s do what we can to support our Rotaractors and partner with them. But where Rotaract is dead or dying; rather than instructing our district leaders to start new Rotaract clubs, let’s channel our energies into new, flexible ROTARY clubs, where the Rotary journeys of our young leaders can extend beyond the age of 30. Maybe the solution requires genuine membership flexibility, not the faux flexibility currently on offer from RI. The option of being a (dues paying) member, or not being a member is hardly flexible.