Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Growing Young

In this, my first year as District 9520 Membership Chair, my focus has been on retention. I don’t for an instant want to forget about retention, but I feel it’s time to shift focus for my second year. There’s only so much I can bang on about the one subject, and the messages have all been sent. Hopefully some have been received and acted upon. Next year, I want to start the conversation about bringing our average age down.

Does anyone want to guess how old Paul Harris was when he founded Rotary? I suppose many have this vision of a Chicago lawyer in his 60s, which pretty much matches the stereotypical Rotarian. He was actually 36, which is 10 years younger than I am now, and ironically, I’m still considered a “young Rotarian”. Gustavus Loehr was 41, Silvester Schiele was 34 and Hiram Shorey was 42. So just to be crystal clear on this, the average age of the first four Rotarians was just over 38. Yet if we found a club these days with an average age of 38, we would be asking for the magic formula. When I go out with my Rotary friends, I’m often the only one without a Seniors’ Card, and the conversation is about my kids and their grandkids (who they can spoil and give back).

In Australia, a whopping 59% of our membership base is aged over 60, with only 7% under 40. “So what?” you may ask. Let me stress that I have no problem with the number of 60+ members in our ranks. Our organisation derives enormous benefit from both the life experience and Rotary experience of this demographic, and it’s obvious that this age group has more time on their hands than younger generations. It’s not the number of 60+ Rotarians, but the proportion which is out of whack. With just over 30,000 members in Australia, that 59% over 60 equates to 17,700 members, but the 7% under 40 equates to only 2,100. It’s that number of 2,100 that drastically needs to increase if our organisation is to survive another 100 years.

I remember quite a number of years ago reading a letter to the editor of Rotary Down under which lamented the number of young members in our organisation, but went on to suggest there must be something wrong with them if they weren’t interested in Rotary. I recall comments to the effect of, “The ‘me’ generation”, “self-absorbed” and “unwilling to give back”. As a member of said generation and a Rotarian of over 10 years at the time, I felt compelled to respond, and respond I did. My rebuttal was that the problem wasn’t with them, the problem was with us.

The simple fact is that Rotary is not a “one size fits all” organisation. I am more than happy for us to recruit the right people no matter what their age, but we simply must bring our average age down. The only way that will happen is to recruit more under 40s, and the only way that will happen is by meaningful and real change. Not just in rhetoric, but in action. The average Rotary club is a pretty comfortable fit for the average baby boomer, and our demographics and recruitment statistics back that up. We don’t have any trouble finding people 50 and over. Sure, there are some clubs for which recruitment is a constant struggle, but the overall recruitment picture sees a lot of new members in the 50+ demographic. The average Rotary club is NOT however, a particularly comfortable fit for the average Gen X or Y. Again, there are exceptions to the rule. I personally know a good number of Gen Y members, and they are seriously special people. But they are rare.

In response to globally depressing trends of young member uptake, RI Headquarters undertook a “Young Professionals” campaign in 2013 which uncovered some confronting findings from focus groups of young professional non-Rotarians all over the world. We have major public image challenges to even get this group to take notice of us, and once we do, our messages aren’t matching their experiences when they visit a club. But the biggest question we must ask is, “Are we serious about attracting a younger audience?” Because getting serious means change.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but in a few months we’re holding a special event with a hope to finding some. The Young Professionals Forum will be held at SILC Flinders University on August 8. This is a FREE event and it will incorporate a seminar specifically dedicated to attracting young professionals. Please put the date in your diary now, and more information will follow. Bookings are essential via www.trybooking.com/HCPP