A party without cake is just a meeting.
There was a time when we all thought that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and that everything orbited around it. Galileo got into an awful amount of trouble for daring to suggest that the Earth in fact orbited around the sun. He was even forced to recant his theory, and spent much of his life under house arrest.
In our enlightened times we now know better, but in the sixteenth century one could understand that geocentric view. In a similar way, we seem to have meetings at the centre of our Rotary universe, and everything seems to revolve around them. Rotary is a service organisation, yet despite the rhetoric, we do not demand service of our members, we demand that they attend meetings. If they can’t attend our meetings, we expect them to attend another club's meeting. As a last resort, if they cannot find a meeting to attend, we’re prepared to let it fly if they can actually do some service, and we call that a makeup. Am I alone in thinking that in our Rotary universe we have our priorities a little out of whack? Fortunately, our attendance rules have become somewhat relaxed in recent years, as we have come to the realization that turning up every week can be challenging. But the meeting is still very much at the centre of our Rotary universe.
In the same way that we now clearly understand that our planets orbit the sun, is it time that we shift our priorities in the Rotary universe? I would like to think that the Rotary universe of the future will have service at its centre, around which everything else revolves. I wonder if Rotarians in 20 or 30 years’ time will look back on the Rotary of today, and realise our meeting centric model had outlived its time.
In his two part DVD presentation, "Attracting the Next Generation of Rotarians", Michael McQueen suggested, "There were very few of you who were staring at a blank wall, with a whole lot of spare time thinking 'I wish I could go somewhere where they fined me if I was late, and we sang a song at the beginning, and we ate some food that wasn't awesome. I wish we could find a place like that.' You joined Rotary because there was some sort of outcome, some purpose that you were passionate about and you realised Rotary was a way of getting there. A way of producing that outcome."
A recent survey of young professional non-Rotarians conducted by RI found that Rotary has an image problem, and it’s hurting our ability to attract the next generation of Rotarians. Younger professionals were not interested in traditional ways of organizing as a group. They were turned off by weekly meetings, plated meals, and ceremonial songs. They are time poor, so the time they give must be effective. It's worth bearing in mind too that the largest cost of being a Rotarian lies with paying for a weekly meal (plus raffle, plus sergeant etc), and this is most certainly affecting our capacity to recruit and retain.
But so much of our identity lies with our meetings. If we can only manage to somehow put less reliance on meetings, and more emphasis on the work we do, we can perhaps begin to challenge some of those perceptions.
For some reason as recruiters, we tend to get particularly excited if we finally get a prospect to attend a meeting. We feel that we've got to first base, because they've now seen our club at its very best. If you asked 100 Rotarians about their best experience in Rotary, not many would suggest something that happened at a meeting. Admittedly, I have attended some awesome meetings, but I've also attended some duds. First impressions are everything, and if we really want our prospective members to see Rotary at its best, they need to see us out and about in the community doing our work and get involved in service. If we continue to push our meetings as the epitome of Rotary, we're in strife.
But I hear you asking, "What about that requirement of RI that we meet weekly?" Yep, I can't argue with that, but no-one said we have to meet weekly in the same hotel, at the same time, on the same day, for a "meeting". Maybe it's time to consider a new model. Sure, we might like to occasionally have a formal meeting over an enjoyable meal with a quality speaker, but we can also use our projects and fundraising initiatives as "meetings". We can meet casually over a coffee in a cafe, or over pizza delivered to a member's home. The sausage sizzle at Bunnings can in fact take the place of a meeting, so can that tree planting project. Clubs don't have to meet in person either. E-clubs meet using online video conferencing tools such as Skype™ or Gotomeeting™. Maybe RI leadership could meet online more frequently and save us rank-and-file Rotarians the cost of their international airfares!
As a long time member of a traditional Rotary club, I feel that face-to-face contact is a very important part of my Rotary experience. But I'm also a district leader whose commitments mean regularly missing out on my own club's meetings, and I have to admit that I miss catching up with my fellow members if I don't see them in a while. There are however other ways to achieve that contact than over a rump steak with chips and gravy on a Tuesday night. Tomorrow's Rotary needs to accommodate ways for people to meet that aren't meetings.