Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Gift Horse - Flexibility in Meeting Frequency

I love getting around to clubs to talk about membership. But it’s a big conversation, with a huge range of sub topics, and the typical 20 minutes afforded to guest speakers is rarely enough to do it justice. But if there’s one common thread which has wound its way through every membership presentation I have ever given, it’s the need for change.

At best, clubs might tinker around the edges or fine tune their processes in order to bring about better membership outcomes, but extraordinary change is, well, extraordinary.

And that word, “extraordinary” is the first word that comes to mind when I think about the recent Council on Legislation (CoL) change to our meeting frequency rules, which now allow clubs to reduce meeting frequency to two meetings per month, should they choose to do so.

I have felt for a long time now, that Rotary is way too “meeting centric”, and we need to focus less on meetings and more on service. I actually feel that our obsession with meetings is the single biggest issue we need to address, and while meetings remain at the centre of our Rotary universe, we will continue to lose relevance, and we will continue to lose members. The number one objection I hear, especially from potential members under 50, is this: “I’m really keen to volunteer, I just don’t want to attend meetings”.

When I heard that the CoL had voted overwhelmingly to accept this proposal, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I simply didn’t see it coming - ever. If we were to look at this change from the perspective of a catalyst for positive membership outcomes, I feel this is the biggest change since we opened up our doors to women 26 years ago.

This is a gift horse from our CoL, but while some Rotarians are saddling up, many will not even call the equine orthodontist. Changing the rules and changing the landscape are two entirely different things. Out there in club land, the prospect of dropping weekly meetings has not unexpectedly elicited the full gamut of responses: from “we need to do this straight away” to “over my dead body”.

I have prepared and delivered a presentation specifically on the options that meeting frequency flexibility can provide here, so I don’t want to go into it in great depth now, but I’ll give you the quick version.

By removing (up to) 2 meetings per month from our Rotary calendar, we have an opportunity to schedule more service projects, volunteering opportunities, social functions and training events, thus showing Rotary in a different light and giving potential and existing members more opportunities to serve, which in turn will increase our capacity to make an impact in our community, and also considerably lighten the cost burden on members.

But clubs will be disappointed if they think that by simply changing from weekly to fortnightly meetings, there will suddenly be a queue of potential members lining up at their door. The challenge is to effectively take advantage of the time that this change can free up. Rotarians can still participate in Rotary on a weekly basis without attending a Rotary meeting on a weekly basis.

Since the rules changed I have been offering this presentation to clubs who are keen to explore the options. I always do my best not to push the concept down their throats, rather offer it as something to think about, but at a recent visit, having sat through the presentation, one of the members asked for a straw poll on moving the club in question to fortnightly meetings. Bugger me, it was about 50/50. I didn’t see that response coming at all.

But during question time after my presentation, one of the club’s older members made the following comment, “I feel that were we to head down this path, we would be losing some the essence of Rotary.” It was said so politely, not with venom, but almost with melancholic resignation. It’s a feeling I see etched across the faces of many of our older members as I travel around to clubs to talk about our challenges. That feeling that Rotary has already changed too much from the “good old days”.

As much as I bang on about the urgent need to bring down our average age (which in Australia is 71), I have enormous respect for the senior Rotarians of our clubs who have been around the block many more times than me. They are the people who built our clubs and made them what they are. They are the people we can always rely on to help, especially when we need volunteers during business hours. They are the people with immense Rotary knowledge that we can learn so much from. They are the people who always ask about my family. They are the people who have been valued mentors of mine. But sadly, they are not the people who can remain the backbone of our organisation forever.

I’ve often heard the concept that the cliff is rapidly getting closer, and we have only five years to drastically turn things around before we start losing massive numbers. The graph to the right shows that our membership in D9520 is not only in decline, but the rate of decline is accelerating. I can assure you that it’s not easy to look at as District Membership Chair.

So I would respectfully respond to the claim that the essence of Rotary is at stake when we start talking about fortnightly meetings with another question.
Are some things worth hanging on to at any cost? Even if it means a club handing in its charter in ten years?

If our membership was surging ahead as it is in most developing countries, I wouldn’t be looking to change a thing. But it’s not. That gentle row down the stream might be but a dream now, but the waterfall is coming and the longer we leave it, the more furiously we will have to back-paddle.

I fully appreciate we’re not talking about fine tuning when the topic of meeting frequency is on the agenda. But there are a lot of round pegs out there with a lot to offer, who don't currently fit into our square holes. We simply must change the system so more can fit. 

How about we at least have the conversation?