This is not my first commentary on age diversity issues in our organisation, and it most certainly won’t be the last. I am passionate about a lot of things in Rotary, but none more so than my determination to bring down our average age, which in Australia currently stands at 71.
This will however, be the first time I have openly questioned advice from senior Rotarians on who we should be targeting for membership. More on that later.
My Rotary journey started when I joined Rotaract aged 18. My memories of Rotaract in the mid 80s through to the mid 90s was of a thriving organisation, where I met hundreds of enthusiastic, energetic, fun-loving young people who were keen to give back to their community. On almost every weekend for ten years, I participated in a Rotaract activity, if not with my own club, with another. It was a massive part of my life. I met some of my closest friends through Rotaract, including my wife Debra.
Whilst Rotaract is still thriving in some parts of the world, in my part of the world (South Australia), it all but died out at the turn of the century. A few local clubs have since sprung up, and no-one is happier than me, but I don’t see it ever returning to its glory days, not the way I remember it anyway.
I was invited to join my sponsoring Rotary club in 1997, the Rotary Club of Edwardstown, where I have now been a member for over 19 years, but my greatest disappointment throughout my entire Rotary journey, is that out of the 200+ people I met in Rotaract, I know of less than a handful who joined and remain members of Rotary. This is something that genuinely upsets me to this day, and has fired a strong desire within me to drag this organisation kicking and screaming into the 21st century. We simply must find ways to become more attractive and relevant to a younger demographic. It’s not negotiable. Rotary dropped the ball in the late 90s when there were quite literally hundreds of 20 somethings walking away from Rotaract (many because they turned 30), and for whatever reason, Rotary just wasn’t an attractive option for them. Twenty years on and not much has changed. For the average 20 something (and 30 something and 40 something), Rotary is still not an attractive option.
So, do you want to know what grinds my gears? It’s the suggestion that Rotary clubs should be targeting people in their 50s for membership. This has been argued by a number of high profile, senior Rotarians. The argument is that they are becoming empty nesters, are well entrenched in their careers, have more disposable income, are well connected, but are looking to get involved in new activities and meet new people, and can become embedded into Rotary prior to retirement. They still have potentially thirty years to give to Rotary. Well, I can’t really argue with any of that. For all of those reasons, they would potentially make great Rotarians.
It’s the suggestion that we target this demographic at the exclusion of those younger that gives me cause for concern. In fact, I think it’s downright dangerous.
Here are my three big reasons why I don’t think it is smart to exclusively target people in their 50s:
Our recruitment data tells us than 42% of our recent recruits are in their 50s. This group is by far the most represented age band currently joining Rotary. What does that mean? It means of all the age bands, Rotary is currently more attractive to people in their 50s than any other group. So we really don’t need to target people in their 50s – they are already finding us. It’s like telling driving instructors to target 16 – 18 year olds. We need to work more on our weaknesses than our strengths. Like the golfer whose putting is letting him down – that’s the area he needs to work on.
Rotary is an organisation of round holes, and those over 50 are currently our round pegs. But those below 50 are the square pegs, and the younger they get, the harder they will find squeezing into our round holes.
What message do you think it sends to younger members, young non-members, young alumni, that we are concentrating our efforts on those in their 50s? While the left hand is trying to build bridges with our alumni (including the young students in whom we invest time and money to attend our wonderful collection of youth development programs), the right hand wants people in their 50s. As someone who joined Rotary in his 20s, it tells me that I’m either under-valued or in the “too hard” basket.
This is the reason which I feel is most compelling. After years, no - decades of trying to convince the rank and file that Rotary needs to change, what message does it send to those innovators and proponents of change? It says your efforts are futile and unwarranted. We will keep our holes round, because we’re only looking for round pegs.
Rotary's membership needs to be a diverse cross section of our community. 50% of our world’s population is under 50, but only 12% of Rotary’s membership is under 50. If Rotary is to achieve a second century of service, that will have to change.
We need to recognise the unique talents and skills that every age group can bring to Rotary, and whilst targeting people in their 50s will bring us a unique skillset, excluding those under 50 is ignoring an equally unique skillset.
It might be the easiest option, but since when do Rotarians take the easy option? We can’t just pick the low hanging fruit.