Wednesday, 11 October 2017

5 Key Elements to a Healthy, Growing Club

This blog didn't start out as a blog; but a presentation. I get a number of requests to talk to clubs and at district training events about the process of chartering the Rotary Club of Seaford. In this environment of falling membership and closing clubs, getting a new club up and running is somewhat of a novelty! We chartered with 21 and less than a year later we have had a net increase of 7, so I am now in a position to comment on its healthy growth.

I think it's worth noting that these five elements were not drafted up prior to starting the club by some think tank. They have been determined with a retrospective view of what has been important and successful over the last year or so. Some of these things I had known all along would work, but some discoveries have been somewhat serendipitous. These are ranked in order of importance, and whilst they HAVE been extremely successful at Seaford, I believe they can be employed at ANY club. 

1. Less Meeting - More Doing

I have been banging on about this for years now - my concern that Rotary has become way too "meeting centric". Rotary has conducted considerable research into its public image and what is preventing people from joining us, and there's a long list of reasons given by respondents. But the overwhelming majority of those barriers to membership are related to our obsession with meetings.

Quite simply, people ARE willing to volunteer, but they're not so keen on meetings, and see meetings as a waste of time. Rotary is not a MEETING organisation, it's a SERVICE organisation. So we need to put service at the centre of our Rotary universe. Last year our Council on Legislation paved the way for clubs to meet less frequently, but the answer lies not in solely reducing meeting frequency, but in better utilising those freed up volunteer hours with VOLUNTEERING. I wish I had a buck for every time the question is asked of a Rotarian, "What does your club do?", and the answer given starts with "We meet at...". Our weekly meeting regimen and the accompanying rituals are so entrenched in our Rotary psyche that hands on service has become an afterthought.

The Rotary Club of Seaford places a very high priority on hands on volunteering opportunities. Of course it means we can achieve more in our community, but more importantly our community sees us making an impact, and that WILL attract and keep more members.

2. Flexible and Productive Meetings

For 112 years, Rotary rules dictated that we meet weekly, and for most of those years we also had minimum attendance expectations placed upon us. Am I the only one who finds it bizarre that we must meet regularly, and we must attend meetings, but there is no expectation whatsoever that our meetings be productive? Has that not crossed anyone else's mind? If it's not bad enough that we have a meeting centric platform, those meetings by and large don't really achieve much.

Now I have never suggested we don't need meetings, and we are still constitutionally bound to hold a minimum of two per calendar month. They do serve a purpose, and it is true that much of our decision making process happens during some of our meetings, but not all of them. Most clubs will only hold internal committee meetings once a month. Yes, there is (hopefully) plenty of camaraderie going on at meetings, and an enjoyable and informative speaker most of the time. But my experience as a Rotarian of over 20 years is that a large percentage of the time that meetings take from our lives is about entertainment of members, and only a small portion is about planning projects and events. The Rotary Club of Seaford has a different way of doing meetings. Guest speakers are the exception, not the rule. They are only asked to attend if they can directly help the club with Rotary information or add value to a planned project or event. We do not hold meetings for the sake of meetings. We value our members' time way too much for that. Our meetings are about productivity, idea sharing, brainstorming, event planning. Everyone gets an opportunity, and it's pretty much one big committee meeting.

We are flexible enough to replace a meeting with a hands on service project, where we do the work, then pull out tables and chairs, maybe order a pizza, and hold an informal meeting. We can easily change times, venues and days for our meetings, because we haven't allowed ourselves to get stuck in the rut of weekly, non-productive meetings at the same time, in the same place, eating the same food.

We don't lose valuable time (not to mention credibility with visitors) singing, fining, toasting and praying. When a guest visits one of our meetings, they immediately find out what we're up to. They can see we are all about action, and they often jump in.

3. Low Cost Impact on Members

One of the other main barriers to membership identified by Rotary surveys is cost. And again, meetings raise their ugly heads. Membership costs vary around the traps, but most clubs hover around the $250 mark. But 50 meals a year + drinks + raffles + fines can easily set you back $1,500. I cannot fathom why so many clubs offer to subsidise membership fees, but don't look at their meeting costs. 

Our method at Seaford is to have meetings where meals are either optional or low cost. Sometimes members just bring a plate to share. Of course, this means having venues where these options are available. If you cannot break away from the pattern of meeting every week at the local pub, it's unlikely you will be able to find low cost meeting options. But at the risk of repeating myself, at Seaford, we're not obsessed with meetings. In fact we never hold two meetings at the same place in a row. Our meeting venues include a local soccer club where we can buy drinks from the bar, but don't get charged for the room we use. We usually order in pizzas and that costs members less than $10, which is optional. We have met in a meeting room at our local library. Again, this is free, and we just all bring a plate to share. We meet in members' homes. We meet at and after service projects. There are ways of meeting without huge expense, but you have to be prepared to be flexible. 

We don't have fines, raffles, or boxes being passed around the room. We raise funds from the public, not our members. Total meeting costs for members are maybe $15 - $20 a month.

4. Aggressive Promotion

Our marketing sucks. I once upset a few (very) high ranking Rotarians with that statement; probably because it is true. Across our global organisation of autonomous clubs, most of which are run by board members who would rather have a root canal than spend a penny on promotion, we have an inconsistent, incongruent and largely ineffective marketing platform. We made a conscious decision when trying to start a club that we needed to get on the front foot with our marketing and promotion. It is true that we were given a $2,000 grant from district to get the ball rolling with some initial fliers, posters, website and postage costs. But we were heading into a region without a Rotary presence, and we needed to make our presence felt.

And we have continued to invest wisely in promotion ever since, and we are getting very good at it. Think of a charity that advertises on TV, radio, magazines, billboards or online. How do you think they pay for it? Well, they set aside a portion of the funds they raise for promotion. This has been considered taboo in Rotary for some reason, and for the life of me I don't know why. What makes more sense? A club that doesn't spend a cent raised through the community on promotion and eventually hands in its charter, or a club that responsibly spends a portion of funds raised to gain better exposure, therefore continually growing and able to help more people? If you ask me, it's a no-brainer.

The following is a list of non-negotiable promotional assets for every club:
  • Functioning, frequently updated, non-Rotarian friendly website that shows what you do.
  • Facebook page with a minimum of 2 posts per week. Every post needs a bright photo.
  • Matching bright member uniforms.
  • Portable signage for your events to make the public aware you are there.
  • Professionally printed attractive fliers that EVERY member has at their disposal.
And please, download and read Rotary's Visual Identity Guide and follow the rules when you produce promotional material. You wouldn't see different versions of the golden arches from one suburb to another. Keep our branding consistent. If we want to be recognised globally, we need global consistency. Some of the shoddy attempts at producing the Rotary logo on banners, stickers and websites make me shudder. Let's avoid amateur hour when it comes to our brand, huh!

5. Effective Partnerships

Too often, Rotary clubs try to reinvent the wheel. There are some things which we are not specialists at. A far better approach if you see a need in your community is to partner with another group who know what they're doing, but could do with some support. That support needn't be financial. They may need goods, they may need volunteers.

One such example in Seaford is an organisation called Breakfastbellies. This is a family run local charity which provides food to local schools for breakfast programs and also sources emergency food hampers for families doing it tough. The Rotary Club of Seaford wanted to help address food security concerns, but rather than trying to run a program ourselves, we partnered with Breakfastbellies who were looking for help. We help them collect Easter Eggs for underprivileged families at Easter, and help source food for Christmas hampers for those same families. The partnership has led to a number of other projects.

We have partnered with a local business and tourism association, and together run a number of business breakfasts each year. We have sourced members through these events, and have a large selection of businesses we can call on when we need support.

We have a great relationship with the local council, particularly their youth and community workers, and often get invited to cater for large community events. Of course these are great fundraising opportunities, but getting Rotary exposure before so many people in the community at these events is very valuable. 

We have a partnership with a local netball club, whereby we present an award for the best junior team person. This is not for the best netballer, but a person who helps out around the club. It's a bit like a Service Above Self award. This is presented at their awards night before 400 netballers, coaches, support staff and family members, and we get to talk about Rotary Youth Programs to the club.

Everyone knows how profitable the Bunnings sausage sizzles can be, but our partnership with Bunnings is about so much more than BBQs. We support some of their DIY nights by providing a BBQ, and they donate products and gift cards to the club. Bunnings donated a rainwater tank to the community garden we have helped build.

Is a change to the Seaford model a bridge too far?

I get a pretty similar response whenever I present to other clubs about the Seaford methods. Whilst I feel that generally most Rotarians are pretty impressed with what we have achieved in such a short time, they don't normally waste any time in telling me how "that stuff would never work in our club". Of course, what that really means is that some of their members would never let "that stuff" happen. I'm not a complete idiot; I do get it. Once you've been entrenched in doing things the same way for so long, big changes seem all too hard. But I still think any club can employ those top five elements, without going "full Seaford". I do think it is possible for ANY club to focus more on doing, and less on meeting. I do think any club can incorporate more flexibility and productivity into their meetings, and find ways to bring down the cost burden on their members. Any club can work harder and smarter on their promotions, and any club can build effective relationships with local charities, clubs, businesses and government departments. But some things have a happy knack of ending up in the too hard basket!

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Who's for an Omelette?

It’s not like we need any reminding, but if Rotary’s membership in Australia continues to decline at the current rate, we’ll be in serious strife within 5 years. We are being buffeted by a perfect storm of ageing and declining membership, questionable relevance and a platform that venerates meetings over service. As it stands, I feel our chances of turning things around are slim, but not impossible. But the chances of turning things around AND keeping everyone happy are somewhere between Buckley’s and none. When faced with a choice between comfort and progress, too many Rotarians are choosing comfort. And for those who refuse to choose, comfort (and therefore, inaction) wins by default. How many times, not just in our Rotary journeys, have we really wanted to be bold and give something a try, but we’ve either not been prepared to speak up, or we’ve been beaten into submission by proponents of the status quo?

For a fair part of my own Rotary journey, I was one of those who wasn’t prepared to raise my head above the parapet, and then something changed. It was circa 2008, and I decided it was time to get something off my chest. I had recently read an article in Rotary Down Under Magazine about two newly chartered Rotary clubs in Perth, who were doing things differently. Their meetings dared to omit the then ubiquitous Rotary rituals and compulsory (expensive) meals, and no-one seemed to miss them. Of course many clubs are still hell bent on singing, praying, fining and toasting their way to oblivion, but at least we’ve now evolved to the point that it is not considered heresy if they are missing from the agenda. But ten years ago, it was stuff of a brave, new world. 

I had recently completed a very satisfying and productive year as club president, and had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with these weekly embarrassments. It came to a head when I brought some colleagues along to a meeting with a high profile speaker. I have no doubt they really enjoyed his presentation, but when we ended the night singing the national anthem (badly), I just wanted to climb under the table. The awkward look on the faces of my friends as the generally 70+ aged crowd bumbled through the national anthem made me cringe. Enough was enough.

At our next club assembly, I read out the aforementioned article verbatim, and then with clenched fist thumped the lectern as I let out a vicious tirade on how I was embarrassed by these completely irrelevant and outdated rituals, and how I was desperately keen to drag my club into the 21st century – kicking and screaming if necessary. This had been brewing for a long time, and I had really prepared myself for the worst possible reaction. Who was I as a 30 something upstart that didn’t respect the more traditional elements of the club? I was prepared for the tomatoes, but was instead pleasantly surprised to get a standing ovation. You see, I had just articulated what 90+ percent of the club had been thinking for many years, but weren’t prepared to say. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I can now define that moment, the moment I threw caution to the wind and spoke my mind, as one of those pivotal moments of my Rotary journey. It wasn’t just about getting something off my chest. It wasn’t even about coming to the realisation that other Rotarians thought like me. It was the revelation that there is indeed a role in clubs and across our organisation for those who would crack the change whip. It was a role I was destined for.

There’s nothing quite as liberating as being able to say what you think without fear of recrimination. That’s not to suggest there has never been any recrimination, just that I no longer feared it. I was genuinely amazed at how quickly my Rotary horizons started to expand at the time. I was suddenly asked to share my thoughts at other clubs. I was sponsored to attend a National Membership Conference in Canberra, and then a Future Leaders Seminar in Brisbane. I was speaking at leadership events, district assemblies, even an Institute. I was even asked to be guest editor for Rotary Down Under magazine. Before I knew it I was asked to be our district membership chair and empowered to run the district’s membership program the way I wanted to. And I can trace it all back to that one moment at a club assembly where I called a spade a spade.

The journey hasn’t been entirely free of frustration. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. I most certainly have had some detractors, and I would suggest my strong views have had me scratched from a few Christmas card lists, but these days my attitude is pretty simple, and probably a bit coarse: I just don’t give a shit. The biggest mistake you can make is to try and please everyone. When it comes down to a choice between plotting a path for membership growth or keeping everyone happy, guess what? Not everyone is going to be happy. In fact, people will be downright pissed off, and people will leave. If we really want to turn around our membership fortunes, we have to make difficult decisions and we have to accept that not everyone will like them.

Colin Powell once said, “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”

We need more people who are prepared to make a stand and blaze the trails. There are many innovative Rotarians out there with great ideas that just seem to get crushed at every turn, and we need to give them a voice. So many times I see progress in clubs stifled by a vocal few who ride roughshod and rule the roost. I have just convened an extremely successful regional membership conference here in Adelaide, and I doubt there has ever been a more comprehensive portfolio of membership solutions rolled out at one event before. But I still fear that the charged up delegates who attended will be stonewalled when they get back to club land with their ideas. I have only this week been in communication with one of those delegates who attended the conference and has asked me to work with his club. Together we suggested a first step to promote change, but he reported back to me that some of the board were not “comfortable” with that idea. Imagine my surprise... Rotarians not comfortable with progress! I have heard from another district leader who offered to work with clubs to take advantage of the conference outcomes, but none wanted to take him up on his offer. This is the point where we often drop the ball, but we just have to knock these walls down. Now, more than ever, the organisation desperately needs those who will rock the boat, poke the bear, rattle the cage and stir the pot.

These membership challenges are not insurmountable. I think we actually have solutions at hand to all of our problems except one – indifference. What we need is a sustained and dedicated campaign from those of us who genuinely care about the future of the organisation beyond five years to MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN. It’s time to turn up the heat and demand action. It’s time for all responsible Rotarians to rise up and take off the kid gloves. The late, great Christopher Hitchens once said, “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.” If you’re one of those Rotarians who is concerned about the future, but more concerned about what people will think if you speak out, guess what? You’re part of the problem! 

Friday, 1 September 2017

Rhetoric, Reality & Rotary

Here's a word that seems to be springing up in Rotary conversations a bit lately: Narrative. I just did an online lookup for a definition, and one of those listed was "a story that connects and explains a carefully selected set of supposedly true events, experiences, or the like, intended to support a particular viewpoint or thesis".

At a recent membership event, "Narrative" was used repeatedly in reference to the body of communication we deliberately use to describe Rotary to the outside world. It's important that we get this right, and that we Rotarians collectively sing from the same hymn sheet. As a network of autonomous clubs, maintaining a consistent message to the general public is critical, albeit challenging. Public image professionals have been working very hard to craft our message. It's about so much more than mere words; imagery and branding are part of the puzzle too. But one thing Rotary constantly suffers from, is the gap between the narrative and the reality, and once that gap gets big enough, the narrative we have worked so hard to craft becomes little more than rhetoric. 

Getting and keeping members remains an enormous challenge for Rotary, particularly in the western world where our gains aren't keeping up with our losses. Undoubtedly our pubic image and our narrative have a huge role to play when it comes to attracting people into our ranks, but it is the reality of everyday (every week?) life in a Rotary club which plays a much stronger role in keeping them. We are selling a narrative of a global network of community minded volunteers that are active in our communities bringing about positive change. Many buy it, but less than 12 months down the track they're out the door. They've been sold a pup.

When we first join Rotary, we're naturally very excited. It's a bit like bringing home that puppy. Problem is, puppies can lose some of that cuteness when they get bigger and start destroying your home. And if you're not getting something positive out of that relationship it's hard to smile as you pick up the poop. I wouldn't know about that, I've got a cat.

So what is the passion killer that turns so many of our enthusiastic recruits into former members in less than a year? What's the biggest contributor to those unmet expectations that have many recruits questioning what they signed up for? The answer is wasted time, and I feel we can blame that solely on that favourite chestnut of mine: our meeting platform.

For our first 111 years, we were commanded to hold meetings on a weekly basis, and for many of those years there were high expectations placed on our members to attend said meetings. I can remember the days we recorded attendance and forwarded this valuable (???) intel to district officials. It wasn't THAT long ago. So, here's what strikes me as a tad odd. A system that demands weekly meetings and minimum attendance, but doesn't demand ANY productivity at said meetings. I take it back, that's not a tad odd, it's farcical. In recent years our attendance requirements have been relaxed somewhat, and we now have the option of meeting less frequently, but those changes still do nothing to address meeting productivity. Imagine if your only expectation of a workforce was to turn up at work. All public sector jokes aside, we demand productivity of our workforce, why doesn't our system demand it at our meetings? What are we actually attending meetings to do, if not to achieve outcomes? I think somewhere along the way we forgot why we attend meetings. 

The first 19 of my 20 years in Rotary was spent at the Rotary Club of Edwardstown. It's a club I will always love, and my experience there will remain a massive part of my Rotary journey forever. I have developed fabulous friendships with the members and miss them dearly. That club has only recently decided to move to fortnightly meetings, and I wish them every success with the change. But changing meeting frequency alone is only a small part of the challenge. If I look back over my time at Edwardstown, I attended a hell of a lot of meetings. I am one of those Rotarians who does get along to almost every meeting, and could easily boast a 90% attendance record over my time. But I suddenly find myself asking some questions about those meetings I attended for 19 years. Were they enjoyable? Yes. Was the food good? Most of the time. Was the venue comfortable? Extremely! Was the program of speakers interesting? Very good overall. Was the company and conversation stimulating? Certainly. Was the overall experience of attending weekly meetings at my former club a positive one? Absolutely. Now for the harder question, which no-one seems to be asking of Rotary club meetings: Were they the most effective and productive use of my volunteer hours? Well, I'd have to say "No". 

And here's a cold, hard fact we Rotarians need to come to grips with. If we are trying to attract busy people to join our ranks, and part of the deal is an expectation to attend meetings, it is incumbent upon us to make sure those meetings are an effective and productive use of their time

Our time is precious, and we each have only a limited supply. Busy people don't have a lot to spare, and if they feel it is being wasted, they will look to contribute it elsewhere. This is where I feel the Rotary reality is farthest from the Rotary rhetoric. We are promising action and a  meaningful contribution to society, but for the average member, what they're experiencing is: meeting, meeting, meeting, BBQ, meeting. Our meeting platform seems to revolve around entertainment and camaraderie. Nothing wrong with either of those, but we have Probus to fill that gap, and it's often well short what we're promising our prospective members. Rotary's motto is Service Above Self, and our meetings should primarily serve as a means to that end. 

In my new club, The Rotary Club of Seaford, meetings are not for entertainment, meetings are about planning and brainstorming. They are in a way similar to the (hopefully productive) committee meetings that many Rotarians hold after their regular (non productive) club meetings. For sure, they do have a fellowship element to them, but that's not the main purpose. We will often hold a meeting in conjunction with a hands on service project, where the emphasis is on actually achieving some sort of tangible outcome in our community. I have spoken at length about this at various membership events, and the concept of "doing" instead of meeting seems at best novel and at worst somewhat foreign to most Rotarians. 

We have become so accustomed to our Rotary lives revolving around meetings that we've forgotten what they are for. I recall one occasion at my former club where I was volunteering at a BBQ. I was doing the cooking, and not facing the customers. At one stage, a customer asked the question, "So, what is it that the Rotary Club of Edwardstown does?". The response from the member serving at the counter started with, "Well, we meet every Tuesday night at the Marion Hotel". It's probably a good thing I was facing the other direction at the time. What was most disappointing, is that the Rotary Club of Edwardstown does some extraordinary things, yet none of them made it to the top of the list. None of them were elevated to the prominence of what for so many is the epitome of Rotary life; the meeting.

There are certainly other areas where the reality doesn't meet the rhetoric, but I feel we cannot afford to drop our narrative to match our reality. The reality in many clubs is actually pretty good, and for them, the narrative is accurate. Instead we need to keep our aim high and encourage less productive clubs to lift their game. I feel if we can use that precious resource of time more effectively, we will give our prospective members more reason to join, and our current members more reason to stay. The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Renovator's Delight

Most of us have been through the process of selling a home at least once. I guess there are cases where a quick sale is important, but I would imagine for most vendors, getting the highest dollar return is the number one priority. So it’s in the vendor’s interest to make sure that potential buyers see the home in the best possible light. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of mowing the lawn, pulling a few weeds and cleaning the windows, but sometimes more effort is required to maximise returns, such as that kitchen and bathroom renovation, new flooring and a lick of paint. 

Surely everyone knows that if you are going to add value to the house, the time to do it is before putting it on the market and holding open inspections; before the photographer arrives, before the home is listed online. A good real estate agent will be able to give sound advice on what improvements are likely to maximise the sale price, not just because that is their profession, but because they can be objective.

Objectivity is sadly a bit rare in Rotary. We Rotarians look at Rotary through a different lens to that of the general public, and that can blind us to some of our recruitment barriers. What many Rotarians don’t fully appreciate is that when a visitor attends a club meeting, they too are conducting an open inspection. Many of us have become quite attached to things like fines, songs, presidential bling, flags and raffles, in the same way we became attached to linoleum floors, orange cupboards, popcorn ceilings and pink bathrooms, and we simply cannot fathom why outsiders wouldn’t find these things attractive. 

Quite simply, if they like what they see, they are likely to make further enquiries, and may in the end commit; whether inspecting a home or visiting a Rotary club, it’s the same concept. So if said guest ends up joining Rotary, we rightly pat ourselves on the back for our recruitment efforts. But what happens if we never see them again? For sure, Rotary isn’t for everyone, but there must be at least some interest, or they wouldn’t have agreed to come along in the first place. Can we be sufficiently objective in our mindset so as to look at our clubs and the way we operate, and question if our recruitment problems may well be related to the product?  When the prospective buyers are circling, are we putting our best foot forward? Or are we shooting ourselves in said foot?

I regularly use the example of Kodak 35mm film in my membership presentations. I point out that 20 years ago, everyone had one, and you could purchase one anywhere: supermarkets, pharmacies, service stations, etc. Try finding one now. They are still available - some photographic enthusiasts still prefer 35mm film, but I would imagine they can only be sourced online or from photographic specialists. So, why did they disappear from our lives and our supermarket shelves? What was wrong with them? Well, there was nothing wrong with the product, we simply found a better way and moved on. There’s a good reason supermarkets no longer sell this product; the market evaporated.

In a similar way, many Rotary clubs are trying to sell the same version of Rotary that we were 20 years ago, and when asked why, the response is, “Well, it worked fine back then”. The problem is, it isn’t working so well now. So why are we still trying to sell it? 

We often seem to put the cart before the horse when it comes to recruitment. Once we recognise that membership is a concern, our knee-jerk reaction is often to ramp up promotion of the product, when what we really should be doing is making sure the product is right. How many adverts do you see these days for 35mm film, or street directories, or encyclopaedia sets or fax machines? All are products that have outlived their life cycle.I simply can’t beat around the bush on this one, so I’ll be blunt.

Every dollar you spend, and every minute you contribute to promotional and recruitment initiatives is completely wasted if the product you are selling has passed its use by date. I’ll take it a step further than that. It’s not only wasted, but counterproductive. If, through your efforts, you bring people into a Rotary environment that is a complete turn off, it’s not only likely that you’ll never see them again, it’s likely they’ll tell all of their friends about the experience, which can tar all Rotary clubs with the same brush.

Capisce? Good. So, here are five questions to ask before you embark on that recruitment campaign:

1. Why would someone want to join?
What's in it for them? How will membership of your Rotary club enhance their life?

2. What are your club's service priorities?
If you cannot easily answer that question, you're in strife. Each club should have at least a few causes that really resonate with the members. International service projects are important, but we often fail to see challenges right under our noses. What are you doing to help people within a 5km radius? You'll have a better chance of gaining traction with potential members if you can easily answer that question.

3. What happens with new ideas?
Do you have an environment that actively encourages blue sky thinking and appreciates bright, new ideas? Or do a select few make all of the decisions, most of which are in keeping with the way you've always done things. There's no point in bringing in new people if new ideas are stifled.

4. Other than club meetings, what is on your club calendar?
We have this tendency to promote meetings as the epitome of Rotary life. But "the product", as I refer to it, is about so much more than meetings. It’s about helping people, volunteering, youth development, partnerships, local and international projects, personal growth & training, fundraising, socialising, global connections, networking and so much more. We seem to place a high priority on getting guests to meetings, as if it's the recruitment version of getting to first base. But if your entire list of activities across the Rotary year offers little other than meetings and the occasional sausage sizzle, your balance is out of whack.

5. How's your kerb appeal?
Whilst meetings need not necessarily be the first experience of Rotary for a visitor, it is often the case that they are, so a positive first impression is vital. Does that view of your home from the street cause passers by to stop and stare, or just walk on by? That first glimpse of your club better be adding value to the Rotary product and not detracting from the great work we do. Beauty is often only skin deep, but ugly Rotary usually goes all the way to the bone. 

The biggest challenge with all of these questions is getting an unbiased answer. It may be worthwhile speaking to your assistant governor or getting the assistance of a someone from your district membership committee. Invite one of your kids or grandkids to a meeting, and get them to give you an honest impression.

Remember - you wouldn't invite friends over for a dinner party, and hand them the dustpan and broom as they walk through the door. You'd do all that cleaning up first. It's the same concept when we make up our minds to launch a recruiting campaign. Pull the weeds, clean the windows, and throw on that coat of paint. Get your product ready for sale, then - and ONLY then, promote the gizzards out of it!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Gender Diversity - are we Fair Dinkum?

Women's Rights Conference in Saudi Arabia. Not a woman in sight.
This year marks 30 years since the US Supreme Court ruled that a Rotary club could not refuse members on the grounds of gender, but I feel we still have a long, long way to go. 

With a fellow Australian now leading our organisation, I have chosen to use a great part of the Australian vernacular in the title of this blog. For those non-Australians reading along who I have managed to confuse, I suggest you Google what "fair dinkum" means. As I have regularly commented, my Rotary journey began as a Rotaractor, in a club with an approximate 50:50 split of males and females. I'll give you the strong tip, that was a big factor in getting most of us in. I met my then future wife Debra through Rotaract, so I have much to thank Rotaract for. But back in 1986 when I joined Rotaract, Rotary was only for men. Rotary has for a long time hoped that its alumni would wind up amongst its ranks, but back when I joined Rotaract, it wasn’t even possible for half of us. What sort of message do you think that sent to us Rotaractors? I find myself frequently concerned with the unconscious messages we send, yet so many within our ranks are oblivious to the public implications of our actions.

My own sponsoring club, the Rotary Club of Edwardstown eventually voted to admit women in 1994, three years before I joined it. There were a few dissenting voices, and one or two members resigned as a result. Not long after women were admitted, women started becoming club presidents. Not long after women started becoming club presidents, women started becoming district governors. One might think the logical extension of that pattern to the very top levels of Rotary leadership would be a fait accompli, but sometimes I wonder if we will see a female pope before we see a female president of Rotary International.

There are still clubs which refuse to admit women, clubs here in Australia. I am proud to say there are none of them in District 9520. I was recently speaking (outside of my own district) to the president elect of an all-male club in a round table conversation about diversity in Rotary clubs, a conversation I was asked to facilitate as a membership specialist. I will never forget his response when I questioned the stance of the club, “Well, if the women don’t like it, there’s another club just down the road.”

The message, quite rightly, coming from Rotary leadership at the highest levels has been for a long time that our Rotary clubs need to be a diverse representation of our communities. Well, either we still have some communities without women, or we are still failing in gender diversity stakes. And where might we Rotarians look for a shining example of gender diversity? How about the board of directors of Rotary International itself, you might ask? Surely the body at the top, charged with charting the future path of the organisation would set the best example of gender diversity? Well, look away now, because the current board of 20 (right) includes only one female. No, that’s not a typo.

I wish to congratulate those who serve Rotary at the highest level. This is not a job for the feint hearted. It requires a heavy commitment over two years, and only the highest calibre of person is elected to this role. You can scan through a short bio of each board member here

I have met the two Australians in that group, RI President Ian Risely and Director Noel Trevaskis, and their contribution to the organisation has been nothing less than exemplary. I have been lucky enough to be in audiences when they have spoken, and they are very impressive human beings indeed, well deserving of these appointments. Their eligibility is not in question. And it is only proper to admit that the opportunity for women to be nominated as candidates is within our hands. One cannot blame the current board for being elected to that position. But something just isn’t right.

Noel joined Rotary in 1996, only one year prior to myself. Whilst there’s no rule suggesting 20 years of Rotary experience is deemed necessary before one will be considered eligible for such a role, we do know that there were plenty of extraordinary women in the organisation 20 years ago. So my question is, where are they now? A quick scan through that list of bios will reveal that a high level of executive corporate experience is par for the course. That of course is completely reasonable for a board position on a global organisation such as ours. You could fit my entire corporate experience on the back of a postage stamp, so I won’t be putting my hand up, but I just can’t understand why more of our organisation’s female corporate leaders are not in the mix.

Here are the two main questions I would ask about the disproportionate representation of women on the Rotary International board: Does Rotary leadership consider it a problem, and if so, what can be done about it?

I can’t speak for RI leadership, but I recently used this quote in a blog, “Action Expresses Priorities”. If RI’s actions are any indication, this isn't seen as a problem. But I see it as a problem, and here’s why. Firstly, it’s about the optics; the message it sends. I’ve just finished a three year stint as a district membership chair, during which a fair portion of my energy was expended on impressing upon clubs the importance of diversity and methods to increase it amongst our ranks. The best district rate for female membership in Australia is 26%, so we clearly have a long way to go. But there’s a certain tone of “Do as I say, not as I do” implicit in diversity challenges from Rotary’s leadership when its own board has only one female member. We all (rightly) poke fun and snicker at the top image of a women’s rights conference in Saudi Arabia, without a woman in the room. It just sends the wrong message. In the same way, we are sending the wrong message, a message that isn’t solely received by Rotarians. The world is watching, and I don’t feel we can effectively convey that we are an organisation based on diversity when gender diversity is not present at the top level.

Secondly, if more female Rotarians were visible in these senior roles, I feel more female Rotarians would be encouraged to set their aim higher. It would be self-perpetuating. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there are multiple studies that reveal the value of having more female representation at board level. Jane Stevenson & Julie C. Norris writing for the Korn Ferry Institute put it well:

“Call it diversity 3.0 in the boardroom. Boards have shifted from talking supportively about the representation of women, to actively recruiting them and determining how best to reap the benefits this diversity can provide. This adjustment shows how, as a culture, we have moved beyond superficial definitions of diversity—“having a woman on the board,” for example—to understanding that the actual payoff comes from integrating the cultural change required for true diversity of thought to take root.”    Full article here.

Rotary’s global membership has now flat lined for 25 years, and if not for the staggering growth in the developing world offsetting the staggering decline in the developed world, we would be in serious doodoo. You would have to be hiding under a rock to be unaware of our current membership, public image and relevance challenges, and this is why a different way of thinking at the apex of the organisation is now so critical. Will more women on the board change that? Surely it’s worth a try.

My second question presents the bigger challenge. What can be done about it? Yes, the system is already in place for women to be nominated to these positions. But if we are fair dinkum about diversity, we can’t just leave it at that. Surely we should be asking why, if the opportunity is there, aren’t more women on the board, and what can we do about it? Well firstly, we can try harder. Many will understandably advocate for merit based appointments, and believe that quotas or affirmative action should be avoided.

Here’s the simple reason in this instance that I think otherwise. We need to right an historic wrong. Rotary is responsible for keeping women out for the first 84 years of our history, and we remain responsible for keeping women out of individual clubs which still will not accept them. I believe we need to find ways to fast track the right women into these senior positions, if for no other reason than because we found a way to keep them out for so long, and in some instances still are. We can't afford to wait another 20 or 30 years to see if there is an organic correction.

If anyone tells me “it can’t be done”, I would remind them that we were told the same thing 30 years ago when we dreamed of a world without polio. I might also suggest they’re not being fair dinkum about gender diversity.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Reflections of a District Membership Chair

Last month I wrote my last blog as District 9520 Membership Chair.

This first blog of my post membership chair days is about reflections on my tenure and some of the pivotal moments. But I also want to acknowledge some of those people who have inspired and helped me along the way. This one is longer than usual, but I won't be churning blogs out quite as frequently now.

This actually wasn’t a role I ever went looking for to be honest. I was much more interested in the public image side of Rotary. At the time I was asked, I was serving the second of a three year term as an assistant governor, and wasn’t really looking for anything more at district level in the near future. But I did have some strong views about the way we did things at all levels which had been formed over my Rotary journey, a journey that commenced at age 18 when I became a Rotaractor. I spent ten years in Rotaract, ten of the most amazing years of my life. I got to know a lot about Rotary from an arm's length, and developed a healthy respect for the organisation, but I always thought it was a bit stuffy. It was pretty much all men in suits at the time. After over ten years in Rotaract I was asked to join the Rotary Club of Edwardstown and for some reason the timing seemed right. It had then voted to accept females into membership and my wife Debra joined with me.

Fast forward to the time I was asked to take on the district membership role, I had almost 17 years of Rotary plus those ten in Rotaract behind me, but at 45 was still a relatively young Rotarian. That's a sad statement in itself. I think that combination of experience and being a good generation behind the average Rotarian in age worked in my favour, and having already served at district level for a number of years I was fairly comfortable with Rotary life at district level.

The Proposal
Then District Governor Nominee and good friend Jerry Casburn was the person responsible for getting me into the role. We were both Assistant Governors at the time and were having a chat at a district conference, one of those chats about the future of the organisation and its challenges, and he just popped the question (not on bended knee), “Will you be my district membership chair?” He either saw something in me or thought if nothing else I would rattle the cage, maybe both. I then rattled off a list of conditions that would have to be met for me to agree to take it on. I won’t list them all but in essence it was about doing it my way. I didn't want all of my innovation to by stymied by traditionalists, and I have never marched well to the beat of someone else's drum. To my shock, he said yes. Bugger! I can't emphasise strongly enough that whatever I was able to achieve would not have been possible without the undying support and empowerment offered by Jerry and our next two district governors, Dick Wilson and Sam Camporeale. That is something I will always remember, but sadly I know it’s not the case in Rotary districts everywhere. I’ve seen elsewhere that it’s not always about getting the best person for the job. I’ve seen elsewhere PDGs shuffled around the various big district postings to “keep them busy”, and I’ve also seen extremely talented and capable people crushed when their bright ideas get the kybosh because “we’ve always done it this way.” Worst of all I've seen membership decline right across our land because too many people want to stick to the ways of the past. Lucky for me, that was never an issue in D9520. I got to try new things with the blessing and support of everyone around me, and I feel we did get to make a difference.

The Message
Our district leaders had been telling the rank and file for many years that they needed to find new ways to do things, but when it came to membership leadership at district level, I felt we had to lead by example and find new ways to do things too. Every year our District Governors Elect head off to San Diego and are told “this year we need to get serious about membership”. Then every year those District Governors elect tell their district leaders and club presidents “this year we need to get serious about membership”. And you can guess what the rank and file have been told each year by their new presidents. As one of those in the rank and file, I was totally over being beaten over the head with the membership stick, and I recognised that membership fatigue was setting in. The message wasn’t changing, and people had stopped listening. Now that I was about to have considerable influence in the lead role for membership at district level, my first task was to change the message. I felt that it was time to stop telling Rotarians to find new members. It was time to start looking closely at the processes within our clubs and how they affected the recruitment and retention of members. It was about taking time to sharpen the axe instead of continually swinging it harder at the tree.

A few years earlier I remember reacting strongly to a letter to the editor of Rotary Down Under, in which the author had suggested there must be something wrong with the younger generation, because they weren’t joining Rotary. I wrote a response suggesting that maybe the problem wasn’t with the younger generation, but with Rotary - and it was published. Many concurred with my statements, but many didn’t. I found out fairly quickly that you meet with a fair share of resistance when you start questioning the way things are done. But I also started attracting supporters, and by my actions empowered club leaders to be brave and get these issues on the agenda. Of course I wasn’t the first Rotarian to suggest we needed to change, far from it. But I think I was probably the first district leader to get really “in your face” about it D9520. I will openly admit that I’ve been deliberately provocative with my language about the need to change, and I have no regrets whatsoever. The cage needed rattling, the pot needed stirring, the boat needed rocking and the bear needed poking. I have no doubt been struck from a few Christmas card lists as I have made a few enemies in this role, but I have made literally hundreds more friends.

The Epiphany
After reading about a Young Professionals’ Summit held by Rotary in Chicago, I was really keen to run my own here in Adelaide. I had great support from Nicole Hayden, Senior Coordinator, Membership Resources & Support at Rotary HQ in Evanston, who ran the summit. I had been fortunate to meet Nicole at the International Convention in Sydney, and she was very helpful with information and feedback from their summit. I did a lot of research in order to give a presentation on what younger people we looking for in Rotary, and that information from Nicole was invaluable. It was during this research that I had quite the epiphany. It suddenly struck me for the first time that our meeting-centric platform was our organisation's biggest problem. Younger people are happy to volunteer, they’re just not so keen on meetings. If Rotary was to seriously turn around its membership fortunes, we had to start to focus more on volunteering opportunities and lose our obsession with meetings. I cannot describe how bright this light bulb was that had suddenly switched on in my head, but that revelation would become central to all of my efforts and strategies from that point. There are those who don't share my thoughts on this topic, and we do indeed need diversity of opinion when it comes to membership matters, but no-one will ever convince me now that more doing and less meeting is not the way forward. For the record, I have never suggested that meetings aren't important, just that we have too many of them and a more productive use of our volunteers' valuable time could be found out in the community. Meetings should be about planning and idea sharing, not guest speakers, fines, bling and dodgy food.

The Speech
PDG Dick Wilson gave me an extraordinary opportunity during his year as governor, the same year we ran the aforementioned Young Professionals’ Forum. He asked me to speak about membership at his district conference. The request first came through someone on his conference committee, and I initially thought they had me mistaken for someone else. Why would he want a talk about membership at a district conference?  I had spoken at numerous district assemblies and PETS, easily 50 clubs, even an institute, but invariably to audiences primed to hear a membership message. I remember suggesting to Dick that a district conference audience weren’t really going there to hear about membership. But he thought it was important, and gave me a free reign to say whatever I wanted. Now that can be dangerous. I set about crafting what I considered to be my most challenging presentation ever, and I told Dick that this was going to be right between the eyeballs. He gave me a wink and said, “That’s what I’m hoping for”. It was basically following up on that premise that most of our barriers to recruitment were as a result of our meeting-centric platform. There’s a video recording of it here if you can spare 25 minutes. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that presentation I gave, and perhaps more importantly the audience I gave it to really did set things in motion in a way I couldn’t have predicted. Dick is clearly a lot smarter than me. He is a surgeon and I’m just a guy who sells lollies, but he knew all along what he wanted. He knew that a stimulating and challenging message would achieve more if it was delivered to an audience that didn’t normally sign up to hear it.

I genuinely feel from that point, the rate of change has picked up in our district. I also made a conscious decision to be “in your face” about new flexible options for meetings as a result of the 2016 Council on Legislation changes.

The New Club
The other factor that I feel has encouraged clubs to try new things is the chartering of the Rotary Club of Seaford. It was a long and hard road getting that club (now my club) up and running, but it is a stunning example of what is possible if you’re prepared to change things up, and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t part of my initial motivation – to showcase what was possible. I have blogged at length about the process and what I’ve learned from it, so I won’t go over old ground again, but I am really pleased that people are asking how it all happened with a view to trying some of the innovations which work at Seaford.

Over the years I have collected a vast repository of membership ideas from the numerous seminars, webinars, conferences and conventions I have attended, blogs I have read and conversations I have had. And I guess I’ve had a few good ideas of my own, but I had often wondered how successful a club could be if it didn’t just talk about these initiatives, but actually implemented them. As it turned out, the only way to find out was to start a club and follow all of those great ideas, and it has worked a treat. I’m not going to pretend that the Rotary Club of Seaford is some kind of Rotary nirvana; we do face some of the same challenges that other clubs face, but getting a club started from thin air was a pretty amazing achievement. We’ve found some amazing people and are doing some amazing things. Special thanks to Charter President Cecilie Cardwell for her unyielding enthusiasm and hard work, especially given she became a mum for the first time only a few months before last year's charter. Yet another Rotary alumni shining as a Rotarian.

The People
I have always maintained that the more you put into Rotary, the more you will get out. I have put a lot in, but I’ve got a lot out too. I have met some extraordinary people, including my top three Rotary heroes.

I shared a stage with Past RI Director Stuart Heal in a membership Q&A at last year’s district conference. Stuart sparked a fire in me many years with his straight talking commentary on change, a fire that still burns. I shared my car with best selling author Michael McQueen for three hours to and from a conference. I'm one of his biggest fans and have hung on his every word about the battle for relevance and attracting the next generation of Rotary. Ten years ago as Edwardstown club president I was so very impressed by then RI President Bill Boyd, and to meet him and have him sit in on a membership workshop I conducted was also a massive thrill. These three Rotarians have all been huge sources of inspiration along my Rotary journey.

Earlier this year I was flown out to speak at PETS in D9710 Canberra and also PETS in D9570 Gladstone, where I again met many more amazing people. A special mention to my friend Mark Wallace, who asked me to speak in Canberra. In his previous position as RDU Magazine editor, Mark regularly gave me a national voice, not without personal repercussions once, and this is something I will never forget. I am simply shattered that he has been lost to Rotary. I also need to acknowledge my good mate Steve Hayter, who has been my right hand man by partnering with me in a number of presentations around the traps, and has been a great reference point when I've questioned the relevance of my thinking to a younger audience. He's a real giver, a deep thinker, a great presenter and has a way of brightening up the room. Thank you for your support in this role Steve. I really hope we see you back soon.

The Regrets
I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention. I won’t take it personally, but I am disturbed that our district membership has continued to decline over my tenure. If anything the curve is getting steeper. Ours is but one district in but one part of the world experiencing considerable losses over the last decade or so, and to an extent we're just caught up in that current and being dragged along. Rotary's current global membership challenges are not so much a product of today's actions, but yesterday's inaction. Quite simply our organisation has not managed to keep pace with the rapidly changing society we inhabit. In many ways we're still trying to selling encyclopedia sets in the google age. We reap what we sow, and in the same way yesterday's decisions are affecting today's outcomes, today's decisions will effect tomorrow. 

I regret that more clubs didn’t come forward and ask for help. I virtually begged for membership challenged clubs to put up their hands, but only one club did, the Rotary Club of Norwood. Only a few years ago there were talks of handing in their charter, but as a result of working with that club, preparing and sticking to a rejuvenation plan, that club is now reinvigorated and growing. I learned early on that a large part of district leadership is about leading horses to water, but I never get over the sight of horses that died of thirst within reach of the waterhole. 

I regret the loss of two clubs under my watch, Brighton and Barmera. We also lost Marion and Lameroo a few days before I stepped into the role. Interestingly, Lameroo (a remote community in the Murray Mallee) now has a new thriving Lions club less than three years after losing its Rotary club. Many of us attributed that loss to economic downturn following a long drought and the exodus of young families. It's clear now that Lions are offering something that Rotary didn't, and when I find out what it is, there will definitely be another blog.

As I look back I think one of my best achievements was being able to change the membership conversation and provide genuine options for the path forward. That was my part in sowing the crop. I guess I won’t get to see what we reap from that for a few years yet.

The Future
Where to for me from here? Well I’m looking forward to spending some quality time in club land. As a new club, Seaford will need some mentoring and guidance for some time, and I am very happy to be organising projects and cooking sausages again after a stint of frying bigger fish. The offers have been there to do more stuff at district level, but other than participating in the odd membership conversation, I am happy to take a step back for now. 

After little more than a taste of working on membership initiatives at zone level, I am more than a little frustrated that the opportunity to continue this work appears to have evaporated along with the RI funding that we depended on. The future co-ordination of membership initiatives at zone level appears uncertain at present, but if a way to make a tangible difference were to present itself, I would certainly give it due consideration. I did apply for a position on an international membership committee which advises the board, but missed out.

The last three years have certainly been my most challenging, but also my most rewarding. There have been times that the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion have severely affected me, but every time I have been uplifted by the extraordinary people around me. Three years is a long time and I feel it’s good for both me and the district to have a change. I have great faith in my successor PDG Euan Miller to forge the next phase of our district's membership strategy. It is important that these roles have new input and fresh ideas from time to time, and I am excited by the new emphases and strategies Euan is about to implement. Euan has been a mentor of mine since my early days of finding my way at district level and a good friend, and I will happily support him from the back seat if asked. He was also the main driver of Norwood's impressive turnaround, so I know he has what it takes.

Right now I am working very hard as the convener of the upcoming Regional Membership Conference on August 26 & 27 (please click here and book your ticket NOW), and that will keep me busy for a few months. I’m also doing a bit of work behind the scenes for the upcoming Polio Ute Relay, but both of those jobs will be over in a few months.

The Family
I have two wonderful families. My Rotary family, who have seen quite a lot of me, and my wife Debra and children Aaron and Elise, who have supported me throughout the journey but haven’t seen as much of me as I would like. I want to say a special word of thanks to Debra for being so forgiving and supportive. It hasn’t always been easy, but she knows how important Rotary is to me and never complains. I will never take something on without giving 100%, and I hang up my boots from this role knowing I have given it my all. 

Friday, 2 June 2017

Getting Engaged

Engagement. It’s a word that is so hard to fully grasp, yet so very important to Rotary. It can be quite difficult to explain what member engagement means, but one thing’s for sure; we all seem to know when members are engaged and when they’re not. Most clubs seem to have those members that turn up to everything, and those members you rarely see. 

Engagement can be described many ways, but I actually quite like the definition of engagement from an engineering perspective: “To make one part of a machine fit into and move together with another part or parts of a machine.” A Rotary club is like a machine that has lots of working parts, but the machine will only work at its best when all of those parts are engaged and working together.

We do bandy this “engagement” word around quite a lot. I tend to recall it was around ten years ago that we Rotarians started to hear this concept of prioritising engagement over attendance. As an organisation we had become obsessed with members attending meetings and measuring attendance.

We had “attendance” officers and attendance reports, and up to only a few years ago had to return said reports to district leaders. We used to hand out 100% attendance certificates to members who had made it to every meeting in the year. I must admit I have a few of those certificates filed away somewhere (you can still buy them here - sigh!). My former club, the Rotary Club of Edwardstown had a tradition whereby if 100% of the club’s members attended the one meeting (i.e. no apologies), the president had to shout the bar. It happened twice in 19 years (once to me).

The problem with esteeming attendance is that one could be regarded as a good Rotarian simply by attending a lot of meetings, yet make very little contribution to what really mattered - club projects and fundraising initiatives. We still have rules that dictate minimum attendance requirements of our members. In layman’s terms it is still a requirement of membership that members attend a minimum of 50% of club meetings and/or service projects. The actual formula is a bit more complicated than that, but we’re not all mathematicians. For those members who struggle to meet those minimum requirements, do we just terminate them, or is it worth putting in the effort to find out why?

How do we elicit better engagement from our members? That can be a hard question to answer, but there’s a much tougher question ahead. Every member is different, and every member is perhaps looking for something a little different from their Rotary membership, but there is one formula that applies universally to every single member: Action expresses priorities. That beautifully eloquent and simple quote is attributed to Mohandas Ghandi, and I feel it says a lot about who turns up to what. The difference between those who say “yes” most of the time, and those who say “no” most of the time (or don't even bother answering the question) is quite simply about priorities, and if Rotary is not a priority for some of your members, you will find it pretty hard to effectively engage them in club activities. Rotary’s motto “Service Above Self” to me implies that part of the deal for members is at least occasionally being prepared to put the needs of the community and the club ahead of our own.

If you really want to do something in life, you generally find a way to make it happen. Most people who achieve great things do so because they had a great desire to do so. Talent, luck, timing and genetics all play a part, but none so much as desire. If Rotary is a priority in a member’s life, more often than not they will engage. If Rotary is not a priority in their life, more often than not they won’t. We often hear “I can’t do the Rotary thing because I have XYZ”. That's not unreasonable provided XYZ is occasionally told “I can’t do your thing because I have Rotary commitments”.

Now for that tougher question I signalled. Instead of asking “How do we better engage our members?”, we need to be asking “Can we make Rotary a bigger priority in the lives of our members?”. It’s only natural to give priority to those things in life that reward us the most. I feel it comes back to the reasons people originally join Rotary. There was likely some sort of gap in their life that at the time they thought Rotary might fill. No-one buys a drill because they need a drill – people buy a drill because they need a hole. 

Some people have a burning desire to volunteer and give back. For some it's about meeting more friends. Some will see Rotary as an opportunity to network and advance their business horizons, and there are those who have been really touched by the work we do and just want to be a part of it. There are many more reasons people join, and it’s often a combination of all of the above, but what we do know is that when members’ needs are not being met, they become disaffected, disinterested and disengaged. As a result, Rotary will quickly drop down their list of priorities. We also know that when members are in this place, we are most likely to lose them. This is why I feel it is vitally important to ask these sorts of questions during the process of introducing potential members to the club, so we can gain some understanding up front of their motivations. It’s unlikely Rotary will find a place amongst anyone’s top priorities if those needs are not being met, or if they can’t foresee a way those needs might be met.

We must also understand that people’s priorities change. The dedication of even the most committed Rotarians is likely to wane if they lose their job, or face a sudden health concern or family trauma. It is not always possible to know what is truly going on in people’s lives. We all wear masks at times and put on a brave face.

I do have a few suggestions for engaging and re-engaging disengaged members:
  • Was a mentor formally appointed to the member when they first joined to guide them through the Rotary maze? If so, that mentor needs to be having a conversation. If not, the club probably missed a chance to get off on the right foot with that member.
  • Speak to them. Don’t email. Don’t text. Pick up the phone and have a chat. Don’t accuse. Don’t chide. Keep the language constructive. Just ask how they are going. Tell them you’re missing them and ask if everything is OK. More often than not if you ask them, they’ll tell you what the issue is. If it is a club related issue – i.e. they’re not happy with the way something has been done, or there is a personal conflict – you really need to know. But alternatively, if it’s a personal issue – an illness, an affordability issue, heavy work commitments, family problems, etc., it’s important to know about that too. Obviously confidentiality is important with personal issues.
  • Find roles that take advantage of their talent and expertise.
  • Concentrate on what they CAN do, not on what they CAN’T do.
  • Ask THEM what they would like see done in the club. Make sure they are aware that their input is valued. How would THEY like to become more involved?
  • Time is a valuable resource for everyone, so we need to use it productively and effectively. It’s no use telling members that you need their input at meetings if your meetings are unproductive.
  • Try to have a program of meetings and events which is diverse and capable of interesting a wide range of people. You won’t be able to attract everyone to a program which is predominantly cooking sausages.
  • Keep communication channels open. Make sure that anyone who is absent from meetings for a period of time is still receiving emails, bulletins and other correspondence.

At the end of the day though, there is a fine line between encouragement and badgering. If you have to twist someone’s arm out of its socket to join or re-engage with Rotary, is it really worth it? I have spoken and blogged at length about leading horses to water and watering weeds. How much energy can one expend trying to light a fire in those whose actions suggest their priorities lie elsewhere? Should we instead divert our energy to supporting those who exhibit more passion? 

I hate to admit it but sometimes we bring people into Rotary that just aren’t compatible: square pegs in round holes. We've all done something that seemed like a good idea at the time. Like paying up front for that twelve month gym membership, and visiting three times. I guess that’s how gyms make their money! Both parties (the club, and the prospective member) need to be aware of each other’s expectations before induction. There’s a Goldilocks zone when it comes to inducting new members. We shouldn’t leave members hanging on so long that they are wondering if we value them, but nor should we rush to induct them so quickly that one party regrets it.

For as long as I can remember, we Rotarians have been harangued about membership from club, district, zone, and international leaders; and I can tell you the heat has been turned up considerably over the last few years. But it’s always been about numbers. As a district membership chair, I receive constant reports on numbers in and numbers out. I will always argue however, that quality trumps quantity. Our relentless push to increase our numbers sometimes leads to counterproductive outcomes. When I ask my Rotary colleagues in other clubs across and outside of my district how many of their members are productive, the answer is often as low as half. Ironically it’s often the smaller clubs which have the highest productivity per member, because there’s no option but for everyone to jump in and do their share. There is nowhere to hide.

Imagine how much more our organisation could achieve if every one of our 1.2 million members were fully engaged in service above self.