Sunday, 15 January 2017

Are they biting?

My regular followers will know by now that the majority of my Rotary efforts over the last couple of years have been channelled into getting a new Rotary Club up and running. 

The Rotary Club of Seaford, which chartered in November last year is the first new club in District 9520 in around ten years, so it’s reasonable to say that a recruitment campaign of this scale has not been attempted in our district for a long time. 

The last club to charter in our district involved a large number of members from an existing club jumping ship. This was never going to be the case for Seaford, so today I want to share a few insights from the process of finding the 20 charter members we needed.

My team tried things that I was convinced would work, without success. But we also had success in areas I really wasn’t expecting. So, either I got part of the process wrong, or we need to accept that the volunteer recruiting landscape has changed. Or both.

I’ve done some marketing campaigns in my time, including the mind numbing work of preparing mailing lists, for myself and as a consultant to other businesses. I figured if I spent some time preparing a mailing list of businesses in the Seaford region, we would soon be able to launch a successful recruitment campaign. It took a lot of work, but I managed get together a list of over 700 businesses in the region. We had a team stuffing envelopes for hours. Massive effort, massive expense, ZERO results. I got the expected percentage of envelopes back marked “return to sender”, but was genuinely disappointed that we didn’t receive one email, one phone call, one person from that list at our information day. Even a one percent response would have meant seven calls. Whilst most were posted, teams of volunteers also approached business owners in major shopping centres. Zero, zip, nada, bupkis!

What did we learn from this? Was the flier and invite not attractive enough? Of course that is possible. Mind you the flier I created for this club has since been copied by another three clubs (not that that’s a guarantee of success). Did the envelope not make it to the right person in the business? That’s possible too. What I feel is most likely, is that for most business owners, commitment to a service club is just not a priority, and it wouldn’t matter how glossy the brochure was. We need to accept that sometimes it’s not about the bait – we’re just fishing in the wrong place.

A few years ago I conducted a membership survey across our district, and one of the questions I asked was in relation to members’ vocations, but it wasn’t about classification. I posed the question of employment status primarily in an effort to give us some indications as to where we should target our recruitment efforts, but also to dispel a few myths.

Whilst I stress these statistics only represent District 9520, I would imagine surveys across the rest of the country would reveal similar statistics. One of those myths is that Rotary is an organisation of CEOs and powerful business people. The statistics would suggest in fact that we are an organisation of retirees. Many of those powerful business people and leaders of industry ARE still in Rotary, it’s just that a lot are now in their 70s and 80s and retired. I am glad they are still with us, because they can provide valuable mentoring and life lessons to us “youngins”.

What the statistics are pointing out very clearly is that the board room is no longer interested in Rotary, and the shop floor is taking over. I recently ran a regional membership seminar and was approached by a well-respected PDG who fondly recounted the days where the local clubs were populated by the local business elite, and hoped those days would return. It is still the case in some countries and I guess even some clubs here in Australia, but I have my doubts those "glory days" will return. Our catch 22 is that clubs need to be populated with well-connected business leaders to attract more well connected business leaders. They once were, but I fear we are now reaping a barren crop because of poor sewing twenty odd years ago.

So what about Seaford’s recruiting successes? Advertising in community newsletters/newspapers was quite fruitful for us, and our website brought in a number of members. It seems as plain as the nose on your face, but a website that clearly explains what your club does, in non-Rotarian language with easy to find contact details will reap rewards. Why some clubs just don't get this is beyond me. Keep an eye out for my next blog which will be about our digital presence. Being visible in the community is also very important, and we always had fliers to hand out at every event.

At the very beginning of this journey, I had conversations with our local state and federal MPs and also representatives of council, who gave me some great ideas but also some other groups to contact – and these contacts proved to be very fruitful. One such group was a representative body of local community support organisations, where I met with domestic violence workers, church outreach providers, employment and career counsellors, community centres, neighbourhood watch, school support staff and educators, homelessness advocates, social workers, welfare agents – the list goes on. Whilst my original mission was to use these connections to spread the word about Rotary, and hopefully attract some potential members, what I soon discovered was that these connections were at the very coal face of the region’s challenges. For many of them, their day-to-day experience was with those who had fallen through society’s cracks.

Of the first 23 people to join the club, 13 are from vocations I would describe as “carers, supporters, teachers, nurturers”. As a retailer, I am in a group perhaps more easily recognised on a traditional Rotary classification checklist. But that former group brings us something very special. How many times do you hear of Rotary clubs struggling to find worthwhile local projects? We seemingly have no trouble addressing desperate needs in developing countries, and I will always advocate for this sort of work. But clubs that are most active in their own communities are clubs which are likely to thrive. When a good proportion of your members spend their days facing the community’s challenges, it’s a lot easier for your club to address your community’s challenges. 

These people are a good fit for Rotary. They are great networkers and are full of ideas, but they are often overlooked for membership. They're attracted to what we do, and attraction is always going to be easier than recruitment. 

I’m not suggesting we should give up on the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, but maybe we should spend a bit more time casting our lines where the fish are biting.