Thursday, 31 August 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!