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.