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!