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fist thumped the lectern as I let out a vicious tirade on how I was embarrassed by these completely irrelevant and outdated rituals, and how I was desperately keen to drag my club into the 21st century – kicking and screaming if necessary.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!