Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Baby Elephant Principle

I am at times in Rotary reminded of the practice of training captive elephants in circuses or as working farm animals. The keeper starts with a baby elephant and chains one of its legs to a long stake which is driven into the ground so it cannot escape. A baby elephant will try for a while to pull that stake out of the ground, but soon realises it is not strong enough, and just gives up. This same practice is followed all the way through to adult life. An adult elephant could easily pull that stake from the ground, but they have been conditioned to believe that they cannot wander beyond the length of the chain, so they don’t even try.

You've probably realised this blog is not about elephants. The baby elephant principle is also used to describe human behaviour. It implies that we humans often fail to reach our true potential because we limit our risk taking and only live our lives within those barriers we've been conditioned to apply to ourselves. Most of us only play within the length of our chain. We fail to be bold.

Today marks the second anniversary of the chartering of my Rotary club; the Rotary Club of Seaford. Since chartering our club has experienced considerable growth; not just in membership, but in capacity, exposure and most importantly; impact. We conducted a "Yass Plan" inspired recruitment campaign over the last few months which culminated in an information night on November 8. Close to 50 turned up that night, and it appears we will have at least 8 new members to induct in coming weeks, which will take our membership to the mid 30s.

One of our hardest working members is Ian Renshaw, an experienced marketing specialist. Ian personally put in an amazing effort to get bums on seats for our information night, and following the success of the night made a comment which hit the nail on the head. "It's all about the product. We have a great product to sell". The list of projects and events our club has undertaken over the last two years is nothing short of extraordinary. We're very, very busy. I constantly get feedback from outside the club that many Rotarians cannot fathom how we fit so much in. Well, there are a number of reasons.

Our average age is much lower than that of most clubs, so we do generally have a higher capacity for hands-on work. The proportion of active members is fairly high. I would imagine this is usually the case when clubs are new. Because we're only meeting twice a month, members have that extra energy and enthusiasm to give. They're not having their valuable time wasted in unproductive meetings. But I've come to realise that there is one underlying advantage we have that is more powerful than any of these reasons, and I will share it with you shortly.

In a speech at the International Assembly in January (above), CEO John Hewko challenged districts and clubs to be bold. He also promoted an initiative of "The Rotarian" magazine whereby each month it would feature a club which was a great example of innovation. It was an enormous thrill to see the Rotary Club of Seaford featured in the January issue, which was displayed during his presentation.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few years speaking at membership conferences and seminars across Australia and New Zealand, and I normally dedicate part of my presentation time at these events to outlining the Seaford operating system, and my thoughts on why the club has thus far been so successful. It's my hope that this inspires delegates to also be bold; to try a few new things in their own clubs.

I remember speaking at a few Presidents Elect Training Seminars (PETS) last year, and after outlining the Seaford story getting a lot of similar feedback from soon-to-be presidents at both events in separate cities. They loved what we were doing, but lamented "that stuff would never work in my club". I can't give a lot of guarantees when it comes to club innovation, but one guarantee I can give is that if you're not prepared to try something, it won't work. You miss 100% of shots you don't take. 

So, what was that incredible advantage I hinted at before? What is the secret to our boldness? Quite simply, we have no baggage to contend with. You cannot imagine the freedom and power you have to drive a club forward when there’s no baggage to hold you back. I can’t even begin to put a value on it. We have never been even remotely constrained by doubters. There were certainly a few people outside of the club that had their doubts that the club would ever get off the ground, and I suppose that’s understandable given our district had lost 10 clubs in the preceding 10 years. We did have challenges getting those initial 20 charter members required to start the club, but I always thought once we were chartered, we would encounter sustained growth. And that we have.

We have a strong "let's give it a go" mentality. I see a lot of Rotary clubs that could probably achieve a lot more if they only got a bit inventive and tried doing things differently; if they were bolder. But their members have been restrained by conditioning to only do things the way they have traditionally been done. 

Starting a new club from scratch however meant that chain was never shackled to the baby elephant’s leg. The elephant grew up unconditioned; allowed to roam free all of its life. Uninhibited thinking leads to greater innovation and more risk taking, and clubs can reach their true potential in every facet, including the way meetings are scheduled and run, the types of projects and fundraisers taken on, the way the club promotes itself, the partnerships built with other NGOs, schools, businesses, and of course, the diversity of our members.

I have written extensively over many years about our resistance to change, and I have often (perhaps unfairly) levelled the blame at those more conservative Rotarians amongst us that like things to be done the way they have always been done. I still don't doubt that the guardians of the status quo are at times holding us back, but I do wonder if there's also an element of the baby elephant principle at play here. Is it possible that it's not solely our senior, tradition loving members holding us back, but also that fear of wandering beyond the length of the chain? If humans fall into this trap, I would theorise that Rotary clubs are also limited by the way their members have been restricted by their conditioning.

I've been very lucky to be a leader in a club that is not restrained by decades of habitual Rotarian behaviour. Imagine being the jockey on the best horse in the Melbourne cup and having your handicap removed. You'd probably win by the length of the straight. It's time to lose the weight from our Rotary saddle bags and pull the stake out of the ground. Unencumbered Rotarians can achieve anything they set their minds to. Let's be bold.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Weapons of 4% Destruction

This blog is not about Rotaractors. It's about how Rotary has failed in some regions to understand and cater for them and other volunteers under the age of 30. Not all commentary on Rotary is easy to give, and I'm about have my objectivity severely tested. It’s hard to be completely objective about something you love; something that has given you so much, but in this year in which both Rotaract and I turned 50, I feel it’s time to talk about the future of Rotaract in Australia. This will likely be a very polarising blog. Some will agree with my sentiments, and many will not, but what makes this particular topic very unique for me is that it’s a subject I have changed my mind on. I’ll admit I can be fairly opinionated, and whilst I generally will consider issues from a range of perspectives, it’s not often that I allow things to change my long-held opinions. And I’m prepared to admit that’s a character flaw. But if nothing else; my ten plus years in Rotaract and 21 in Rotary qualify me to comment.

Over the last few months I have spoken at a number of membership events interstate and in New Zealand. I’ve cherished the opportunity to catch up with old friends, but I also really enjoy meeting new friends and discussing something we’re all concerned about; Rotary’s declining membership (in Australia, New Zealand and most of the western world). 

The topic of Rotaract has been raised (not by me) at each of these events. I recall a District 9520 event maybe 5 or 6 years ago where a PDG made the statement that he thought we should abandon the concept of Rotaract, because they (current and potential Rotaractors) should just become Rotarians. I can recall finding this a very confronting statement at the time, because I had never previously heard those words said. But over the years since, I’ve heard it said more and more, and again during each of my recent travels. And here’s the thing: I’m starting to agree.

The Rotaract Club of Edwardstown circa 1993
My Rotaract experience was life-changing. I joined shortly after turning 18 in 1986 and was a Rotaractor until I joined the (sponsoring) Rotary club of Edwardstown in 1997. The ten plus years I spent in Rotaract were the best ten years of my life. I met my wife Debra and literally hundreds of amazing young people. I learned a lot about myself, and started to take an interest in the needs of others. Rotaract gave me a rudder, and undoubtedly made me a better person. There was never a weekend without Rotaract activity. If our club wasn’t doing something, a group of us would be turning up to another club’s event, or someone’s birthday party. It was non-stop action. And it was Rotaract that introduced me to Rotary.

But my Rotaract experience, and the Rotaract experience of my fellow Rotaractors and their predecessors can really only be measured against an 80s and 90s zeitgeist. When I entered Rotaract in 1986 there were 20 or 30 clubs and thousands of members across my own district (then 952) and our neighbouring District 950 (now 9520 & 9500 respectively). Those who experienced Rotaract before me report those numbers being much larger still. But sadly, the Rotaract train started to lose puff in our region in the second half of the 90s, and had all but derailed by the turn of the century. I have never been able to put my finger on the precise reason(s) this happened, but I can speculate that the decline started in the early 90s when rules compelling Rotarian oversight were relaxed. It was once compulsory for each Rotaract meeting to have a Rotarian present. But in an effort to see Rotaract stand on its own, this requirement was dispensed with. Whilst correlation does not equal causation, I believe it was no coincidence that Rotaract's local decline started around the same time. Then came the internet boom of the late 90s, and I feel that played a role in accelerating it. Suddenly young people had an online world to take some of their attention. Again, I don’t think this caused Rotaract’s general decline in Australia, but I think it played a role.

I saw this decline coming and (as a Rotaractor) begged for Rotary’s support. And whilst I will always acknowledge the amazing support offered by our sponsoring Rotary Club of Edwardstown, support for Rotaract at a district level seemed difficult to garner. It was only after clubs started dropping like flies that wider Rotarian interest was piqued. And then it was too late. I joined Rotary in 1997 and lost count of how many times I was asked by Rotarians to assist in Rotaract resuscitation efforts, all to no avail. I came to the conclusion in the early 2000s (as a Rotarian) that the era of Rotaract as we knew it had passed, and all we could do was remember the good times.

I get the idea that a directive to start Rotaract clubs is part and parcel of district governor training each year. Over the last decade there have been a number of efforts in Adelaide (both in D9500 & 9520) to relaunch Rotaract, and there has been some success, albeit limited. A few clubs seem to be doing well, and a few clubs burned bright for a while, but then burned out. There were some herculean efforts mounted by a handful of extremely dedicated and enthusiastic Rotarians who gave it their all, but I still can’t shake my core belief that today’s climate just doesn’t seem conducive to Rotaract: at least not in my neck of the woods.

So let’s for a moment talk about current Rotaract success stories. And I will stress I don’t have hard figures here. It doesn’t really help that Rotary doesn’t seem to have a mechanism to record Rotaract membership; at least nothing as sophisticated as its own database on Rotarians. It’s estimated there are over 10,000 Rotaract clubs worldwide, yet only 40% have confirmed their existence.

Barry Rassin visiting Rotaractors in Mumbai
There seem to be patches around the world where Rotaract is going gangbusters. I’m aware of districts in India with over 25,000 Rotaractors. Multiply that out by the number of districts in India alone and that’s a very big number indeed. There are clearly some massive Rotaract success stories, and it would be disingenuous of me to exclude these successes from the conversation. I understand Rotaract is still reasonably popular in its birthplace, the US. So what happened to Rotaract in Australia? Well, there are also some success stories in Australia right now, but population density seems to have a lot to do with it. I can understand districts with 25,000 Rotaractors in a country of one billion people. I can also understand Rotaract’s sustained success in the US given its population. So I guess it’s reasonable that most of the remaining Rotaract activity in Australia is in our larger population centres.

But for some time I’ve thought there must be some cultural differences over and above population density which have led towards Rotaract’s decline in Australia. I now have a theory on why Rotaract used to be so successful in Australia, but is now in decline; yet is growing at a staggering rate in places like India. Despite my constant carping that Rotary isn’t changing its culture quickly enough, there are considerable differences between the Rotary I remember at arm’s length as a Rotaractor (1986-1997) and the Rotary world I inhabit today. 

Back then Rotary appeared quite stuffy and elitist, and the classification system was king. Rotary was full of those captains of industry: doctors, lawyers and corporate high fliers. There appeared to be a certain level of prestige attached to being a Rotarian. Whether it was intentional or not, to an outsider there was a sense that the Rotary establishment looked down its collective noses at those who didn’t make the grade. But Rotaract gave 18-30 year olds a glimpse at this world. It allowed them to learn from business leaders and work alongside them, and this had a certain attraction even though we were unlikely to ever be accepted in their ranks.

In many ways, Rotaract back then was a form of Rotary for younger volunteers who couldn’t otherwise fit into the broader Rotary machine. But Australian life has become much more egalitarian over the last three decades, even Australian Rotary life. There are still pockets of elitism in Rotary in Australia, but I think they’re pretty rare. I feel the main difference now is that Rotary has become more accepting of younger volunteers joining our ranks, regardless of “classification” or socioeconomic standing. Our eligibility criteria have changed, and our collective attitude has generally caught up. We have become increasingly classless. Whilst I will stress that Rotary still has a problem attracting younger people, we have less of a problem accepting younger people. More on that later.

Egalitarianism appears to be increasing in much of the western world where Rotary membership is in decline, but that certainly cannot be said in other parts of the world where the growth in both Rotary and Rotaract are off the scale. It’s been a long time since Rotary was admired as an esteemed and prestigious organisation to belong to in Australia, however it still occupies an exclusive position in the many developing nations where it is growing. But membership is harder to attain in these areas for those who are less than elite; either socially or professionally.

I can hear you saying, “Get to the point Mark”. My theory is this: Where Rotary is still exclusive and revered, Rotaract is a way for those who are keen but otherwise might not be welcomed, to work at arm’s length with, rub shoulders with, and be mentored by those Rotary elites. But where Rotary doesn’t hold such a high standing in a more equitable society, despite being generally more accepting of younger and less professionally senior candidates, we struggle to attract them. There are many reasons Rotary is not as attractive to a younger generation, including the cost of membership, and Rotaract still offers a less expensive version of service whilst still connected to Rotary.

The transition of Rotaractors to Rotary globally still remains pathetically low at an estimated 4%. And that rate is common globally. In Australia (and I suspect most of the western world) it’s because Rotary just isn’t sufficiently attractive. In those emerging nations I suspect it’s more about elitism and exclusivity. Let me put this another way. In the west we’re keen for young people to join, but can't seem to attract them. Elsewhere we’re attractive but we’re not so keen to have them. It strikes me there must be a massive cohort of Rotaractors in developing nations who drift away from the Rotary family once they age out at 30, but the population is so high and the membership so strong, that it’s not seen as an issue.

RI President Barry Rassin is looking to double the number of Rotaract clubs and Rotaractors. I’m not sure how you double a figure that is unknown, but mathematical semantics aside, I’m not sure what this sort of aspiration achieves. I admire him for supporting Rotaract, but doubling it? In a recent speech delivered to a leadership seminar in Greensboro, North Carolina, (and I must stress I this is a summary of his speech, not a transcript) President Barry reportedly described Rotaract as "Rotary’s secret weapon" for increasing membership with young professionals, but later conceded what we already knew, that only 4% became Rotarians. Any weapon that can only hit 4% of its targets should remain a secret. He was also quoted as saying, “Having a community-based Rotaract Club is a suitable strategy for Rotary Clubs that are challenged or not accepting of young professionals in their own club.” And there we have it in a nutshell. I outlined this problem a few paragraphs back. Why on Earth are Rotary clubs “not accepting of young professionals in their own club?”

A while ago I blogged about the danger of picking the low hanging fruit, where I expressed concerns that if Rotary focuses only on people in their 50s as prospective members, it stops us from evolving and progressing our organisation to a point where it is attractive to younger members. A Rotarian friend said almost exactly the same thing to me at one of these recent seminars. Her words were “it’s lazy”. We can keep change in the “too hard box” if Rotaract remains our strategy for anyone under 30.

Here’s the bottom line as I see it. Where Rotaract is strong; let’s keep it strong. Where Rotaract is not strong, but still alive in pockets; let’s do what we can to support our Rotaractors and partner with them. But where Rotaract is dead or dying; rather than instructing our district leaders to start new Rotaract clubs, let’s channel our energies into new, flexible ROTARY clubs, where the Rotary journeys of our young leaders can extend beyond the age of 30. Maybe the solution requires genuine membership flexibility, not the faux flexibility currently on offer from RI. The option of being a (dues paying) member, or not being a member is hardly flexible.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Rowing in the Same Direction

It’s very rare that I find myself stuck for words. Here is a story about one such occasion. Earlier this year I was the guest at an event of another Rotary district where (amongst other things) attending club delegates were called to vote on a proposal for the 2019 Council on Legislation. 

Every three years, Rotary International has a process whereby the rules that govern our operation can be changed. Any Rotarian can suggest rule changes. Those suggestions need to be approved at club level, then at district level, and can then be tabled at our triennial “Council on Legislation”, where a delegate from every district across the world votes “yes” or “no”. There’s a little more to it than that, but I will keep it simple for the sake of the story. 

What was the proposal in question? That Rotary International revert back to its old logos. Did I just hear what I thought I heard? I was at the time sitting with a Rotary friend about half my age, and we looked at each other with bewilderment. But then something happened that left me completely gobsmacked. The vote got up. Yep, a majority of club delegates (most of whom were presidents) voted to support a motion which in essence would do away with Rotary’s current global branding strategy. All I could think was “what just happened?” 

I am of course consoled by the fact that there is zero chance of this proposal going any further, but I’ve got to say I found this one of the more disturbing outcomes in my journey as a membership advocate; and I have seen some very disturbing outcomes! I’ve also been around Rotary long enough to know that a sizeable proportion of Rotarians are not especially interested in our legislative process, and it’s quite likely on the night that many of those hands that went up were more a response of “yeah, whatever” after seeing the first few hands raised, than any form of conscious deliberation on our branding. 
Left: the old logo (or as I prefer to call it, the superseded logo); Right: the current logo, or "Masterbrand Signature".
Despite that, Rotarians are still arguing about logos, and I want to get to the bottom of it. Most of my commentary on Rotary over the last ten or more years including my blogs and my book Creatures of Habit has incorporated an ever present thread about resistance to change and I suspect this issue is no different. This change began in 2011 with an unprecedented initiative to strengthen Rotary’s image. These words are reproduced directly from our Voice and Visual Identity Guidelines

“For many years, our Rotary wheel stood alone as our logo on signage and communications materials. Although the words Rotary International were embedded in the wheel, they were hard to read from a distance. As a result, the general public did not always recognise Rotary’s involvement in a project or activity. That’s why we decided to expand our official logo to include the word “Rotary” next to the wheel. This is our official logo and our masterbrand signature, which should be used whenever possible.” 

The above document (download here) is essential reading for any Rotarian who wishes to create any form of promotional material for Rotary. From business cards to billboards, websites, Facebook posts and even television advertising. But when it comes to essential reading, I would suggest everyone also download and read “Revitalising Rotary”, a report prepared by global branding company Siegel & Gale (commissioned by Rotary International) into our organisation’s public image in 2011. This document is confronting reading, reporting (at the time) that we struggled internally to define ourselves, and suffered from an identity crisis. A telling quote from someone only identified as “Rotary Leadership” is this one: “Rotarians don’t understand who or what we are. We have to educate ourselves and our members first, before we can successfully do so with the general public.” 

So, why does all of this public image stuff even matter? If it aint broke, why fix it? We mustn’t change for change’s sake. That’s not the way we do things around here! Do these quotes sound familiar? Newsflash… Rotary has been haemorrhaging members in the west for over 20 years, mainly because recruitment has not kept up with attrition. What are the main reasons people aren’t joining? Well, it’s true that some people are too busy, and some people feel they can’t afford it, and some people aren’t community minded. It is also true that there are people out there that would be perfect for Rotary, but feel that Rotary is not right for them. But I would suggest the overwhelming reason people aren’t joining is because they don’t understand who we are and what we do. And that is where our public image is so very important. It’s about proudly telling Rotary stories and conveying concise messages, which historically we haven’t done well. 

Rotary’s programs are so broad and diverse, it can be challenging to convey that they all form part of the Rotary portfolio. Our organisation is eradicating polio, providing emergency shelter after natural disasters, drilling bore wells to provide potable drinking water, educating children, training negotiators in peace and conflict resolution. It’s a list as long as the proverbial piece of string. To further complicate things, we have previously had a policy of creating different imagery and logos for all of these different programs. Some have not even included the word “Rotary” or a Rotary logo. To me it’s as plain as the nose on your face. We need simple, consistent Rotary branding on everything we do. 

My vocational expertise is not in the area of public relations or marketing, so I am happy to leave this to the experts who know what they’re doing. And that’s what our board of directors did. They didn’t just speak to the bloke in the neighbouring club who was pretty good with graphics. They engaged public image professionals. Rotary leadership has also made it very easy to update club imagery and create the right logos by visiting the Rotary Brand Centre

There are a number of reasons individual Rotarians are continuing to use the old (pre 2013) logo, and none of them are particularly good. One reason is a lack of awareness. I suppose that can be broken down to a combination of ignorance, poor training or poor communication, some of which district leaders need to take responsibility for. Any other reasons would fall somewhere between indifference and wilful defiance. “But I don’t like the new logo”, or “I don’t like the colours”. Without doubt there exists a segment of Rotarians who feel they’ve already given up too much of the old Rotary they once knew. Progressives like me have removed many of their cherished rituals from meetings, we’ve opened the membership up to “commoners”, and some clubs aren’t even meeting weekly, which some see as heresy. Maybe they’re clinging onto that old logo as a final relic of traditional Rotary that has all but disappeared. 

But here’s what I really think is happening. It occurs to me that for an alarmingly large segment of Rotarians; probably the majority, the cocoon that is their own club environment represents their entire Rotary experience. There seem to be a hell of a lot of Rotarians that never attend a district conference, never attend district training events, never visit meetings or events run by other clubs, and if not for the occasional visiting Rotarian at their own meeting, would never even meet a Rotarian from another club. They really don’t see themselves as a member of Rotary International, only a member of their own club. They may well be very conscientious contributors to their club programs, but they are insular in nature and Rotary for them starts and stops within their club confines. They’re not big picture thinkers, and are oblivious to public image ramifications on the wider organisation. When they choose a Rotary logo, it is solely for the purpose of promoting their club program or event, and any public image considerations beyond their patch are inconsequential. 

Rotary leaders have often drawn comparisons to McDonalds. Everywhere you go in the world, the golden arches are the same. On every advertisement, store window, McHappy meal box and fries bag across the globe, the logo is uniform. McDonalds have changed their logo over the years, and every time the change has been consistent across every store. Can you imagine every store manager using a different version of the golden arches? Can you imagine a McDonalds employee whining because they didn't think the yellow arches looked good against a white background? It simply wouldn’t happen. Rotarians, it’s time to start rowing in the same direction.

Monday, 30 July 2018

You Reap What You Sow

Occasionally we get a chance to take stock and consider our own personal journeys and where we're at. Be it our careers, finances, relationships or health; unless we've just won the lottery, the position we find ourselves in today is rarely due to events that happened overnight. It's more likely the case that choices we made 10, 20, 30 years ago or more have landed us where we are right now. In the same way, I believe Rotary's current precarious membership predicament to be primarily the result of choices Rotarians made 20 years ago or more. You reap what you sow, and it's also true that you cannot reap that which you haven't sown.

If I cast my mind back to the mid 90s, I have some fairly strong memories of how Rotary appeared from the outside. I had been a Rotaractor for close to 10 years, and whilst not (yet) a Rotarian, my membership in Rotaract frequently saw me working alongside Rotarians, giving me a closer glimpse than most outsiders. I must say without reservation that the overwhelming majority of my experiences were positive. Even some of those daggy Rotary meeting rituals didn't seem so much out of place; many were replicated in our Rotaract meetings at the time. Our Rotaract club was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Edwardstown; the club I joined in 1997 and was a proud member of for 19 years. We Rotaractors were always welcomed and looked after by the Rotarians, and I formed many strong friendships well before joining their ranks. But as I look back now, I can clearly recall elements of Rotary culture that didn't sit well with me. I'm certainly not singling out the Edwardstown club here; we often mingled with Rotaractors from other clubs, and I can recall some stories of Rotarian behaviour further afield which led me to believe that these things I'm about to discuss were far from isolated.

In 1989 our Council on Legislation allowed Rotary clubs to admit women, but it would be fibbing to suggest that we universally opened our arms and welcomed women in at the time. I was one of those Rotaractors who was around in the early 90s and watched local clubs time after time hold votes on whether women would be allowed to join, and time after time saw the vote go down. I was one of those Rotaractors who saw Rotarians threaten to resign if women were allowed to join, and I saw many of those threats carried out. I served alongside some fantastic young women in Rotaract who were suitably unimpressed that they couldn't share the same pathway into Rotary as their male colleagues. It was 1994 when the Rotary Club of Edwardstown inducted its first female Rotarian, but sadly many clubs dragged their male only heels for many years after that, and disgracefully in 2018, there still exist many male-only clubs.

Here's something else I remember vividly from Rotary culture in the 90s. It was that form of elitism that looked down its nose at those considered not qualified for membership. Back then, it wasn't about one's capacity to serve the community, but one's career seniority. My memories of the Edwardstown club at the time was that it was full of corporate high-fliers and captains of industry; very much typical of broader Rotary. I cannot suggest for an instant that any of those members were less than welcoming of we Rotaractors, but I still remember the aura of an organisation of prestige and in many ways, exclusion. When I was invited to join (with my wife Debra, a fellow Rotaractor) at the time, I must admit it was a very humbling experience. I would later hold a workplace management role, but at the time I didn't. I was quite surprised I was considered "qualified". We both joined soon after, and it was the start of a wonderful Rotary journey, but I can't help but wonder how many conversations might have been held by the club leadership as to our suitability to join the ranks.

Of course, it's true that in many clubs the desire to recruit members had long been stronger than the desire to obey the rules. It's unfair to tar all of Rotary with the same brush. It was that desire by the Rotary Club of Duarte in California which led to the eventual inclusion of women amongst our ranks, when they invited three women to join in 1978, eleven years before it was made legal.

So, where am I going with this? Well, which demographic do you think was most affected by Rotary's strict rules (or perhaps more to the point, strict interpretations of said rules) about eligibility, qualification and classification? Well it's quite simple: young people! Of course there would certainly have been young entrepreneurs and managers that would have fitted Rotary's membership criteria at time, but that desire to keep Rotary an organisation of prestige kept a hell of a lot of young people out, and still does today. And we also know that there are many instances today where women are kept out.

Call it ignorance, bloody-mindedness, or just a misguided or perhaps short sighted sense of duty; those Rotary attitudes of the 90s and earlier served to keep huge numbers of women and younger people out of the organisation.  It's possible some who were passed over 
like the fish that John West rejects may have tried again later or elsewhere, but I suspect we would have lost the majority of them for good. The only thing I find surprising today about our two most underrepresented membership demographics is that it comes as a surprise. When anyone asks me, "Where are all the women and young people?", my response quite simply is "We reap what we sow". This is the membership bed we made in the 90s; now we're being forced to lie in it.

I can also distinctly remember another part of Rotary culture in the 90s; it was the concept that we should rely solely on our good deeds to speak for us. This might have been one of those unspoken rules, but we really did keep our light under the bushel at the time. I can't track it to a precise moment in time, but my gut tells me it was soon after the turn of the century when the wheel started to turn, and we realised that we needed to get on the front foot with our public image. I've said this before, and found myself in hot water over it: Our marketing sucks. At least it did when I first said it on stage at an Institute in 2012. I do think we've since made considerable inroads into controlling our public image and projecting a more united message to the world, but the fact remains that way too many people still don't understand who we are or what we do. And this is no accident; it was a conscious decision in the 20th century not to promote ourselves. Clubs are still making the conscious decision not to spend a dime on advertising. They are also choosing to ignore RI's repeated requests to use Rotary's new (introduced 5 years ago) official marks.

I do at times question, "Should we have known better?" I appreciate that hindsight is 20/20, but did we really need Nostradamus to predict that those practices of failing to welcome women, setting the eligibility bar too high for young people, and failing to promote ourselves in the 90s would lead to today's shortage of women, young people, and brand awareness? It's hardly rocket science. Or maybe it was more a case of our collective infatuation with the present trumping any regard for the future. I have often commented that our two biggest challenges are comfort and apathy. I still fear that lifting our gaze from next week's meeting to our next decade of operation is for many in the "too hard" basket. Maybe that's a byproduct of a membership base with an average age of 71.

It serves no purpose to heap disdain on the ghosts of Rotary past, but the one thing we can do is learn from our mistakes. The beauty of the "Reap what you sow" proverb is that it doesn't just relate to the past; it relates to the future too. We can take control of our destiny. In the same way that we are faced today with the consequences of yesterday's actions, we have a wonderful opportunity today to take action to sure up our future membership outcomes. We cannot lose faith when we don't see results overnight. My own District 9520 has just this month arrested a run of seven consecutive years of net membership loss. Yes, the 2017/18 year concluded in the black, and I was as surprised as anyone. It's something district leadership, myself included, has been working hard on for many years, and I'm really hoping our sowing will lead to continued reaping. 

In conclusion, I would urge caution with regard to swinging the recruitment pendulum too far the other way. I do think we have erred in the past by keeping too many good people out, but we still have to apply due process to our recruitment efforts, and not over-correct. It is equally counterproductive when we look to increase our numbers at any cost. Many clubs have suffered from bringing the wrong people into Rotary.