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.