Monday, 5 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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mark, some great analysis (and reminiscing!) I've been District Rotaract Chair and, for the last five years, Zone 8 District Rotaract Training Chair. Speaking to Rotaractors during that time leads me the put the responsibility for the decline of Rotaract firmly at the feet of Rotary Clubs and Districts; those who sponsor Rotaract Clubs and those who don't. One of the major topics at DRR training is the Rotary-Rotaract relationship … and the discussion does not flatter Rotary. Too many Districts refuse to involve Rotaractors in the management of the District, and too many Rotary Clubs still see Rotaract as free labour for their own fundraising events. Until both change, the future of Rotaract will remain in the balance.