Thursday, 14 March 2019

Would You Like Fries With That?

About 20 years ago whilst driving around town running a few errands, I was feeling a bit peckish at lunch time and found myself in the drive through of a local KFC store. When I got to the service window, the girl told me, “I’m terribly sorry sir, but we’ve run out of chicken.” I don’t often find myself stuck for words, but this was one such occasion. I was flabbergasted. For crying out loud, the “C” in KFC stands for chicken! It crossed my mind that a KFC store without chicken seems pretty pointless. More on that later.

I’ve probably given more membership presentations over the last 12 months than the previous five years, and I have been commencing these talks with my theories on how we got ourselves into this membership crisis. I list a number of reasons, but the first one I talk about is relevance; more particularly how I feel we have lost it in the eyes of the general public. I believe we are struggling to appear relevant for a number of reasons, one of which is quite literally a “first world problem”. More to the point; a lack of first world problems. Consider for a moment our Rotary Foundation six areas of focus: Water & Sanitation, Maternal & Child Health, Basic Education & Literacy, Peace & Conflict Resolution, Economic Development and Disease Prevention & Treatment. Whilst we must always strive for improvement, I think even the harshest critics would have to admit by global standards Australia would get a tick in most of these areas. By and large, Rotary’s focus is justifiably on the developing world when addressing those issues. So I think in part, our relevance challenges are tied to living in a lucky country where we really don’t want for much. It’s reasonable for the public to ask, “Well, why do we even need service clubs?”

Since I joined Rotary in 1997 we’ve lost 30% of our membership base in Australia. We’ve seen a net loss of 100 clubs, and those remaining have become progressively smaller, from an average club size of 33.5 down to 25.3 members. Over this same period our average age has risen from the mid 50s to the low 70s, and a many more of us are retired; an estimated 50%.

How do you think the combination of fewer and smaller clubs, older members and more retirees affects our public image?  Well here’s what I think. I think our perceived (and often actual) capacity to network and serve our communities is very much diminished. Older and fewer members means less capacity to serve, and once retired, our professional networks begin to atrophy. I would suggest in some clubs the capacity to network and serve our communities has all but disappeared. I know I’m not drawing a long bow here, because I’ve seen with my own eyes some of these clubs which are down to 10 or fewer members, all aged well over 70. Many (definitely not all) are just not making an impact on their communities any more, and they will admit they have approached everyone they know to join Rotary, and now have no-one left to ask. How appealing do you think these clubs are to prospective members, assuming they can find any? Every year there’s a battle to find another president who hasn’t already done it 3 or 4 times. That is often the point at which clubs decide to hand in their charter.

Have a good, hard think about this. Rotary was built on networking and community service. We started as a networking organisation, and soon morphed into a service club. If we have clubs amongst us which have lost their capacity to network and serve, what do they have left to offer? I put it to you that networking and community service are to Rotary what chicken is to KFC. Without them, we can appear pretty pointless.

I can already hear you saying, “But those clubs are still providing valuable fellowship and camaraderie opportunities to those remaining members and we shouldn’t discount that.” Yep, I get that. But our motto is not “fellowship and camaraderie above self”.  My fear is not only that many of our once strong and active clubs have now been diluted to a fellowship group, but that we’re comfortable with the concept. I suppose that KFC store still had plenty of sugar laden coleslaw and that sloppy potato mash with gravy on the day I visited too. But that wasn’t what I was looking for, so I just drove on, and I think likewise; many membership opportunities are being lost because our prospects aren’t finding what they’re looking for either. They’re just driving on.

Last year I attended a joint District (9500 & 9520) forum in Adelaide where young (mainly aged under 40) Rotarians and alumni including Rotaractors and RYLArians were asked for their perspectives on the impending merger of our districts in 2020. There would have been at least 40 in the room. I had run a similar event back in 2015, so I must admit I didn’t really hear too many comments that I hadn’t heard before, but what really thrilled me was the collective love for Rotary amongst the group. They had all benefited from their brush with Rotary and seemed genuinely keen to continue their association with Rotary in some manner. But what became abundantly clear from the majority in the room who were not already Rotarians, was that they just didn’t see a sufficiently attractive version of Rotary on offer from any existing clubs. At the time I was myself involved in district merger conversations, and tried to make the case that we needed to start a few new clubs to take advantage of this interest, but I feel my efforts were in vain.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The best opportunity for membership growth lies in new clubs. I’m not going to pretend the process of getting Seaford off the ground was an easy one, but in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “Nothing worth having was every achieved without effort.”

If we can’t turn around these clubs offering little to attract new members, and we’re not bold enough to start new clubs, what are our options? How often do we hear of businesses, sporting teams or organisations resorting to “back to basics” thinking when things start going pear shaped? It’s about recognising what your core principles are and making sure you do them well. Surely for Rotary those core principles are building a healthy, mutually beneficial network and providing tangible and impactful service outcomes for our local and international communities. Everything else is peripheral.

Col. Harland Sanders was a Rotarian. Note the pin on his collar.
I’ve often been asked by Rotarians about the secret formula behind the success of the Rotary Club of Seaford. There is an assumption we’ve developed some complicated strategy to grow and flourish against a background of drastic membership decline and club closure. Well, in our case there are no eleven secret herbs and spices. What we do isn’t complicated; it is simple. We’ve done away with so many of traditional Rotary’s distractions (many of which are attached to our obsession with meetings) and we focus heavily on local hands on projects and networking. Guess what? It works. If you’re questioning the direction your club is heading, check to see if you’ve run out of fried chicken. 

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Escaping the Heat

It’s the middle of summer here in Adelaide, where I’ve lived my entire life. The last week saw the local temperature exceeding 40°C (104°F) on a number of days. Whilst I am currently typing in air-conditioned comfort, it’s fair to say most Adelaidians know a good deal about heat.

Meanwhile, Rotary’s future district leaders are at the International Assembly in San Diego being trained up for their important role commencing July 1, and of course to deliver their own training to club and district leaders in the months between now and then. Not having served as a District Governor myself, I only have second hand accounts to go on, but I get the idea there’s a good deal of heat experienced by incoming and serving District Governors, and I’m not talking about the heat you feel when you step outside at this time of the year in Adelaide. I’m talking about the heat to continually increase our membership. There will no doubt be a comprehensive agenda of training and inspiration delivered on all areas of Rotary leadership, but I suspect the number one thing on the mind of all District Governors Elect as they return home will be the prime directive: get the numbers up!

In his opening speech, Rotary International President Elect (RIPE - we really need to work on our acronyms) Mark Maloney announced his first emphasis was to grow our membership so that we can achieve more. “Last year we set a record for the number of people who left our organisation. We need to address the root causes of that member loss. Membership is all that stands between a Rotary that serves and a Rotary that disappears.” You can view his address in full here.

I was a District Membership Chair for three years, and I can assure you, I felt the heat. I would imagine a good deal of club presidents feel the heat too. I am very proud of the work I did in that role over three years, but live with the constant regret that despite my efforts, the numbers went down every year. I’ve often used the analogy of running up the down escalator. You have to work pretty hard to even stay in the same place, and if you relax for a moment, you get dragged down immediately.

I’m starting to work out why some of us work really hard on membership, yet see so little in the way of results. It’s because most Rotarians don’t feel the heat. I’m sure if we surveyed all of our members, the overwhelming majority would respond that they would like to see the organisation grow. You’d probably even get a majority that would agree that the organisation needed to change. But if you conducted another survey and asked the question, “In order to grow the organisation, are you willing to have your Rotary experience change?”, I reckon most would say no. Most people will begrudgingly accept change as long as they are not the ones who have to do the changing; as long as they don’t feel any heat.

I put it to you that we already know what we need to do in order to turn around our membership fortunes, but there are just too many who aren’t prepared to do it. I strongly believe that the biggest change we have to make is to transform from a meeting-centric organisation to a service-centric organisation, but attending meetings with a meal and a guest speaker is so embedded in Rotary culture, and it seems hard to see where how such a shift in priorities would ever occur. Our last Council on Legislation in 2016 delivered serious options for clubs wishing to provide more flexible meeting formats, but in many clubs the Guardians of the Status Quo fight very hard to make sure Rotary remains stuck in the 20th century, doing things the same way we’ve always done them.

Sadly there are too many Rotarians who won’t lift a finger to help grow the organisation. It’s not their job. They want everything to stay the same, because staying the same means staying comfortable. I do have some sympathy for those senior members who have worked hard and made a great contribution over the years, and want to enjoy their remaining years in the organisation. We all need to enjoy our Rotary experience, and get something out of it. But that enjoyment cannot come at the cost of progress in all forms. We must evolve and find new ways to serve, and attract new people to serve. Service Above Self is our motto and service must be our priority. If we’re blocking progress; we’re blocking growth. And if we’re blocking growth, we’re reducing service capacity. 

Maybe we can shield those long-standing members from the heat, but club leaders still feel the heat, and must be free to respond to it. The challenge for club leaders is that they're copping heat from both directions. They feel the heat from district leaders who are constantly at them to grow membership, and they feel the heat from the blockers within their own club who fight against change. No wonder so many are happy to get out of the kitchen when their term expires. That’s a lot of pressure on those people who have volunteered to lead the club.

The very highest levels of Rotary’s global leadership desperately want to grow the organisation, or at best prevent it from declining. On the surface at least, a bigger organisation means greater reach and greater capacity to deliver tangible outcomes for those who need our help. But there are also enormous operational costs in keeping our massive organisation ticking. Those costs must be met by the membership base, and despite increasingly frequent conversations about membership flexibility; there is exactly zero flexibility when it comes to RI recognising you as a member. If you pay RI dues; you’re a member. If you don’t; you’re not.

I have often asserted that our best opportunity for growth lies with creating new clubs. I have been through the process myself, and I’m not going to pretend it’s easy, because it’s far from it. But it’s doable, and the opportunities for new clubs are infinite. The greatest factor that allows a new club to thrive is what I call the “baggage free zone”. By starting with a blank slate, there are no rituals or traditions to follow. No-one barking at your heels with comments such as “But we’ve always done it this way”. That freedom is invaluable, and it’s something I have noticed first hand at the Rotary Club of Seaford. We do things differently because we are allowed to do things differently, and we’re not held back by those who are accustomed to things being done the same way for decades. As a result we can create a more flexible style of Rotary that is more attractive to more people.

It would appear President Elect Maloney agrees. Here are a few other snippets from his opening address. “We must grow Rotary by forming new clubs. We need to form new clubs not only where Rotary does not exist, but in communities where Rotary is thriving. We need to start new model clubs, offering alternative meeting experiences and service opportunities.”

And here’s an extract from CEO John Hewko’s address at the same event in 2018:
“We need to unleash the creativity of our 35,000 clubs, because every club is a potential beta tester for different club models and models of service. Some will work and some will fail, but the important thing is to think differently.”

But here’s where things get challenging. The Guardians of the Status Quo do not appear satisfied merely with denying progress in existing clubs. They also want to block innovation outside of their own clubs. As if there aren’t enough challenges faced by the trailblazing Rotarians who have the foresight and gumption to start a new club. I faced considerable opposition from neighbouring clubs when I announced plans to start the Rotary Club of Seaford, and I’ve come to learn this is pretty much par for the course. I have a Rotary friend in another Australian district who is facing similar opposition right now to his moves to get a new club up and running from clubs in the region.

I won’t mince my words. This disgusts me. It’s what happens when SELF gets in the way of SERVICE. I know how the argument goes. It’s the very same argument I heard near Seaford a few years ago. “You’re intruding into our recruiting zone.” 

There’s a mindset held by many Rotarians that sooner or later, the new members will just come. Well, in some cases they do. Sometimes new fish are attracted to old bait that has been sitting in the water for a while. But more often than not, there are no fish interested in the sort of bait you’re dangling overboard, and you need to change your bait.

The reason we found the 20 new recruits we needed to charter a new Rotary club, was that we were offering a completely different version of Rotary than that which was already on offer in the region. The existing clubs were never going to attract the people we recruited. New clubs have that opportunity to offer something new and attract new people. And the blockers know it, but they want to have their cake and eat it to. They want their version of Rotary to stay the way it always has been, but they want to attract the people they have never been able to attract.

My message to the blockers is this. Your district leaders will shortly return to your district, full of enthusiasm with new ideas and a drive to grow the organisation. They in turn will pass those messages and enthusiasm onto your new club leaders, who will then try and bring progress and growth to your club. How about this year, we don’t stand in their way? How about we give them the freedom to escape at least some of the heat? Maybe it's time to direct some heat towards the Guardians of the Status Quo.