Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The Two Camps

When it comes to Rotary District Conferences, chances are you’re in one of two camps; those that go and those that don’t. I am happily in the conference goer camp, and have only missed a few over my 22 plus years in Rotary, but I am clearly in the minority.

I've lost track of the number of conversations I’ve had with every-day Rotarians in the “goer” camp about why more Rotarians do not attend their district conference. I’ve also heard many a Rotarian suggesting that we need to be opening up our conferences to the general public and using the event to showcase our work. That is of course a laudable aspiration, but let’s tackle one challenge at a time. It occurs to me when the majority of Rotarians aren’t interested in attending such key events, we have our work cut out for us engaging non-Rotarians.

In the same way people weigh up the pros and cons of Rotary membership, it's only natural that Rotarians will weigh up the pros and cons of attending their district conference. I reckon I’ve attended around 15 of them in my own district plus a few in others, and memories start to fade over the years, but I can’t remember any that I haven’t enjoyed.

The first pro I see is camaraderie; spending quality time with your own club members and getting to know new friends from other clubs. The change of scenery is a pro; the touring, shopping, dining out, and other experiences of an environment away from home usually make for a pretty enjoyable experience. There’s an entertainment factor from a variety of informative and inspiring key note speakers, plus the odd musical act, and again, that’s mainly positive, although it’s unreasonable to expect every delegate will fully appreciate every speaker. But I'd like to think there's always something for everyone on most programmes. The other big benefit I derive from these events is the expansion of Rotary knowledge. There are often amazing Rotary experiences, projects and fundraising initiatives shared by the speakers and in the Rotary showcase. The wall-to-wall tables full of scones and slices at morning tea time are a pro, although I can't say that about the lengthy queues to the coffee stations. 

I'm one who sees the district conference cup as more than half full, with the pros outweighing the cons, but not everyone does. And we cannot pretend those cons don't exist. The cost of attending a District Conference is a major barrier to many. Registration is a cost; not for one particular district I visited recently, where every Rotarian across said district pays an inflated district levy to cover registration costs for those who attend their district conference. In that district, you only have to pay for the meal component of the conference. Some would see that as an innovative approach, but some may be questioning if it’s fair to all concerned. Accommodation is a cost and travel is a cost. It has been my experience that the sum of registration, travel and accommodation is unlikely to leave you much change from $700, or well over $1,000 for a couple. This is not insignificant.

But as I am often keen to remind people, the cost of involvement in Rotary is not solely monetary. There is a cost to giving up your time as well. Giving up a weekend in some districts and (depending on travel and programming) up to four days in others, is a big time commitment. One question that seems to come up most in conversations about district conferences is “Where are all the young people?” Well, before answering that, understand that we’re not exactly drawing from an evenly represented pool. 50% of the general population is aged under 50, but only 12% of Rotary’s membership in Australia is aged under 50. I would suggest the same things keeping younger people out of Rotary; such as relevance and competitors for their time and money, are keeping younger people home during district conferences. That’s basically it in a nutshell.

There's an unambiguous parallel between the overwhelming majority of conference goers and the overwhelming majority of Rotarians; they’re retired. I regularly hear from younger people that they can’t attend district conferences (many of which start on week days here) because they can’t get the time off work. And if they can, it’s either without pay, or eating into their annual leave allocation. But if you’re retired, you have more spare time and chances are you’re looking for activities to fill some of it. It would also appear for this demographic, the further the veune is from home, the more popular. Now it is true that some younger people make it to district conferences. Some of them have more flexible work arrangements or are indeed willing to make that extra sacrifice in giving up work hours to attend, because they feel like me, that the pros outweigh the cons. But they’re in the minority. My longest run of missed conferences occurred during the period that I ran a catering business, because weekends were when I made 90% of my income. I simply couldn’t afford to knock back the work at the time.

So, back to that question, “How do we get more bums on seats at district conferences?” Well first I want to answer the question that no-one is asking, which is “How could we ensure we see less bums on seats at district conferences?” The answer to the latter question is to drastically change our conferences. What? Wait a minute? Did you just hear me right? One of Rotary’s greatest advocates for change suggesting that drastic change is NOT the answer? Yep. Let me explain.

We can't be throwing our babies out with the bath water. We first need to understand our target audience for district conferences, and what makes the people who attend pretty much every year different from those who rarely, if ever attend. One of my very first blogs was called Ham and Pineapple Rotary. You can read the full blog here, where I proposed that some people want a pretty basic version of Rotary; a version I call “Ham and Pineapple Rotary”. Some people don’t want all the trimmings. They’re very happy in their little club cocoon and aren’t interested in the wider Rotary world. They aren’t attracted by activities or events of other clubs, or anything at district level, and it wouldn't matter what you offered them; they won't ever turn up to a district conference. They're simply not in that camp. The routine of meetings and BBQs suits them just fine. For some, even that is a challenge. And as much as I’d like to see more Rotarians expand their horizons, we need all of these people. 

Personally, I find ham and pineapple pizza a little uninspiring, as I do with ham and pineapple Rotary. I want all the trimmings (except olives). I want super supreme Rotary. The Rotarians who attend district conferences regularly, often with their partners, might not be into super supreme Rotary, but they definitely want more than ham and pineapple on their Rotary pizza. They are the people who generally see all pros and no cons when it comes to district conferences. They may only make up around 20-30% of the total district membership base, but I would suggest they can be counted on to turn up to every conference, year after year. They are in that camp.

One of the big mistakes political parties often make is to ignore their base in the hunt for more votes, and I would suggest it would also be a big mistake if conference organisers ignored their base (i.e. the Rotarians who can be relied upon to turn up to conferences every year) in the hunt for more bums on seats. I'd have to question if there is any way to significantly change the format of the current traditional style of district conference to attract a new audience without alienating the existing audience. Sure, you can tweak things. I’ve always wanted clubs and districts to innovate and push boundaries, and district conference organisers should be looking to do the same. Part of the initial planning is about considering different venues, food options, entertainment, cost and accommodation options, and of course relevant and inspiring keynote speakers are really critical. They obviously want their conference to be unique and memorable, but I doubt a district conference can ever be all things to all Rotarians. Any salesman knows it's easier to keep existing customers than find new ones.

I’ve learnt a hell of a lot throughout my journey as a membership specialist, but I have only recently started to fully comprehend the concept that “and trumps or” (no reference to POTUS intended).

Earlier on in my journey, I was a bit of an “or” guy. I used to look at many aspects of Rotary with a view that we should be doing Option B instead of Option A. But in our mission to become a more inclusive organisation, I have come to realise that asking members and clubs to choose one option or the other is perhaps the antithesis of inclusivity. My mindset has slowly evolved, and I now believe our chances for growth improve when we offer Option B in additon to Option A. I was once hell bent on replacing traditional Rotary with newer versions of Rotary, but in later years I’ve come to realise that there is still a place for traditional Rotary clubs (provided they are still active and impactful), and that we need to complement traditional Rotary with newer versions of Rotary. It took me a two year process of starting a new club to fully understand that one size does not fit all. 

What’s this got to do with district conferences? Well, maybe the attendance problem at conferences requires an “and solution”, not an “or solution”. Maybe we need to keep the traditional style of district conference to attract the traditional style of conference goer, and provide a different style of event for a new market of Rotarians and non-Rotarians. How about a one-day event designed with a younger audience in mind, with speakers and activities more relevant to that audience. Like a TEDx event. Costs can be lowered by holding in larger metropolitan centres meaning the majority would not need to travel or find accommodation. Regional delegates could be offered free home hosting if required. Our senior/retired members love the Rotary getaway, and have more time for it. I'm not sure that's always the case with our younger members, who don't necessarily want Rotary involved in their getaways.

Optional food, or even the ability for people to bring their own food would help keep costs down and help those with special dietary needs. Involve Rotaractors and other alumni in planning, logistics and organisation. Have a blend of top-notch speakers from the business world and experts on current hot-button topics, but also include impactful presenters on Rotary issues who can inspire Rotarians and non-Rotarians alike. I have organised big events, and I’m convinced it’s doable. 

Consider the example of cricket, and how it has been forced to innovate to reach new audiences. My readers in the USA and other non-cricketing countries might just have to tune out for a moment here. Test cricket has always been the purest form of the game, lasting up to five days. But in order to appeal to a wider audience, limited overs cricket took hold in the 70s with games completed inside one day. In more recent years, T20 (20 overs per side – lasting around three hours total) cricket has rapidly gained in popularity, especially with young families. If I’m completely honest, I can take or leave limited overs cricket; I’m a test cricket tragic. But it has served a purpose in finding a new audience, and has also led more people to take up an interest in test cricket. If a shorter version of the game can work for cricket, why can’t it work for district conferences?

I've got another massive year ahead of me in 2020, with a number of appearances at conferences and training events. I always look forward to these events, but I expect my biggest highlight will take place in October, when I will be making my first ever trip to the United Kingdom.

I have been invited to speak at the District 1110 Rotary InterXchange in Portsmouth. This two-day event is replacing a traditional district conference and has a strong focus on community engagement and social enterprise. Planned activities and topics include a showcase of how local clubs are working with their communities, a social enterprise pop-up market, discussion on Rotary’s position on the social change revolution and a people’s festival.

Tim Mason
District Governor Elect Tim Mason is passionate about Social Enterprise and is excited about the possibilities for Rotary in this space. Tim is a fellow Rotary maverick who thinks outside of the traditional Rotary box. According to Tim, “We need to be part of the Social Change revolution; not observers on the side!” As excited as I am to be visiting the UK, I am especially excited to participate in this style of event. I’m not sure at this stage as to whether it will end up being an “and” or an “or”, but either way, I’m delighted that it’s happening. Kudos to my friend DGE Tim for refusing to go where the path may lead, instead going where there is no path with a view to leaving a new trail.

1 comment:

  1. Well I think you have profiled our Rotary Conference goers and stayers pretty well Mark. I often wonder why so many Rotarians have no idea of what Rotary can really do if it puts it mind to it and why they don't want to expand their Rotary experience. Perhaps Ham and Pineapple is a Rotary staple. See you at my District Conference in March!