For a number of years, successive Rotary International leaders have been calling for disruption. Well, now we have it. COVID-19 clearly wasn't what they had in mind, but I'd suggest it will act as the biggest peacetime disruptor Rotary has ever seen.
I recently received a phone call out of the blue from a Rotary friend interstate. I won't name him here, but he is a fellow maverick and out-of-the-box thinker with an impressive record of membership development across a number of clubs, and a fellow new club initiator. He rang me to ask if I had any thoughts on how COVID-19 would affect Rotary's membership. My initial response was that I hadn't really had time to think about it. I've recently had a change in career path and Rotary has fallen a rung or two on my list of priorities.
But as the conversation with my friend unfolded, I had to admit to myself that I had indeed been thinking about how Rotary's membership predicament would be affected by our current pandemic, but I didn't really like what I'd been thinking and had been trying to push those thoughts out of my head. Until now I've been pretty confident that I understood our challenges well and had a pretty good plan for turning things around. But for all my talk of getting Rotarians out of their comfort zone, I'm now finding myself out of mine. The disruptor has been disrupted.
We are all in uncharted waters. Unlike every second Tom, Dick and Harry on Facebook; I'm prepared to admit I am not an expert on communicable diseases. I'm also not an expert on global economics. But I'd like to think I have a few runs on the board when it comes to membership commentary, so in this blog I'm going to share a few thoughts, observations, concerns, and even a few predictions. But I'm not going to pretend that I have the answers. Instead, I might just pose a few questions.
The experts are telling us that COVID-19 seems to induce generally mild and manageable symptoms on most of the healthy population, but it can be deadly for the vulnerable. I would theorise that this pandemic and our social isolation measures have the potential to affect Rotary clubs in similar ways where the survival of the fittest will be at play. Healthy and flexible clubs will hopefully ride out these challenging times. But I fear the most damage could be inflicted upon vulnerable clubs, and some may not survive it. With an average member age now above 72, we have a huge cohort within that more vulnerable population. Very few experts seem keen to predict timelines, but even when the brunt of this pandemic is behind us, the readiness for our clubs to return to business as usual won't be helped by our age profile. We will still need to be cautious.
I'm sure we would all agree that poor member engagement is the biggest enemy of retention. Member engagement was a challenge for Rotary before COVID-19; before strict isolation measures were implemented. Now that our members can't get together in person, member engagement will be harder, but I would suggest more important than ever.
I've been really delighted to see so many clubs moving to an online platform for meetings. Of course e-clubs have been doing this successfully for almost two decades. It has been refreshing to observe the growth of non-traditional (meeting centric) clubs in recent years; such as e-clubs, passport clubs, hybrid clubs, Rotary Nomads, and those offering more flexible and informal meeting platforms. These clubs seem to attract a more innovative and entrepreneurial cohort of members into our organisation who are very dedicated to humanitarian causes, yet averse to meeting obsessed dogma. I suspect that this style of Rotary and Rotarian is the best prepared to survive this pandemic, despite the claims of many of our traditionalists that "this is not Rotary".
But as I have been commenting ad nauseam for years; we must be about more than meetings. The innovation in meeting methodology has been welcome, but I'd really like to see innovation in service endeavours. Sure, COVID-19 is occupying a lot of our thought space and headlines at the moment, but the pre-existing humanitarian needs of the world haven't disappeared. What are we doing to serve those that still need our help?
My own club is heavily reliant sausage sizzle income. We've probably lost between $3K and $5K of expected income in the near future with the cancellation of these and other local events. And even if they were still going ahead, how much loose change will be in the pockets of the average citizen given business closures, employment uncertainty and toilet paper hoarding? I've seen many other examples of clubs being forced to close their thrift shops and markets, and abandon their art shows and quiz nights; all of which provide the funds that allow us to do our work. The Rotary Foundation has grants available to assist in some COVID-19 health initiatives, but I wonder how well insulated the Permanent and Annual Programs Funds are from economic and share market volatility. TRF certainly took a hit during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.
A big test will come in a few months when club treasurers start to issue renewals for member dues. I wonder what sort of response they will get from members who have seen very little action over the preceding months, and could be waiting many more months for meaningful involvement. We've been fearing the "approaching cliff face" for a number of years now. This is the expectant sharp drop in membership as many elderly members leave this Earth or are forced to resign for health or financial reasons. I'm not suggesting COVID-19 will dramatically accelerate this process, but it certainly won't slow it down. I wonder if RI will need to re-evaluate its due collection process, whereby clubs get charged half of it for members on their books as at June 30, especially if Rotarians are still in some form of personal isolation or lock down at the time. Many districts calculate their levies the same way, and given some have had enormous financial hits as a result of District Conference cancellations at short notice, they too will be relying on that income.
Every club seems to have its mix of truly dedicated and committed members who will stick through this crisis without question, and conversely those that were already questioning their membership before this pandemic. Many clubs also have members that make little if any contribution whatsoever, my own club included. I wonder how many of our 1.2 million members world wide are genuinely active members, and how many are just turning up for the weekly chicken dinner and speaker. There's an old joke about a guy who walks into a business and asks the receptionist "How many people work here?" She replies "About half of them". Is it uncharitable to make the comparison?
I know I've started a lot of sentences with "I wonder", but here come another few. I wonder if we could face considerable membership decline over this pandemic, yet lose very little in terms of service capacity. I wonder if globally we could collectively cancel a whole swag of meetings, yet lose very little in terms of impact. I've always venerated quality over quantity. Does the very question open a can of worms? Am I perhaps being disrespectful of those senior Rotarians who have served with enthusiasm and dignity for many years, and now just want to enjoy the twilight of their years in Rotary with friends over a meal on a weekly basis? I understand how it could sound that way. But I keep coming back to our motto of Service Above Self. Service isn't optional for Rotary. It's our raison d'être.
Here's a quote I often use in presentations:
Change is coming whether we like it or not. We can either be the drivers of change, or become victims to it.
We've been talking about change in Rotary for at least the 22+ years I've been a member. Our leaders have given us the tools through successive councils on legislation to make our clubs more flexible, adaptive and contemporary environments for today's volunteers. Some clubs have taken the bit between the teeth and modified the way they do things. Plenty of new clubs have started with a new and improved formula. But many are still welded to an outdated, traditional and ritualistic model which could struggle to survive this change that has been forced upon us. Comfort remains the enemy of progress, and right now comfort will be the enemy of survival. I regularly hear stories of Rotarians who would rather remain on the comfortable lounge suites on the Titanic as it calmly sinks into the water, than get into those crowded life boats with uncomfortable seats. Well guess what? We've just hit an iceberg.
Whilst I'm feeling very anxious about this dreadful COVID-19 pandemic, I'm taking advantage of my enforced break from Rotary. The 2020/21 year will be the first one for me in 19 years that I haven't either sat on a club board or held a senior district position. I've been doing Rotary at full steam for so many years now and I'm ready for a break. We all have an opportunity to re-evaluate how Rotary works, and I'm sure there will be more innovation ahead of us when we eventually come out the other side of it. I feel with strong, agile and responsive leadership at club, district and global level Rotary International is well placed to position itself as a premier provider of support and direction in a post COVID-19 world. I know my club will be in a great position to get back out in our community and do what we do best: Service Above Self. Will yours?
Please stay safe and healthy, and be kind to one another.