Saturday, 21 November 2020


Throughout this pandemic year I must admit my innovation juices are running a bit dry, and as a result the blogs have become somewhat sparse. After a few fortunate years which have involved a good deal of Rotary travel to speak at conferences and seminars, COVID has well and truly clipped my wings in 2020, but it has been nice to have had numerous opportunities to speak about membership matters to clubs and districts online. I feel very blessed to have been introduced to so many new Rotary friends worldwide this year and the book sales have been very encouraging too, for which I feel very grateful.

These times are challenging for us all. Depending on your location it can be very hard for some clubs to serve their communities. It can be especially hard to raise funds. And whilst I have always maintained we have become too meeting-centric, I will openly admit that meetings do play an important role in bringing people together, sharing ideas, networking and general camaraderie, and those important aspects of the Rotary experience have been challenging to maintain.

But I feel the hardest job for Rotarians in this climate is the job of membership development. This is a hard enough job at the best of times, but when we are limited in our capacity to congregate and be physically present and active in our communities, it makes this challenge harder than ever. Of course the task of growing membership is not a problem for the vast majority of Rotarians, because the evidence is clear that the vast majority of Rotarians do not consider membership development their job. It’s always someone else’s job.

I believe that the future of the entire organisation relies heavily on a comparatively small segment of members who are active in the membership development sphere at club, district, zone and international level. The problem is that passionate and hard working, growth minded Rotarians don’t grow on trees. Those who are able to comprehend the nuances of our membership crisis and innovate our way through it are rare. And here’s the bigger problem. Those rare Rotarians blessed with the aforementioned skillset and energy to attack our membership conundrums are often themselves under attack from saboteurs. I have often found myself in their crosshairs.

I’ve written extensively about our resistance to change, but this blog is somewhat personal for me, because it’s about the disdain that exists in far too many quarters for the change makers. This is about venerating the innovators and exposing the Guardians of the Status Quo.

Before jumping into my tirade, I want to acknowledge that my journey as a membership specialist has been enormously satisfying and I have enjoyed the most uplifting support from the overwhelming majority. My three-year stint as District 9520 Membership Chair (DMC) was served under three extraordinary District Governors: Jerry Casburn, Dick Wilson and Sam Camporeale who gave me unwavering support to do the job my way and had my back on every occasion. The support I have received as an author is something that continually humbles me, and the numerous requests to travel interstate and overseas to present have given me some of the greatest highlights of my Rotary journey. To everyone who has supported and joined me on this journey, I say a heartfelt thank you. 

But that journey has not been without roadblocks and detours. In an organisation that desperately needs innovation, it's perplexing how unwelcome innovators can be made to feel. One of the most regular pieces of feedback I hear at a membership event, be it in person or virtual, is that it's a shame how many people weren't there, and it's usually the people who most desperately needed to be there. As a DMC I found it curious that the smaller clubs struggling to retain members were usually those least interested in hearing from me. I remember receiving a strongly worded email from a president after holding initial conversations with a few members about plans to rejuvenate his club at the request of the DG. The club in question had not seen double-figure membership in over a decade. It was at the time I was building the Rotary Club of Seaford in the same region. His message conveyed unambiguously that my input would not be welcomed. A few years later after launching the Rotary Club of Seaford, a member from that same club that banned me asked the DG what district was doing to support them. The vitriol directed my way during those times was considerable.

I've encountered duplicitous saboteurs at various leadership levels, and not just in my own district or country. I have on a number of occasions been invited to speak at district and zone events, only to have been soon thereafter disinvited. This is what happens when a member of an organising committee wants their audience to hear something provocative, but someone lurking in the background with inordinate influence thinks otherwise. Admittedly my presentation style is not for everyone. If you're looking for a comfortable and uplifting presentation, sorry, but I'm not your man. If you're looking for someone to tell your audience what it wants to hear, I'm not your man. I won't be trading my authenticity for approval, and have developed a pretty thick skin, but alas, I still bleed when I’m cut. But it's really not my own blood that I'm worried about. Whilst there are some resolute Rotary innovators out there, some of our pioneers are not so bullet proof, many of whom have shared their shameful stories with me.

Sadly, it seems par for the course that new club instigators attract a barrage of abuse from local Rotarians, but we should at least be able to expect more maturity and support from district leaders, especially given the emphasis on growth through new clubs at successive international assemblies. In one recent Australian example, rather than supporting the new club proponents, district leadership sided with an aggrieved group of clubs in the region and wouldn’t even allow online self-promotion of the provisional club before it was chartered. 

A friend of mine is a current DG trying desperately to innovate and grow membership in his district, and for his efforts he is the constant target of invective. His wife recently reflected on their experience in starting a new, flexible club, saying:

“It’s the aggression and the nastiness of those Guardians [of the Status Quo] that really upset me. In starting the last club, we have encountered incredible nastiness. How as an organisation do we deal with that? To me, that’s not Rotary.”

A friend in New Zealand recounted his story of a seemingly successful satellite club launch. The satellite club was functioning exceptionally well, making an impact in their community and steadily growing with a more contemporary and flexible style of Rotary, but the parent club’s constant interference and demands that the satellite club members attend their regular club meetings ended up destroying it.

If I bothered to document every example like this, I dare say I could reach triple figures. The same story is being told over and over again. RI has given us the opportunity to grow with flexible and most importantly different versions of Rotary to attract a new generation of volunteers, but rather than backing these promising new initiatives, the Guardians of the Status Quo fight tooth and nail to derail them. They seem far less interested in service and more interested in self. In the end we not only lose the opportunities to grow Rotary, but the innovators who create them, who choose walking away rather than the persistent banging of their heads against brick walls of Rotary tradition and ritual. And who could blame them? I regularly hear these stories and just shake my head. How Rotarians can cite the Four-Way test and treat their fellow Rotarians this way beggars belief. So drunk are they with power and obsessed with comfort and familiarity, they have forgotten what Rotary stands for.

The problem with the Guardians of the Status quo is that they want to have their cake and eat it too. They believe prospective members should be attracted to their 20th century version of Rotary and therefore see no reason to modernise, but they fight against the formation of new, contemporary clubs because they fear they will dilute the essence of Rotary and attract members from their catchment zone. This was the precise argument I had with some members of a nearby club when I first started building the Rotary Club of Seaford. They had steadfastly refused all modernisation efforts but feared a new club in the region would steal their potential recruits. My position was and still is that if they were so confident with the version of Rotary they had on offer, they should have no reason to fear a new club with a modern operating platform.

I’ve previously written about the need to use the word “and” rather than “or” in our Rotary conversations. I must admit when I started my journey as a membership specialist, I was ready to tear down traditional Rotary and build a more modern version. But my attitude has changed considerably over the years. I now recognise that there can be a place for traditional Rotary AND a place for modern Rotary, working side by side. If traditional clubs are active, impactful and growing, I see no reason to abolish them. There are of course many examples of traditional clubs that are thriving. But there are also many where traditional Rotary is largely inactive, impotent and dying. I am often reminded of the importance of bringing our members along with us on a journey of change. In principle I agree with this sentiment, but the bus driver has to understand that not everyone wants to get onto the bus. Sure, you have to stop, open the door and wait a while, but sooner or later you need to shut the door and continue on your journey. Those already on the bus are counting on you.

When you’re a volunteer, you have to be careful how you divide up your hours. And when it comes to largely inactive, impotent and dying clubs, I have little time left to give. I’ve invested a lot of it over the years, but sadly have seen very little return on investment. There are often within these clubs frustrated individuals who struggle to drag them into the 21st century, but invariably the Guardians of the Status Quo win. They prefer to remain seated on the comfortable lounge suites on the Titanic as it slowly sinks into the water rather than get into those cold, crowded, uncomfortable lifeboats.

The little spare time I have for Rotary these days I prefer to use in support of the innovators, the mavericks, the crazy ones who look at things differently and are probably the only ones capable of turning things around. I have seen how so many of them right around the Rotary world are regularly ostracised and derided because they don’t fit the pigeonhole that traditional Rotarians expect leaders to occupy. Some of them are currently serving as a District Governor, some already have and some are in line to do so, and I say good on you for making this massive sacrifice. I also know some who would desperately like to serve their district at this level, but sadly those with the influence in their district to put them there don’t recognise their value.

I once aspired to the role of DG myself but it’s not on my radar in the foreseeable future. I’ve come to realise I can accomplish much more by not having to toe a Rotary line. If for the rest of my Rotary journey I am kept out of certain Rotary circles because I never served as a District Governor, then so be it. I kind of like the circles I’m in. 

Here’s what I really want to achieve with this blog. I want Rotarians out there to recognise, celebrate and support my fellow Rotary mavericks in their journey to innovate Rotary out of its membership crisis. 

We're not all cut out to be membership leaders, but we can at least follow those who are. Stand up and be counted when they need your support, and don’t be a bystander to their sabotage. If we continue to bully our change-makers out of the organisation we are doomed. Bad things happen when good people do nothing.





1 comment:

  1. Brilliant article Mark - thanks for sharing. A lot of what you say resonates with me and at times, I have felt a lone voice in my quest to develop membership in a way that is sustainable for the future. Keep up the great work!