The membership dilemma

Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland (RIBI) brings the membership challenge up time and again. Where are we now after all the initiatives to increase membership in the UK and Ireland?

At a club meeting recently John Hewko the General Secretary of Rotary International addressed the members. During his talk he mentioned that there is a concern over falling membership numbers in three countries they are USA, Japan and United Kingdom. The overall membership number of 1.2m was being maintained by an increase in membership from the developing countries. So the United Kingdom is grouped with the countries raising concern on membership but should it be?

There is a concern over falling membership numbers in three countries they are USA, Japan and United Kingdom.”

In the last Blog I looked at the unique position of Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland (RIBI) and the opportunities that should be on offer to the members within these islands. The committee structure is unique within Rotary International and is the envy of the rest of the world. So why the falling membership, and what of the initiatives trying to halt the rush to the door, and the projects attracting and welcoming prospective new members.

I also mentioned I would look at membership within RIBI and look at what could be done. Rotarians like myself and along with a few colleagues are genuinely concerned at the falling numbers and even more concerned at the falling interest in the activities of RIBI. In talking with members of clubs it becomes apparent that there is a big disconnect from RIBI to the Districts and the Clubs and ultimately the members.

shutterstock_41190025.jpgNow I can envisage the members of “The Establishment” raising their eyebrows and scratching their heads and telling themselves that this observation is incorrect. If they take this stance I would ask them to think again, step back and look objectively at the situation because all the initiatives and projects you have planned, spent a lot of time and money on are just not working. You need to sit up and smell the coffee and take some real constructive and meaningful action.

Before we move on to some suggestions lets look at what has been done and worked or not worked.

A few years ago we had the campaign from RIBI “We’re for Communities” A lot of  thought and money went into the announcement and implementation. Some things were missing from the launch like a Press Conference and PR related announcements but the campaign and strapline went well. The enquiries from prospective members came in quite large numbers but never materialised in terms of new members. It was thought that the prospects enquired with raised expectations only to be let down at District and or Club level.

In the meantime Rotary International had engaged  one of the largest and world-renowned brand specialists to look at the organisation and they came up with the strapline, “ Join Leaders, Exchange Ideas, Take Action in your Community”. This initiative also embraced a new look Rotary logo and was presented in a Style Guide for District and Club use. I think it would be no exaggeration to say that almost 4 years on this project has just about touched the grass-roots members. But inevitably we move on and the Strapline “People of Action” has appeared from the ether.

However, whilst all this was going on the RIBI membership committee were presenting projects of their own. A grant of $60k was received for an ambitious membership plan with objectives like  “ Vision to implementation of strategy and training” and Club growth” as well as “Rotary GO phase three” to pick just a few. There were targets set against all of the actions running to 8 pages in all. As an aside it would be good to know what happened in Rotary GO Phase 1 and 2?

The question I would ask is if all this time, effort and money was spent in a productive way, where are the results?

It has not worked whichever way it is looked at and we would be kidding ourselves if for one minute we think it has”.

So what needs to be done?

The flexibility offered by Rotary International to members and clubs should be jumped on, embraced and driven forward at lightning pace. I would advise the RIBI Membership Committee to draw a line under the last initiatives and really get to the grass-roots of the organisation here. Please don’t pick up on the ideas and projects as in the past. Presenting without thinking but tailoring them to local levels and needs.

Many would say that is why they failed.

Really reach the members and motivate them such that they can see what value they are getting out of RIBI.  So think out of the box and that involves starting new clubs, satellite clubs, eClubs, or almost any type of club  right across the country. They should meet the local demand and present clubs should be enthused to practically help them along their selected road finding the project exciting. However, not like the old plan just telling what should be done is pointless tell the clubs and members how it is done. Enthuse them with plans for the new club and give them advice and support. How do they publicise the fact they are setting up a new club and how do they reach prospective members. But does the RIBI Membership committee have the people of vision and action to bring these proposed changes about? Their track record to date is not convincing. Putting a plan on paper is the easy part, implementing your plan is yet another challenge.

shutterstock_89720617.jpgAs a result of this Blog and others like it we have members and clubs and also districts popping up saying we have a new club and or we have inducted x new members recently. You know that is to be lauded from the rooftops. But we should ask the question, “ How did you do that and what did you do to attract the new members?” There is a benchmark exercise there somewhere.

So where does all this leave us? I’ll go back to the time I spent speaking to Rotarians on the telephone trying to clear queries for magazine articles. On occasions they thought I worked for RIBI and when I told them I didn’t I got a tirade of what they thought of the set up and some could be pretty outspoken. Some in quite senior positions as District Governors were open in their criticism of RIBI, some gave the set up a few years in existence.

Whatever happens and whatever changes are brought about the reasons ideas and thought should bring the members along with the organisation. It’s always good to remember the sale is made in the client’s mind which means that selling is not telling. Show the members they can get value for money and effort and that way change will come about.

This blogpost was the second guest-blog written by Allan Berry, a Rotarian from District 1080 and former Editor of RIBI’s National Magazine. In a future blog Allan will offer his views and opinions of the work and results of the RIBI Marketing, PR and Communications Committee.

Let’s go Younger

Tony Scaife

This post’s Guest Blogger is formerly a librarian and lecturer now retired. Tony Scaife had barely heard of Rotary until 2008. Since joining the organisation he has served as Club Secretary, President and now Executive Secretary. He has also been an active member of the District 1040 Visioning team.

Let’s go Younger

Sadly, the majority of RIBI members are of an age when they can remember what to do with Button B.

Ironically the rotary dial phone itself was being phased out just when Rotary experienced its last membership boom in the 1980s with the polio eradication campaign launch.

Whilst Rotarians appear to have blossomed with the disappearance of the rotary phone they have clearly floundered in the decade of the smart phone.

But  I am pleased to see that this year’s RIBI President Denis Spiller in his Rotary Talks: Rotary 2 challenges us to regenerate and sets us the task of increasing membership – especially from the thirty to sixty years old. But he argues “life style and social expectation changes” present us with major hurdles.

Now one way to evade the challenge is to argue that Rotary can survive and, to some extent, thrive by largely recruiting new members from the nearly or recently retired cohort.  Given the present make up of Rotary it is inevitable and indeed desirable that we do recruit from those most willing to join us. But there are two existential dangers for us if we continue to evade Denis Spiller’s challenge of recruiting from the prime working age population.

Firstly, like so many I was recruited into Rotary from the nearly retired cohort and whilst my fellow recruits have many excellent qualities we cannot offer the decades of service previous generations of Rotarians did. Neither are we perhaps as ‘on the ball ‘and responsive as we once were. For example, whilst our membership has declined in the last thirty years all business organisations and the professions have changed dramatically. Maybe if we had recruited more prime working age people earlier  we would have had a vigorous and experienced cohort of Rotarians   spurring us on to regenerate and revise our arcane rules much sooner than 2016?

Secondly   over these last thirty years mass public support for disasters and crises have increasingly been ‘fronted’ by younger people and driven by social media. I’m thinking of bucket challenges, flash mobs and crowd funding events. These efforts are laudable but older eyes may see them as often   quite arbitrary and superficial. Ignoring the established long-term work of Rotary with Shelter Box, Aqua Box, Polio Plus and Stroke Awareness etc. But Canute like we cannot turn back this tide of public misperception.

Invercargill (NRG: New Rotary Generation) Club – no formality, no meals but lots of fun and projects – with all business undertaken on their smartphones

This is an image conscious age so, even if they are ever published, pictures of elderly Rotarians handing over cheques just reinforces a public image of Rotary as a doting, but largely forgotten, aged relative. An endless source of completely obligation free sponsorship money in time of need. But quite irrelevant to everyday life where even the cheque itself is disappearing.

The present Rotary model is demonstrably unattractive to younger people. By and large it’s for older people, slow, boring, outdated, and expensive. Now we know it’s a travesty that blinds the public to the inspiring work Rotary does. But public perception shapes   the battlefield we face. Rotary must adapt its structures, operating styles, and costs if it is to attract new members and grow again.

I’ve looked to an impressive younger Rotarian to explain what she expects from a Rotary Club and, with some amendments for a British audience, tried to capture her thoughts.

Jenn McKenzie is 29 years old and has been in Rotary/Rotaract for ten years. She is now President of Takapuna Rotary Club in Auckland, NZ D9910. She offers these tips to attracting younger members into Rotary and working with younger members once they’re in.

Jenn thinks a few things could be done about club membership and stresses the point that young members need to work with older members and vice versa together.

  1. Stop just writing cheques to organisations or people with little or no action on the part of the Rotary club. Younger members have more limited time so want to make a difference through hands-on projects, they might not able to be there every meeting but they want to be involved making a tangible difference.
  2. Let’s embrace younger members with a young perspective and young attitude, try something different and be open to new ideas (that goes both ways) Offer new and younger members opportunities to serve on boards and committees
  3. Mix it up, change your membership structure and cost of your meetings
  4. Try social media advertising its low-cost and high impact.
  5. Remember why you joined Rotary and remind each other – to serve others. Make this world a better place. Don’t always get “sad” stories as guest speakers younger members want to hear inspiration and motivation – work with other clubs for more joint meetings or use TED talks
  6. Embrace technology –  aim to use technology to minimise the administrative burden
  7. Be enthusiastic and passionate about your membership and your club and Rotary – the passion will translate. Wear your Rotary badge with pride and ask like-minded people to join.” [ Jenn McKenzie Feb. 2017]

From my discussions in District 1040 and in New Zealand some additional factors seem key to recruiting younger people.

  1. Recruitment from RYLA and Student Exchange alumni – Australia and New Zealand tend to send candidates aged 21-25 on RYLA programmes and so don’t lose them as they go off to university.
  2. Recruitment from the children/grandchildren of existing Rotarians but into a distinctly different club environment / structure that they are comfortable with.
  3. Strong emphasis on hands on projects and early opportunities to lead projects. Cooperation with other Rotary clubs on projects is a popular option. Additionally, in some cases, seed corn funding can be provided from District so that the projects the new young Rotarians feel passionate about take off quickly.
  4. Very flexible, appropriately timed club meetings with virtually no formalities, relatively low costs and maybe crèche facilities if we are serious about recruiting working age Rotarians with child care.
  5. Using social media and the website as the sole Club communication tools. For our target population smart phones dominate. I observed members using smart phones to book a project venue, complete a risk assessment and create an online sign in sheet. Hence  the project was up and running before the meeting ended … and not a committee in sight. These members expect the administration of the club to be as fast and frictionless as an app can make it. Including paying club dues electronically.  I doubt in fact that many of them had cheque books at all.
  6. Opportunities for age relevant networking events, within a club or between clubs, based on the universal use of social media.  An antidote to the perception that older Rotarians who may have known each other for decades often inadvertently monopolise club events.
  7. A willingness to pursue   joint membership Rotaract/Rotary or indeed direct recruitment into Rotary for those in their early twenties.

As Denis Spiller recognises reversing decades of membership decline is going to be a challenge. Clubs must urgently take full advantage of the new flexible rules to look at ways of reviving their existing club or sponsoring a satellite club.

One size does not fit all.  I have seen flexible but long-established Rotary clubs able to recruit younger members by being very dynamic, well led, task focused and relatively cheap. A common model here is to run additional meetings that are timed, structured and costed to meet to meet the needs of younger working members. Whilst the traditional meetings continue and both groups get a Rotary club that meets their needs.

Alternatively. I have also seen new initiatives, like Melbourne Park Rotary Club, sponsored by an older club but designed for younger members and successfully run by them. Where, with an average age range around 30 and a majority of female members, they are delivering their own projects and also working collaboratively with other Melbourne clubs. Closer to home Wendy Aldred, AG (D1190), is currently helping an area based initiative where four clubs have agreed to start a Satellite Club – which will be sponsored by one of them

Though I have also seen a large, more traditional, relatively expensive breakfast meeting club that is very successful in attracting our target of younger, ethnically diverse working members. But the key here is that these young people are joining a club with a balance of age ranges. There are older members but many are still working as senior professionals. Thus, there are real and obvious mentoring/ networking opportunities for young professionals. Together with early opportunities to add credible project management skills to their portfolio.

I am writing these blogs to help me clarify my own thoughts about the regeneration of  Rotary. I base my views on presentations I’ve heard at recent Rotary conferences in District 1040, RIBI and New Zealand together with discussions I have had with the members of 27 Rotary clubs across District 1040, Australia and New Zealand.


Images supplied courtesy of Guest Blogger