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.

Decline of ‘commitment’ organisations…why?

It seems somewhat ironic that on Easter Sunday an STV news report pops up on my twitter feed with the headline “Scottish church attendances ‘halved over last 30 years’” albeit that the statistics contained in the report came as absolutely no surprise.

You see, I remember that as a boy we would receive an occasional visit from our local Church of Scotland Minister – a man whom from memory was always dressed in black, very serious and was given extra-special attention when he arrived. (By extra-special treatment – I mean he got the china cups my sister and I weren’t allowed to touch – from the back of the cupboard in the kitchen.) TV and radio was turned off – and we had all to gather round to listen to this very solemn – albeit nice – man.

The 2016 Churches survey in Scotland results have been released revealing over 50% decline in regular attendees. Should RotaryGBI engage the same process and also make their findings public too?

I’m pretty sure if the Minister turned up nowadays, my modern-day equivalent wouldn’t even look up from their games console – and my modern-day mum wouldn’t have special cups for special people either.

The STV report about church-going in Scotland outlines that less than 400,000 regularly went to church last year compared with more than double that number in the early 80’s – with a further reduction of 100,000 attendees by 2025 accordingly the Brierley Consultants census.

Sound familiar?

This article got me thinking about Rotary in these islands which, like the church has a requirement for people to engage, subscribe and become members. I further considered how, along with many other membership organisations – online information seem to point to them all watching membership numbers decline – despite the population increasing.

More people in the country – fewer people joining membership organisations…why?

As I understand it, the vast majority of what may in the past have been referred to as Community Institutional Organisations; they appear to be seeing a very rapid decline in those signing up to their organisation. With one notable exception – that being  The WI, who’s strapline is ‘Inspiring Women‘ – they seem to have single-handedly turned the tide and witnessed a substantial increase in interest in new members and even new Clubs over the post ‘Calendar Girls’ years. And all power to them.

So does modern society no longer relate or need the set-ups offered by membership organisations such as Rotary (understood to be ~47,000 members), Inner Wheel (~17,000 members) or Round Table (understood to be less than 10,000) or for that matter the church as demonstrated in Scotland?

Through I have long campaigned for equality and diversity across our organisation – so I can accept a female only organisation no more than I can turn a blind-eye to the overtly male-only Rotary Clubs that – despite what some may say – definitely exist in this organisation.

However, credit where credit is due and therefore on the back of ‘Calendar Girls‘ TheWI has grasped an opportunity and rebranded, revamped and reinvigorated itself in a way that many other membership organisations could take lessons. Just go and take a look a TheWI website – you’ll see that starting from the ‘brand mark’ it is attractive and modern and has that ‘social media‘ feel to it – promoting the organisation in a way that is relatable to a modern online ‘campaigning’ and ‘conversational’ culture.

Speaking as recently as this week about Rotary and its challenges, someone commented to me, that a lot of the ‘old brigade’ were flattered to have been asked to join Rotary in the first place and may not wish to give up that distinction as they see it. A great point well made I thought.

Modern culture no longer expects ‘secret organisations’ (perceived or otherwise) whereby an individual’s only way of becoming part of that organisation is to be invited. They modern mind is such they think, “if I have something to give, I will offer – if they don’t want it some other organisation will.”

Millennials no longer see the exclusivity of such an ‘invitation only’ organisation as being attractive – in fact from discussions with many of them, they actually see this modus-operandi as a turn off – reminiscent of ‘the old school-tie network’ and something they would run a hundred miles from having any association. Modern professionals are under so much conduct scrutiny in their work-lives (which for many spills into their private life) that any whiff of ‘links to institutional organisations’ is now positively frowned upon.

How many modern workplace environments would allow an extended lunch to attend a Rotary meeting, have a bite to eat and a glass of wine – just because you are a member. Crikey, most workplaces have an absolute zero-tolerance to drinking during work hours – so the lunchtime club just doesn’t wash.

Interestingly, as the church in Scotland survey results created by Brierly Consultants become public it demonstrates that the areas where the decline has been stalled or in some cases actually reversed is in locations where the church has seen an increase in the immigrant populations joining the congregation.

Ironically, this is another area I have long referenced throughout this blog in terms of equality and diversity. Perhaps Rotary in GBI needs to consider a proactive campaign to look at attracting some diverse groups in our society to join which may actually help turn the membership decline tide in some communities; welcoming BAME groups in the same way the church in Scotland seems to. Who knows?

To conclude this occasional blog, I’ll return to TheWI; One thing is for certain – despite the amazing turnaround they’ve had on the back of their ‘Calendar Girls’ phenomenon and their subsequent reinvention – I am absolutely not advocating that RotaryGBI go out and find their own ‘Calendar Boys & Girls’ – definitely, definitely not…remember the desired outcome of anything we do is to slow the decline not enhance it…

So with no offence intended, we do not need to see our line up of Past RotaryGBI Presidents posing naked in a different month of a calendar with only their modesty protected purely by a strategically placed bell, badge or bear…God forbid…!

And on that note….Happy Easter, off you go and get stuck into your chocolate eggs.


Images in order of appearance by Chris Walton by CC