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