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.

13 thoughts on “The membership dilemma

    1. Allan Berry says:

      Lela, thanks for dropping by and even bigger thanks for the comment. It would indeed be interesting to hear from female Rotarians to find out hoe they came across Rotary and what t is about the ethos and culture that stimulated them into joining. Perhaps you might like to give us your own experiences.

  1. Lindsay Pearson says:

    One of the reasons RIBI is not viewed with favour, and to a possibly lesser extent, District, is that they are often perceived as a distant body handing down instruction from above. From personal experience, I have been surprised by the arrogance demonstrated by some of the hierarchy, who seem to think their “office” gives them superiority.

    Spending hours of time, and huge sums of money, developing strap-lines, mission statements and logo changes is for the corporates with too much money, not an organisation like Rotary.

    “selling is not telling” is the way to start. And the place to start is at Club level.

    So what are we selling?

    A couple of prospective members came to a recent Club meeting, one made the comment “I thought it would be a bit stuffy” but having joined in with a couple of hours of laughter, noise, chat and an interesting speaker, realised our Club is anything but stuffy.

    It is also pertinent to mention how they became interested in joining Rotary. Quite simple, we have a very active, successful and expanding community project – “Hour Community” – which combines a transport service, visiting and befriending, fitting smoke alarms, a regular Dementia/Carers meeting and recently started, the “Worry Tree Cafe” giving support and a place to meet weekly for anyone with mental health issues. People in the community can see what we do and want to be part of it. They either volunteer to support our work, or as several have done, they become Members.

    The important thing for Rotary Clubs is to become “facilitators” – use our business experience to find needs, then find people and support to meet those needs – not just shake a tin on a street corner but make things happen, things that the community can actually see.

    It helps to publicise what you do, not with another grip-and-grin cheque handover or a pseudo Mayorial gong and a side-on handshake, but with action shots showing what you have done.

    This doesn’t need RIBI, or come to that, District, to instruct us. Most Rotarians have held jobs, run their own business or managed someone else’s – use that experience and make your Club something your customer, a.k.a. new Member wants to join.

    1. Graham Renwick says:

      Thanks, Lindsay, you’ve made some well made points that ring lots of bells for me and I suspect many others. Rotary should begin and end in our local communities – all else flows from there.

      1. says:

        Graham, thank you for taking part in this debate. Rotary does indeed embrace the local community or should do and it is from there our new members will come. However, it is the mechanics of embracing the younger members of the community so they join the organisation for a club to leave a lasting legacy within their own community.

    2. says:

      Lindsay thank you for taking the time to add you comments to the debate that has been raised. It’s a complex issue with no silver bullet for a quick remedy. However you have made quite a few points so let me see if I can cover the main ones effectively.
      A club such as yours in a small town can make a difference in the community and that is what has happened. Well done to all the members. However to reach out to prospective young members in a large town is more of a challenge especially if the club has no experience in marketing and knowing where to begin. They should be able to turn to District as well as RIBI for help and guidance. As you can see I have questioned whether or not that is forthcoming. It should be in a pragmatic way.
      On the other hand I see you have no need of help, support and advice from RIBI and or District but they are there to add value to any member experience. The members belong to a national and international organisation which should engage them to enhance their membership journey.
      Your club has found a need in your community and the greater the need the easier the sale. I wish you all well in the future.

  2. David Ellis says:

    Lindsay is quite correct, clubs need to become the “go to” organisation in their locality, however the club needs to be seen in a positive light. Many clubs are really good at getting the positive message out, unfortunately there are many more that have no idea. Clubs moan about being stereotyped as stuffy, old and male yet many exacerbate that image by using photos to enforce that view. Flexibility is the key at club meetings, my club has a meal each meeting, however, our last two new members attend after the meal and have a coffee with us, we need to accommodate these people. At least this years Rotary GBI President, Dennis, is focusing on membership, last year we turned these islands purple for polio. Don’t get me wrong I agree with our push for polio but but not to foresake everything else. Our leaders need to spend less time going round the districts and more time knocking on doors of big corporations and government depts. Likewise our DG’s need to follow suit and visit areas where their presence will be a benefit, trolling out figures of how many charters or club visits they’ve done doesn’t cut it. “I did 30 visits last month, I could have done more if someone hadn’t stopped me to do something meaningful”
    i might be being a little cynical but many DG’s treat the job as a tick box exercise and their success is judged by how many clubs they have visited and not on what was achieved.

    1. says:

      Thank you David for your observations and you have made one very valid observation “unfortunately there are many more that have no idea. Clubs moan about being stereotyped as stuffy, old and male yet many exacerbate that image by using photos to enforce that view.” As I have said they do that because they really don’t know how to change their image and that is where advice from the RIBI Membership Committee should prove invaluable. How do you get prospective new members along to club meetings? How do you get the interest to start new clubs? These are the sort of basic questions that should be addressed. We can all recount the times when possible new members have attended club meetings to be met with a sea of grey men in suits, some with chains speaking in Rotary language that needs to be translated. All that needs to change and it needs to be addressed aggressively at the top. You can’t work in a community of you you don’t know how to.

  3. Peter L Moralée says:

    I thought you might like to see the newly appointed RI President 2018-19 Barrie Rassin’s Mission Statement:
    Vision Statement

    I believe now is the time to understand who and what we are and where we should be going. Rotary International is a formidable and complex organization that is at a crossroads and needs to broadly consult the Rotary world for guidance and rebuild relationships with the clubs.
    The current three Presidents will positively adjust our culture and I would like to continue that process. I feel strongly that we must focus on strengthening clubs, including with efficient digital tools, as there is a disconnect between Rotary International and Rotary Clubs.
    Some older clubs have become irrelevant and we must bring the Rotary spirit back to those communities with new and vibrant and diverse Rotarians. Clubs expect us to spend appropriately and find new sources of revenue so we must continue that effort.
    The relationship between “Senior Leaders” and staff needs improvement and a culture of mutual respect solidified. Our Humanitarian Service is exemplary but we will have a void once we have eradicated Polio that must be addressed, possibly using our Areas of Focus.
    We should continue to explore beneficial partnerships and we must grow our youth programs, especially Rotaract, strengthening the transition to Rotary. The Young Professional Rotaract Clubs could evolve into Rotary Clubs.
    Our public image is still weak and I believe we must address how we bring our mission into households around the world. Those who know what good Rotary Clubs do will want to be a part of it and we must find new models for membership that allow all interested in our mission to participate. With Rotary more in the public eye we will attract more individuals who want to be part of and support a membership organization that accomplishes so much good around the world.

  4. Cindy Bezant-Titus says:

    Simplify. What purpose does RIBI serve ?
    Change. Ask what newer, younger members want. Do it.
    Act. Less time saying what Rotary does. More time doing. Don’t tell them, let them see.

  5. Lindsay Pearson says:

    Cindy, to pick up on your reference to RIBI, at our recent District (1080) Council Meeting we considered a motion that RIBI be dissolved. In the event, the motion was overturned IIRC 46 to 23.

    It was, however, notable that we had the presence of an RI Director and incoming National Treasurer, who gave their support to the continuance of RIBI (turkeys voting for Christmas?) but it was gratifying to see that RIBI are beginning to recognise that changes are essential if Rotary is going to prosper in this country.

    I have high hopes for Denis Spiller, who seems to have grasped the concept of change. I hope that his successors will follow his lead and not revert to the “we’ve always done it this way” approach.

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