Two Different Worlds: Rotary’s Membership Dilemma

by John Borst, Communications Officer, District 5550

Rotary is trying valiantly to solve the membership dilemma. Efforts, to mount modern public media campaigns, the use of social media, PR grants to Districts and clubs and even studies on rebranding itself are all considerable initiatives to get the message out, a practice Rotary has not had to do in the past.

But little seems to be working.  Our membership total has stagnated for well over a decade. Had it not been for the recent introduction of women and retired persons to Rotary the membership would have declined by approximately 100,000 since the turn of this Century.

As the communications officer for District 5550, I am beginning to think that the problem goes much deeper than just being seen as a rich, old man’s club.

Some of the reason does have to do with how Rotary has evolved to this point in both what it is or has become and how it is managed. But that is not the focus of this commentary. The bigger problem, I suspect, is that society itself has changed in a way which may not be compatible with the very fundamental nature of Rotary.

At its heart Rotary is still an early 20th Century American phenomena to join people of like mind into associations for reasons of altruism and friendship.  Society then as today, was going through period of communications and technological change, undergirded by unrestrained capitalism.

One of the centres of that revolution was America’s fastest growing city, Chicago, the new home of Paul Harris. Harris pined for the peace, quiet and moral foundation of the small towns he had known in his youth.  His answer was the association we know today as Rotary International, with its face to face leisurely meetings of like minded professionals, with a mind to enhancing the common good through civic works at the local level while building a set of ethics which became the Four Way Test.

If Harris thought his world was noisy and chaotic while undergoing a communications and technological revolution under a regime of mindless capitalism he would likely be appalled at the world within which his “Baby” must now negotiate.

Erosion of Empathy

Nowhere is this more telling than in the erosion of empathy within post-modern society. Sometime over the past fifty years we became immune to the picture of a starving child. Mass starvation, refugee camps, plagues, and natural disasters have become a dime-a-dozen. Each is accompanied by NGO, after NGO seeking our monetary assistance, sometimes repeatedly. We see each event as just one more shock in a series of daily jolts served up as news on our television screens. Each becomes virtually indistinguishable from the barrage of infomercials vying for our attention.

Add to this the constant ping notifying us of another e-mail or flashing message of another text-message, or Facebook update, to say nothing of the washer or drying telling us the load is done, or any number of other appliances vying for our attention. Who knows how all of these visual and auditory stimuli are altering our neural passage-ways?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize this society is the antithesis of the society Paul Harris was trying to recreate. It didn’t exist in his day either but big city life was then sufficiently like small town America that urbanites could relate to what they could recall. Today’s youth have nothing to recall. Wind, rain, insects, and animal sounds are either commercialized as eco-tourism or treated as jolts to fear in the latest weather forecast.

In a world where even genocide, torture and wars are seen as small nasty local events or worse still as acceptable in an age of “terrorism”, how can the elimination of Polio or the lack of clean drinking water or the education needs of 700,000,000 illiterate adults compete for our attention? How can they even compete with the immediate needs of our own community?

Rotary thrived during a time when our elected officials were on the whole respected, bureaucracy was viewed as there to help our society function and some regulation of our capitalistic system was seen as necessary to ward off its propensity for excess. None of these characteristics appear to be the norm in most Nations today.

So, is it any wonder that an organization that values, truth, justice, equality and the peaceful resolution of difference in a slow and deliberate manner finds it difficult to be relevant to young people whose senses have been numbed by a barrage of powerful noisy images trying to convinced them to spend or donate money, feed them the bad news as if it were a crisis, convince them of some political creed, or just wickedly entertain. Think of how many “jolts” are present in one typical music video or video game.

Compare that kind of experience to an ad promoting Rotary or one of its causes. Are we even in the same ball park?


This dilemma raises many questions. I will suggest only three.

  • How far should Rotary go to accommodate this new society?
  • Should Rotary not compete and live with a smaller more dedicated cohort committed to its principles and lifestyle?
  • Should Rotary rebrand and reorganize itself to play in this new “sandbox”?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Each is fraught with risk, significant risk.

At this time Rotary’s leadership is cautiously moving forward on questions 1 and 3 and does not appear ready to accept the implications of question two.

One of many Rotarian’s favourite quotes from Paul Harris is “This is a changing world; we must be prepared to change with it.” In our search for new members  are we also faced with the dilemma that the gap between the nature of the world of Rotary and the nature of 21st Century society may actually be insurmountable without destroying Rotary’s soul?

About John Borst

John Borst’s career in education spans the years 1960 to 1996. During those 36 years, he spent an equal amount of time working int he English language, Public and Catholic school boards. Borst taught in both elementary and high school environments. Positions of responsibilities held included department head in Geography, curriculum coordinator of Social and Environmental Studies, Principal, Education Officer with the Ministry of Education, Superintendent of Schools, and Superintendent of Student Services. Borst retired in 1996 as Director of Education for the legacy Dryden Board of Education. During this time, Borst has lived in the Ontario communities of Brampton, Toronto, Newmarket, Thunder Bay, Aurora and Dryden. Currently, Borst splits his time between Dryden and Toronto. Since retirement, Borst has served as a Supervisory Officer with a remote School Authority; been a freelance writer of articles on education in particular for Education Today, the magazine of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA); founded and edited from 2006 - 2010 the Education blog Tomorrow’s Trust: A Review of Catholic Education; and from 2003-2010 was a trustee of the Northwest Catholic District School Board.
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2 Responses to Two Different Worlds: Rotary’s Membership Dilemma

  1. Christopher Smith says:

    I think you sorely underestimate the spirit and ethos of our younger generation. They’ve been exposed to and have engaged in the opportunity of Service at a much earlier age than their elder generation as a regular part of their formal school curricula and I’ve had the pleasure to see many at work in Service doing some very wonderful things. I agree that we’re all more distracted and over-stimulated with lots of new ‘hand-held’ everything competing for our attention but disagree that the power of seeing someone truly in pain and in need or the power of touching someone’s hand to help them become their best self possible has somehow become muted to our next generation’s spirit. As Rotarians we need to better get to know the ‘Gen-Nexters’ in our midst and learn how to get their attention and grasp their hands and invite them into our journey of ‘Service above Self’. It’s really not a foreign language to them. We haven’t been reaching out far or effectively enough to get their attention and they’re not the one’s to blame for that.

  2. Shaughn Forbes says:

    Thanks John this is a very thought provoking article that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I have asked the question of my Rotary colleagues “How do we expect our sons and daughter to give themselves to Rotary as we have done when;
    -both partners work full time
    -are having their children much later in their late 30’s and early 40’s (mine were born in my early and mid 20’s)”
    I know that my daughters are stressed just living life and meeting the needs of their young families with their partners. They don’t have the time or energy left to give to the demands of an organization like Rotary. I think that if we changed it so that they came once a month to a Sunday family gathering it might be successful but this does not comply with the requirements so I involve them in the things that I can when they can give a little but this does not make them Rotarians.
    I look forward to reading all your posts

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