On Growing Young Again: the Price of Change

by Brian Hall

Over the last several years, we as Rotarians have faced a call to recruit younger members.  We’ve all been encouraged to embrace social media and to reach out to find young people to fill our ranks.  As we look across Rotary, it’s easy to see that in order to thrive in the future we need to build for it now.  We have, however, met with mixed results at best.  Those mixed results have caused many to wonder if organizations such as Rotary appeal to younger people.

As we look across the corporate landscape, it is plain that activism is on the rise.  Companies such as Toms Shoes – who donates a pair of shoes for each pair it sells – are more and more common.  There is a greater push for companies and individuals to make a difference in their communities and the world.  The drive to take care of the needy, build peace and preserve our environment is at a high level.

Obviously this plays well into Rotary’s mission.  Community and world service are built into Rotary’s fabric.  With clubs in some 200 countries worldwide, there aren’t many places Rotary doesn’t reach.  Our peace centers are leading the push across the globe for conflict resolution.  There are clubs whose major emphasis is the environment.  Rotary International doesn’t tell clubs where their focus should be – the club gets to decide this.  If someone is interested in some area of service they are free to pursue that.

Given this, why are we having trouble recruiting younger members?  Let’s commit ourselves to a bit of uncomfortable self-analyzing and dig in.

I hear quite often the refrain that Rotary needs to recruit younger members.  This is usually rather vague, but when we get specific we start to get into things such as rebranding, modifying our rules, changing club structures and such.  I think it is important that we realize what is within the scope of Rotary International and what isn’t.  RI is currently pushing hard on educating the public regarding what Rotary does.  There are a lot of resources being dedicated to letting people know about our fight against Polio and the humanitarian work Rotary does around the globe.  The structure of Rotary is being scrutinized to see if we can change ourselves to be more appealing to younger members.  All of this is under way.

But let’s be honest and get to that difficult self-analyzing.  Where does membership recruiting really happen?  It happens at the club.  We know that not all clubs are having difficulty recruiting younger members.  If not all clubs are having trouble recruiting younger members then we have to assume that what RI has in place is at least not preventing us from recruiting younger members.

In short, we have to assume that the problem recruiting younger members isn’t a Rotary International problem.  It is a MRC problem.  (That’s a My Rotary Club problem, by the way.)  If the club across town can recruit young members and my club is not, then I face a difficult realization.  The problem is not Rotary, it is my club.

Young people today want a way to affect their world and their community.  It must be effective and it must be efficient.  It needs to be effective in that it provides real, tangible results.  It must be efficient in that it makes the best use of the time and resources dedicated to the organization.  If an organization does not meet those goals, then it’s probably not going to get much traction.  We can complain about this, but it is what it is.

Let’s now take those requirements and compare them to our Rotary clubs.  Are our clubs being effective?  Does your club do community service well and often?  Does your club offer not only the chance to write a check but the chance to get out in the community and get your hands dirty?  We’re not talking about once or twice a year.  It needs to be more often than that.  The projects don’t all need to be huge, but they do need to be frequent.

Does your club do international work of any form?  In talking to younger Rotarians, it’s interesting to note that some are heavy in community service, some prefer international service.  I’ll be honest and say international service is where my interest lies.  Honestly, simply educating someone on what Rotary does internationally and giving them the chance to do something in that area may be enough to keep them happy.  If your club isn’t doing international work, then you’re missing a recruiting tool.

Is your club efficient?  What do your meetings look like?  Being social is a great thing, but do your meetings run long?  Are they hard to get to and get back to a desk in an hour to an hour and a half?  If your meetings run long it’ll be hard to get young people to commit.  Also, when it comes to speakers less is more.  I lost a young prospective business owner due to a speaker not long ago.  Make your meetings short and to the point.  Allow for socializing, but have it outside the ringing of the bell.

Above all, realize that there is a price for change.  Realize that as your club gets younger, your club will change.  Your meetings may change.  Your service opportunities may change.  The focus of your club may change.   Your meeting time and location may change.  Over the last 5 years, the average age of our club has dropped at least a decade.  Our membership has increased over 50%.  We have recruited younger members to be sure – but we’ve also lost a large number of our older members.  Some didn’t feel like they were contributing.  Some weren’t comfortable.  Some retired from Rotary and sent their children to join (literally).  It has been a real loss for our club as we see much of our history depart.  (An older gentleman who had previously been in the club moved back to town.  He visited our club once and promptly joined the club across town which has a higher average age.)

In short, your Rotary world may be turned upside down.  Are you willing to have that happen?  Are you willing to change the fabric of your club to attract younger members?  Ask yourself this question – would your children join your Rotary club?  If not, why?

Yes, there is a price for change.  When our clubs get younger, either we’ll change our clubs to make it happen or our clubs will be changed by it happening.  It is up to us to decide whether to embrace the change and invite younger members, or remain as we are and face those consequences.  In all honesty, I’m not sure what those consequences are.  Will Rotary survive that way?  Will Rotary still be relevant in that model?  I’m not sure.  But I do see the results of a younger Rotary club every week.  It is different, but different isn’t always bad.

Brian Hall is a member of the Rotary Club of Covington, Louisiana and will be District 6840 Governor in the 2014-2015 year.

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