Reversing the Recruitment Chill
As February 1905 drew to a close, the city of Chicago emerged from almost a month of unusually cold weather. The mercury failed to rise above freezing for 28 days, a record for continuous cold the likes of which hadn’t been seen in years. While he shivered through those dark and cold weeks, Chicago businessman Paul P. Harris came up with an idea to help thaw the freezing nights with the warmth of fellowship. He invited three business associates to join him in the foundation of a new social club. The Rotary Club, as they dubbed it, had its first meeting in Chicago on February 23, 1905.
Within seven years the Rotary Club was an international organization, with clubs in Canada, England and Ireland. On the 20th anniversary of the club in 1925, it was able to boast of 20,000 members in 200 clubs around the world. Each following decade saw continued expansion.
In 1985, Rotary International marked the 80th anniversary of that first meeting. As if to mark the occasion, it was also the first year Chicago matched (and surpassed) the record cold snap of 1905. In January and February, the city endured 33 days of consecutive freezing temperatures.

The End of Growth

A chill (though a less literal one) was also felt that year by RI executives. They had noticed a disturbing trend in membership statistics. While Rotary was larger than it had ever been, with membership rolls just shy of one million, growth had stalled dramatically. The membership was ageing. Even the new recruits were getting older. New members of all ages were less committed to the clubs, quite often withdrawing from membership after a short period.
At the 1985 Rotary International Assembly in Kansas City, general secretary Herbert Pigman’s annual report put the issue to the membership at large. He outlined a “failure of fellowship” that prevented new members from connecting with clubs.
“Age-group differences, generally made worse as clubs become older, appear to be closely related to, and possibly a cause of, this general problem,” he told the assembly. “Established clubs need to maintain or regain their vitality by devising activities to fill the ranks of the younger members and keep them in membership by attending to the need that all members have to experience – fulfilling fellowship in the club.”
Despite awareness of the problem, solving it proved to be a conundrum. The growth of Rotary International slowed and then stopped. Since 2003, club membership has almost been frozen in place. Rotary International will enter 2015 with a membership of 1.2 million, essentially the same it has been since 2003.
The numbers are kept stable by encouraging growth in a number of countries. Sadly, this growth is offset by dramatic declines elsewhere. Countries that once drove the growth of RI are now bleeding members at an alarming rate, enough to negate the growth elsewhere. According to statistics presented at the 2014 International Assembly, Rotary membership in the United States declined by 15 percent between 2003 and 2013, a net loss of 58,481 members. Canada experienced a 14 percent decline, while England reported 16 percent loss.

Reversing the Trend

At the 2014 Rotary International Assembly in Sydney, Australia, President Gary C.K. Huang outlined some of the recruitment and retention methods used by Rotary Clubs in those nations experiencing the most growth. Their practices serve as examples to clubs struggling to stop the loss of members.
  1. Be Family Friendly: Club events in Germany and India are designed to be family friendly. Children and significant others are invited to get involved. When your sons and daughters get interested and involved with Rotary, they are more likely to become members themselves. This practice also makes it easier for parents to choose between family life and club service. And, the intergenerational aspect means that older members are better able to understand the needs and viewpoints of the next generation of Rotarians.
  2. Use the Media: In Lithuania, clubs work hard to get their message out to the local media. By maintaining a good relationship with reporters, they ensure positive media coverage of Rotary efforts. Journalists who know about their local Rotary Clubs are also more likely to reach out to them in search of a story.
  3. Support Youth outside Rotary: Clubs in Japan sponsor the annual 'Yoneyama Scholarship', which rewards academic performance, intercultural understanding and communication ability. They have a great deal of success recruiting the winners of this scholarship, thus gaining the talents of young people with a proven track record of dedication and success.
Going beyond these general points, RI has provided local clubs with specific strategies to help them attract new members and hold on to them in the long-term. Each region has been provided with a plan specific to their culture and needs, and targets to aim toward. Clubs can access these regional plans online. The plans outline the membership goals for each region, and provide basic advice for achieving those goals.

Breaking with Tradition

A common piece of advice applicable throughout the world is to adopt a more flexible attitude to membership and meetings. For example, in the regional membership supplement produced for the U.S, Canada and Caribbean, clubs are encouraged to abandon some of the traditional Rotary practices. In this region, clubs have long been used to the idea of a club lunch, holding their weekly meetings in the middle of the day. In the U.S. and Canada, 62 percent of clubs meet at lunchtime. In Caribbean nations, the figure is 52 percent.
However, this schedule immediately prevents a number of hardworking professionals from attendance. Many offices limit the lunch “hour” to 30 minutes, making it impossible to get to the meeting. In other professions, lunch is taken only when there are no customers to serve or work left to do. Still others (such as teachers, police officers or nurses) are expected to be available as needed during breaks and simply can’t leave their workplace. By switching to an evening meeting, clubs can attract a much wider range of members.
Clubs everywhere need to work in recruiting women. Worldwide, women only represent 19 percent of membership. RI only began to accept women in the 1980's, and for a long time there has been a perception of Rotary as a “boy’s club.” Though this has clearly changed, the vast gender discrepancy remains a barrier both to attracting more women to Rotary and to retaining those who do join. RI recommends that clubs set a goal to increase the number of women in the club by a given amount every year.

Pilot Projects

Starting in 2011, RI launched a number of five-year experimental pilot programs to encourage both growth and retention of membership. One of these, the Innovation and Flexible Rotary Club Pilot, encouraged members to throw away the normal rules and regulations used by Rotarians and develop a system that worked best for their own members.
Pilot clubs were permitted to change the Standard Rotary Club Constitution and Bylaws as needed to make their clubs as accessible as possible. For example, a club could go from weekly meetings to bi-weekly, and reduce the importance of attendance. Some clubs even introduced “eMeetings,” virtual assemblies that eliminated the need for meeting in a physical location.
Another pilot program asked clubs to create Associate Members. Associate members are invited to attend meetings but do not have the responsibilities (or rights) of full members. This lets a new recruit explore the world of Rotary without fearing an immediate overwhelming commitment.
While the pilot projects don’t end until 2016 and 2017, ongoing reports have indicated they can make a big difference when it comes to boosting numbers and retention. They may also boost the enthusiasm and engagement of existing members. A 200-club pilot project run from 2007 until 2013 discovered that a reduction in meeting schedules could be a net benefit for most clubs. Eighty percent of the clubs in that pilot scheduled biweekly meetings instead of weekly ones. Of those clubs, 90 percent reported a positive effect on membership, fundraising and community service.
Both the Farmer’s Almanac and National Weather Service predict Chicago will once more experience record cold in January and February of 2015. The city might well experience a new cold snap to surpass those of 1905 and 1985. Happily, Rotary International seems to be on track to experience a significant thaw in the frozen membership problem.
Though we know what the overall trends are like, we’re curious to hear the opinion of individual Rotarians and clubs. What is the experience of your club? Are you struggling to attract or keep new members? If so, what reasons do people give for leaving Rotary? If you've been able to grow your club, what tactics worked for you? We invite you to share your experiences and thoughts with us - join the conversation on our Facebook page!

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