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When Rotary was formed in 1905, Paul Harris was 36. The other three original members were 34, 40, 42. I note there ages because it is important to remember that our organization was started by young professionals, not ‘seasoned’ executives. It was a true business networking club, not a just a social club. The original concept of Rotary was to create business opportunities with other ethical business people. If it were meant to be a just another social club they wouldn’t have required the Club Statistician to track business transactions between club members. A practice that was continued until 1911.
Nor was the concept of community service in the original club’s concept. It would be 1906 before a new member would join with the intent of adding community service to the function of Rotary. While the spirit of voluntarism is a critical part of every modern club, that wasn’t why Rotary was founded.
Rotary was truly a young professionals networking club at its inception; however, today’s Rotary club is a foreign environment to most business people under 45. In discussions with several young professionals I have gained insight on why Rotary tends to repel those that it should attract. Interestingly, in discussions with Rotarians I have found we often have no clue as to how young professionals perceive Rotary, and in fact, I have found that some Rotarians have a bias against youth.
It’s Their Fault
I have heard several Rotarians comment that even when they induct a young professional, the new members often don’t stay with the club. This attrition is usually blamed on the former member’s attitude or other personal failings. Many clubs will not accept that they have any responsibility for what they could have done better to retain him or her. In one case a very prominent local Rotarian was advising clubs to ignore anyone under 40 as a potential member. His reasoning was that, “They have kids and they’re not in a place in their career to be a good Rotarian.” That was a great attitude…for keeping Rotary an old person’s organization.
Lack of Respect and Bad Public Image
Some Rotarians may think that they have no bias toward young professionals, but actions speak louder than words. I have even found myself sitting at a table with a young professional and I instantly associate them with my adult children and began talking about my twenty-something daughters, rather than discussing business topics. It is a bias and it is disrespectful to equate a young professional with our adult children. It also creates a public image that we are an old person’s social club, not a business professionals club for all ages.
I have also sat in Rotary clubs where the youngest members are joked about solely because they are young. It makes for entertainment for the older members and may seem like it’s all in good fun, but emphasizing the age difference just makes us look older and any young professional attending for the first time may have a clear impression that this is not an environment of mutual respect for them. Some members further cement a club’s public image by telling political, religious, or gender jokes that would not be acceptable in any public environment, but are tolerated in the Rotary club.
The Solution – Segregation?
In Reno, Nevada, USA there is a new type of Rotary club that consists mostly of young professionals under 45 years old. It was modeled of the Rotary Club of La Jolla New Generations. It is not a Rotaract club, but a full-fledged Rotary club that meets in the early evening. Drinks are available and meals can be ordered, but most members do not eat. I have attended this club several times and most of what I have learned about the way we treat young professionals has been through my discussions with the members of this club. They are all stellar Rotarians who, in six months, have dived in to many community service projects. They are also business professionals, some in significant positions in their organizations. What they don’t experience in the club is treatment as adult children, or made to feel that they are too young to be serious business people.
Rotary has stood at 1.2 million members for seven years. If we are to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow we need to have a growing organization, not a stagnant one. The question is whether existing Rotary clubs are willing to tap into the millions of young professionals who seek to network with other business people. To do this clubs must address any potential age bias and become more aware of member behavior and how it might negatively impact a club’s public image. The alternative is to segregate young professionals in their own clubs and let the existing clubs eventually die out through attrition. It seems obvious that the former is the best solution, but it first will require existing members to accept individual responsibility for creating the club’s public image and that they must promote a positive impression that does not offend the best source of new members, the under-45 business professional.
We all have a responsibility to ensure the future of Rotary as a strong, viable, and relevant organization and to do that we only need to remember what we owe to Paul Harris and the other three young professionals that founded our organization…a duty to keep our clubs a place of honor and respect for all professionals..old and young.
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