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by Paul Kiser [Twitter: ] [Facebook] [LinkedIn] [Skype: kiserrotary or 775.624.5679]
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.
Click here for more about the origin of community service in Rotary
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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Judi Beard Strubing said:
AMEN and AMEN!! Well said, Paul!
Paul Kiser said:
Thank you! That means a lot coming from you! I appreciate your support!
Dave Reynolds said:
We agree with you. Let’s go with the New Gen Clubs.
Paul Kiser said:
My feeling is that each urban area needs a New Gen club to shake out the cobwebs of the traditional clubs. The interesting issue is the terminology. RI is now using the term “New Generations” to refer to all the youth programs. A Rotary New Gen club is not a youth program and a new term must be used to define a Young Professionals club that is distinct from 1) youth programs, 2) Rotaract clubs, and 3) traditional clubs. It is all part of the issue of getting long-term Rotarians to stop seeing anyone under 45 as ‘YOUTH”.
Thank you for reading the article and commenting! Much appreciated.
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Nicolaas Herholdt said:
I think you’ve written a great post reflecting on the young professional aspect. Another area I think Rotary punches below it’s weight is on business ethics. It seems like there are some magical insights built into the traditions of Rotary, that somehow have gotten lost. I believe that as Rotarians we could impact greatly on creating an ethical environment and offering networking opportunities.
Paul Kiser said:
Thanks for your comment! I whole-heartedly agree! We are in a unique position as Rotarians to emphasize ethics in our business as well as in our community. I think RI is moving towards that goal with the Ethics project, but all Rotarians could participate on a personal level. The other advantage to promoting ethics is that it will help us to monitor ourselves and our business dealings. You can’t teach the Four-Way Test unless you use it and that keeps us on our toes! I have written some posts on ethics and I will continue to try to tie in the Four-Way Test to future posts.
Carlos Aragon said:
Hey, I know Judi!
I googled “rotary membership young professionals” and yours was the second link that popped up. I’ve been busy harassing District 5030 (Seattle area) clubs for the last couple of years on this topic, with a lot of “yeah, you’re absolutely right!” but not a whole lot of follow through.
On other aspect to consider; I’ve spoken to many of my peers, Rotarians and non-Rotarians alike (I’m 34 years old), and I’ve realized that there are two major disconnects within Rotary that deter young professionals:
1. Service tourettes… Rotary is also supposed to be about fellowship, family, ethics, leadership development, networking, but those often get forgotten in the rush to do service.
2. Service through one’s vocation/profession/classification seems to be almost forgotten. I spoke with a doctor a few months back who said he almost quit Rotary because his club didn’t have any health-related projects. He wanted to serve through his vocation, like we’re supposed to, but instead his club had him painting walls and pulling weeds… sure, it needed to be done, but his frustration is that as a doctor, he could do a lot of good with his specialized skills, and instead they had him doing something anyone could do. A lot of my peers want to integrate service with vocation, and Rotary does a lousy job of providing those sorts of opportunities.
Rotary Club of Duvall
Brandie Kajino said:
This is a very interesting article! It’s true that Rotary must look to the future in our young professionals (I’m 36 myself) for the growth and survival of this wonderful organization.
I think fostering goodwill and understanding between the generations is what will carry us into the next decades!
Karen Susman said:
Excellent article. I’m speaking at a chamber event to honor service clubs. My topic is how to build involvement. How do you think service clubs can build membership? How can they be relevant. I have twenty minutes to hit them over the head and then end on a positive note.
Thanks for your help. You’ve given me a fresh perspective.
Paul Kiser said:
Sorry, I was in meetings and traveling yesterday so I’m just getting back to the Internet. Wow, give me the hard question. I discuss many of these issues in my blogs, but perhaps you should send me an email and we can set up a phone call to discuss this issue. Part of the problem is that many service clubs (like Rotary) repel the people they seek simply because they are ignorant of their own public image. This means the members must change their behavior first, then focus on recruiting. Send me an email at pakiser@sbcglobal with dates/times that you can talk for a 1/2 or so, and a number at which I can reach you. I’ll send back a confirmation email. If you want to call me to set up the time rather than an email, call me on my cell at 775.224.2228.
Thanks for reading the blog!
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Thanks for the article. I’m currently a member of a Rotary club but am very close to quitting. I am 25 years old, with the majority of the club being 50 to 90 years of age! That being said, I genuinely enjoy getting to know the other members, but feel as though I’m not taken seriously and that the club is geared towards those “up in age”. As well, I’ve been thrown into various roles in the club without any guidance as to what my responsibilities are.
While I do believe that Rotary does excellent work, I feel as though my skills will be better used elsewhere (such as the establishment of an SPCA for our community). I think that one big assumption of our club is that other members assume that you know all of the clubs operations and what the club does and its goals are not laid out for new members to understand. A lot of the other members who have been in the club for a longer period of time don’t take the time to get to know the new members (especially younger members) and therefore I’ve never genuinely felt a part of the club!
As well, I believe that each member of Rotary should take the 4 Way test to heart, and apply it to all aspects of their lives. It is hard for me to see some (a minority) of the Rotarians not apply the 4 Way test to how they treat others and then want to be involved.
Thanks for letting me share my experiences!
Paul Kiser said:
THANK YOU for your comment. You have expressed many of the feelings I have heard from other young professionals and their experience in Rotary. Rotary is headed for a cliff and it will either change direction or fall off. I resigned from Rotary last December when I found out that a handful of people in Rotary leadership in our District had been working to subvert change by making personal attacks in leadership meetings. It was the classic,”We don’t want to change so we are going to torpedo other Rotarians behind their backs.” It is very obvious what every Rotary club has to do to keep the organization viable; however, it will require that each club and District give up the hierarchical system and return Rotary to a group of equals who gather together.
I personally apologize to you for the experience you have had in your club. Rotary is losing out on great people just because the older members want to dominate the club. It is hard to convince a veteran member that a young professional knows more about running an organization in the 21st Century and deserves as much respect as those who learned about how to run an organization in the 20th Century.
I wish you well in the future!
Steven Schneider said:
I happened upon your Rotary blogs and this theme is one I have been dealing with for a few years. How to attract, inspire, and retain members in spite of aggressive inertia. I’ve been in the unique position of being in charge of one hundred years of archives of Spokane club 21, formed in 1911, a 300 member club.
I have read through bound volumes of our newsletter from 1922 forward. These issues come up generation after generation. The old crabs of today were the young Turks of the 70’s. And on and on. In 1924, they looked to the young generation to bring a more hopeful future after the disaster of world war I. And the same concerns about the club pop up every generation. We hand the club over to the new generations whether we like it or not.
A good joke from the 40’s: A Conservative is someone who doesn’t want to see anything happen for the first time.
I continue to engage new members one on one, to educate and inspire. I make sure they know what Rotary can do for them. I never give a good idea to a committee. I keep pushing pr and marketing. People threaten to quit because of me, often because of ideas right out of RI manuals.
But, our next few presidents are Rotaract alumni and I am optimistic. I hope you are recovering nicely.
Paul Kiser said:
Thanks for commenting and sharing the info. Interesting perspective on the issue of young vs old. The challenge today is how to reverse the trend of losing members in North America over the last 17 years. The problem in my opinion is that every club thinks they don’t have a problem because they only see the club membership diminish by one or two per year and they they have one year where they gain a few members and they think the problem is solved. I prefer looking a District membership from year to year and that is where the membership problem becomes apparent.
I wish Rotary would take a stand on ideal club size. Every club feels that the size of their club is ideal, which cannot be possible. In my humble opinion the ideal club size is in a broad range of 40 to 80 members. Clubs smaller than 20 are almost always too much of a clique and gaining new members is difficult. Clubs over 100 make it too easy for members to hide out and not become involved. Club in the 40 to 80 range tend to have the most impact on the community and are usually the most dynamic.
I’m not longer in Rotary, but when I was the PR person for our District I noticed that almost all the clubs under 20 members were Rotary clubs in name only. Those clubs were also the ones that consisted of members over 60 years old and were primarily almost all male. Younger business professionals had nothing in common with the club and so the reason they were not attracting new members was pretty obvious.
It’s a hard problem to overcome, but Rotary clubs are in a precarious position of becoming irrelevant if they can’t pull in young professionals. For some it is already too late. Unfortunately, RI has a mix of old guard and people with new, innovative ideas. From what I’m seeing, the old guard is still strong in setting Rotary policies and that will not be good in the long term.
Paul Harris sought a club of friends who had common interests in being a positive force in business and the community. I think Paul Harris would have said that it would be better to disband a club that focused more on maintaining a clique that keeping arms open to new people with new ideas and new energy. We can’t keep looking for the people who look like us, talk like us, and have the same political beliefs. Young professionals often have different methods of how to do business and how to communicate. A club must accept that and welcome them…or not and begin a slow death.
I loved the joke!
Jim Henry said:
I have read this before and wholeheartedly agree. For support, consider this link to a Forbes article, written by Stacy Gordon, former president of the National Association of Women MBAs, that addresses diversity. Many interesting comments follow this article.
I received quite a bit of flak when I posted my Diversity Rotatorial, but we in Rotary must stop looking at diverse representation strictly from our point of view and look at it from the point of view of our target audiences. http://zone34retentioncentral.blogspot.com/2011/12/proposition-rotarys-addiction-the.html
prabesh satyal said:
It will good piece of article to post to my.host club roatary club of .bhaktapur 3292 Nepal Bhutan.hehee
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