Why Our Service Organizations Are Dying (and how to fix them)

Why Our Service Organizations Are Dying (and how to fix them)

Nothing more American than a service club.  Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, IOOFAltrusa, Shriners……   Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville rode all over the United States in the 1830s and was struck by the influence of religious, fraternal and civic organizations, and secret societies, on American democracy and concluded that they made communities stronger, more interesting, and more engaged.

But there are some reason for concern. All of these service clubs, once the backbone of community life in America, have been in significant decline over the past 2-3 decades.  It iservice in Lions Clubs not that our clubs have changed.  America has changed.  Thus the imperative is for us to reinvent for a new America.

Declining Social Capital

In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert Putnam documented that attending club meetings, such as those held by Rotary and Kiwanis groups, has declined by 58 percent in the period 1975-2000.  This trend continued and even accelerated in the 21st century.   Putnam notes it’s part of an overall trend by Americans who also have 43 percent fewer family dinners. Thirty-five percent fewer of us have friends who drop in to see us at our homes.

Pick an organization and the numbers are telling.  In the past two decades Rotary down 20%, Jaycees down 64%, Masons down 76%.  Recalling de Tocqueville’s observation
about the role our clubs play in a civil society, this decline represents a tangible loss to community. The question remains, ‘Where do we go from here?”

Since most service club leaders are in office but for one year, they shoot for short term quick fixes such as a membership drive. However, for most of our service clubs the issue is not recruitment but retention.  Rotary averages 44,000 new members per year and loses an average of 51,000.  They cannot keep members.  If businesses are not keeping customers, the leaders generally make it top priority to find out why and correct the reasons. If they fail, they most likely will not be leaders for very long. Common sense says the same principle should apply to service clubs as well.

Think Tribes, Not Community

The classic definition of community is associated with a physical place, hence many of our service clubs are branded with a ‘place’ such as Jamestown Lions Club.   But emerging generations of Americans now define community by their affinities: the gay community or the tech community.  Even college alumni groups now tout themselves like independent countries such as Spartan Nation at Michigan State University.

Seth Godin is an entrepreneur who ruminates on marketing in the digital age.  Author of several best-selling books, Godin argues that digital life has ended traditional mass communication and replaced it with an ancient human social unit, The Tribe. These are groupings of people founded on shared ideas and values.  As such, tribes give ordinary people the power to lead and make big change.

In the new world, what people desire most is an opportunity to connect with one another.  People like bonding with other people. It’s human nature. If we create opportunities for people to connect, they’ll open up and feel more comfortable. As they do, they’ll invite us into their lives and will introduce us to their friends.  Then their friends become our family, our tribe. One by one we rebuild our clubs.

The data is so overwhelmingly convincing.  One half of charitable giving in the United States is not driven by what people care about, it is driven by what their friends and family care about.  Consider the charity walk or bike ride.  Most of those involved have little driving passion for the issue at hand, but join up to walk as part of a team organized by a friend or family member.  It’s their community. The service clubs which will thrive in this new era are the ones who build out their tribe. 

Prioritize Time Over Treasure

seth godin

Seth Godin’s TED Talk Explains Why Creating Tribes Matters

The speed of American life has picked up. While we are not working that much more than previous generations, we are spending vastly more time in what might be called ‘structured leisure activities’. This is especially true for families with children.  For them, time is more prized than talent or treasure. For two parent families, both are often working and sharing household and child rearing duties.

So what will attract them is not so much our mission, but how we can add to the quality of their lives.  Their time is precious.  So how can we adapt in order to make ourselves more welcoming to this emerging America?

Build An An Informal Atmosphere

Is the format of our club outdated?   Is the weekly lunch a productive format?  Are the rituals in our meeting making sense to younger Americans? Many try to side step or ignore these impediments rather that deal with them.  That’s human nature as the most powerful force in the world is the status quo.

But Americans now connect on-line so don’t need the time investment of a weekly meeting in order to network.  Leaders must identify and remove obstacles.  Is the structure of our club meetings an obstacle to involvement?  One thing is abundantly clear, what emerging generations want in physical meetings is for the environment to be fundamentally social, fundamentally conversational and fundamentally less formal.

Enable Them To Bring The Whole Family

One of the encouraging trends in modern America is how men have taken a much more active role in child rearing.  Some of this is driven by women’s increasing role in the workplace and some by men desiring to play a more intimate role in the development of their sons and daughters.

These two parent, two career families have higher than average incomes and should be a priority to our recruitment strategy.  They earn more and are more active than other demographics.  If we want to get them, we have to offer a milieu which permits and engages their children as well, for they will not give up valuable family time for anyone.  So, does our club offer a family friendly environment?

Help Them See World Differently

Will this attract the next generation?

Will this attract the next generation?

TED talks have become the gold standard among young professionals for these sessions arouse followers’ thoughts and imagination, as well as stimulating their ability to identify and solve problems creatively.  People gravitate to places containing others who awaken their curiosity, challenge them to think and learn, and encourage openness to new, inspiring ideas and alternatives.

While we may not be able to book high-level speakers, we can look at altering meeting formats.  How about facilitated discussions around a pressing societal issue?  How about reflective exercises which engage members to think deeply about a topic?

These ingredients are essential to creating an environment where people are willing to invest their time.  Intellectual stimulation is defined as encouraging innovation and creativity, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving. Intellectual stimulation involves arousing followers’ thoughts and imagination, as well as stimulating their ability to identify and solve problems creatively

People love environs that awaken their curiosity, challenge them to think and learn, plus encourage openness to new, inspiring ideas and alternatives. These elements are essential to pulling in the emerging generations and thus ensure club success.

Let Them ReThink You

It’s not ‘Come do what we do’, it’s ‘What do you want to do?”  Can our club be an incubator for young creatives to develop new and interesting ways to address our traditional issues?

One aspect of emerging generations is their desire to have an impact now.  It means they will not wait 5 years to be elected Chair of the Fundraising Committee before seeing their ideas in action.   If it’s not happening today, they’ll walk away.

Victor Hwang in his book, The Rainforest, metaphorically notes that most of us were trained to manage farms. By this he means our approach to anything is that we know what we want to grow, know when to plant the seeds, plant in straight lines, kill anything that looks like a weed, know when to harvest and can anticipate roughly our yield.  The Rainforest, by comparison, is a chaotic environment where all sorts of genetic mutations are taking place and everything looks like a weed.

Hwang’s point is that we need more Rainforests.  But that means relinquishing some measure of control. Not always easy when we have 60-80-100 years of tradition behind us.  Yet, by allowing emerging leaders to reinvent our club we can navigate a path to securing our survival.

Inventing The American Future

Service clubs are an American innovation that have evolved into a worldwide institution. While vibrant across the globe, the loss of membership in the United States represents a loss of social capital and civic engagement.  Today potential members are constrained by lack of time. In addition, they may not see much use in an organization whose prestige and vitality is in question.   It is imperative we reinvent. That may involve passing the torch and allowing an emerging generation of leaders to reinvent our clubs according to their needs.  The alternative may be irrelevance and obscurity.

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The author is a member of the Rotary Club Of Oregon City, OR    If you’re in town on a Wednesday afternoon, come join us for lunch.



  1. Hi Michael,

    I am a relatively recent Rotarian (2 years). I did not join to be in a club. I joined to find people who shared my passion to want to make the world a better place. I almost quit after 2 months when I discovered my club was down 75% in members in about 2 years. I studied all I could find about Rotary to decide whether this organization had the right ideals and concluded that it did. I then visited 20 clubs in 4 countries to understand difference between clubs that are flourishing (many outside US are) and clubs that are languishing.

    I decided Rotary was worth fighting for an now I will be District Membership Chair and Public Image Director next year.

    The core of our strategy is built around the idea of PRIP Clem Renauf (came up with end Polio idea which passed to his successor Carlos Canseco), who described Rotary as an organization that provides ordinary people with extraordinary opportunities to do more with their lives than they ever dreamed possible. We are challenging everyone from Rotarians to EarlyActors to “Dare to be great.”

    We look to put causes ahead of club. We seek to attract people who want to put more meaning in their lives (and then be sure we give them the opportunity). We are looking to collaborate statewide so that we can take on projects with greater impact (and therefore newsworthiness). We believe this will also give us more clout with the media and potential supporters/donors thereby enabling us to do more good which will make us more relevant to more people.

    I would be interested in exchanging thoughts with you.

    • Bill,

      Would welcome a conversation. Feel free to drop a private email to michael (at) michaelbrand (dot) org

    • ….to understand difference between clubs that are flourishing (many outside US are) and clubs that are languishing.


      Could you highlight a few things flourishing clubs were doing? What was holding the languishing clubs back?

    • I think the objective should be to meet people from all walks of life who “may” be able to help others reach their goals. If you contain yourself to special interests this flies in the face of that idea. Community organizations should be a networking tool. Special interests stay to themselves
      I guess what I am saying is a melting pot concept is better.

    • After some 15 years as a Rotarian in Korea, I have chosen not to renew membership for the coming 2017~18 Rotary year. I’m taking a one-year vacation – maybe longer, after holding various positions, ranging from club vice president, programs chair, membership chair, etc.

      What strikes me is the inadequate concern for many service club to provide meaningful experiences/responsibilities for the rank and file. Too often work, glory and responsibility is overly concentrated among a few, top members while these same few people are remarkably inept or disinterested in delegating duties functioning committees. So much so, committees tend to be one-person committees.

      Furthermore, today “membership” roles should be more accurately labeled as “recruitment.” There is remarkably little, ongoing concern about membership maintenance and retention. It is just constant banging the drum for new members. But in so doing, without sincere retention programs in place, all membership chairpeople are doing is exposing more and more people to unsatisfactory experiences and thereby promoting less-than-positive word-of-mouth PR about Rotary or whatever service group.

      Rotary International and others need to get serious and rethink what they are doing with their constant downward pressure to get membership numbers (and annual membership fees!) up.

      A common analogy is that each organization has holes in its bucket representing deaths, transfers and other reasons for membership numbers to decrease, so constantly we need to add more water in the form of new members. Fine, but if there is no concern in filling in at least some of the bucket holes and preventing other holes from enlarging, we are no better than modern day Sisyphuses.

      Unfortunately, as obvious these observations may be, over several years in Seoul, at best I’ve been able to witness is lip service. Recently I met with a current Rotarian club president from a south Asian nation. The club is young and he is one of the charter members. The membership is currently down by more than half from its original number. But he is not greatly concerned. His thinking is building up his club in terms of quality rather than quantity, regardless of pressure from his district to go out and heavily recruit new members. This wise man’s philosophy is let’s do all the right things well and make our club something wonderful so that people will come to us, asking to join, rather than spending much of our resources recruiting members at the expense of the core missions of Rotary. I cannot agree more.

      Build your club right and it will rightfully generate a charismatic reputation. Build it shabbily and all you will be doing by recruitment is spreading the word that Rotary or whatever is no longer relevant. If you build it right, they will come. But if one is quick to advertise the proverbial baseball field with a missing base and weeds in the infield, don’t expect folks to come back – nor will they say positive things to others about your club!

      • You touch on an important aspect….leadership development and rotation of service positions. Ever been to a church where the person organizing the mission trip has been doing the job since 1988? I believe it healthy for groups to adopt a standard of no one being in a position longer than three years, and that part of the job is to nurture and mentor your replacement.

      • As a Rotarian, I feel retention target of 100% is a bit unhealthy.
        As in corporates,one has to welcome some turnover, as it helps old wood to leave and new blood to join in.
        But yes an overall positive growth is desirable.
        The approach of member ENGAGEMENT in projects and activities as against just Attendance of weekly meetings ,is a welcome change. It helps members associate with causes that interest them, as against compulsion to be bodily present.

      • You’ve hit the nail on the head. A few years ago, I visited the Rotary Club of Chula Vista, California. At the time I was a Rotary District Governor in Michigan, so when the meeting was over, I introduced myself to the club president. I learned that the club had grown 25% in the first six months of her presidency, and she anticipated it would grow another 25% in the next six months. About 80 people were at the meeting, thus I surmise they had about 100 members. This seemed remarkable, but having been at the meeting, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The business portion of the meeting was taken up discussing the activities and schedules for the six small and large hands-on community and international service projects the club was doing. The entire club membership was engaged, and the members were rewarded by knowing that their contributions were important and relevant. I don’t recall any discussion about fundraising at that meeting.

        • I talked to the district governor in Boston. He shared that one club gives each new member a $200 budget to impact an issue of their choice. They are encouraged to collaborate with other club members, but not required. What this does is get new members involved in a service project *immediately* and on an issue they are passionate about. I love that concept because it engages the member from Day One.

      • I believe 100% in quality vs quantity. If we admit into membership “anyone with pulse” and not understand why they want to become a member then we are doing a disservice to our our club and those new members. That’s why entrance interviews are important – probably more so then exit interviews.

    • We are an eclub. Looking forward to understanding far more on retention as well as bringing in people who will remain in the club. We do not have ‘formal’ meetings; the board meets on line each month with members being welcome to join in. Our members not on the Board are able to fulfill their service by working with other Rotary Club projects or other non profits.

      Even with our flow at your own speed, retaining people in the vital work of Rotary evades me. All a member has to when not attending a land based Rotary Club is to watch our website for 30 minutes with the latest posts. Not sure the ‘freedom’ is attractive enough to hold and inspire our members.

      As the new membership chair, I am feeling challenged. Yes, wearing our Rotary pin to bring in possible interest by others has been suggested and explained. What other thoughts do you have as we too shrunk from origination?

    • Hi Michael, I joined Rotary as a community member who is passionate about building resilient communities and we do that through connecting. I found my club very welcoming, but was surprised at the very low numbers and curious as to what I could do to help increase the membership. I love what you said about getting informal – our club seems to be fairly relaxed and does have a mix of young and older members, male and females. There are still some fixed ideas from the older blokes about membership and I sense a yearning for a time long gone from them. While some may give lip service to really embracing mediums like social media to raise awareness of the excellent work Rotary does in the community, there does seem to be, again, some resistance to really using social media in a way that will give the club exposure and attract new people. Hiding our light under a bushel helps no one.
      Thank you for the article.

    • I’m a Rotarian in Canterbury (UK) and have read these messages with great interest and think that because we always did it that way then we should always do it that way is a recipe for disaster.

      How will that ever maintain a positive approach to the change agenda, it won’t of course. If we are looking to create a space this encourages NEW POTENTIAL MEMBERS to our organisation, then it needs to have GRAB APPEAL and all too often it’s very grey, lacking colour, see my opening sentence.

      If we go back to why Rotary was formed, it was about FELLOWSHIP, as a result of that FELLOWSHIP, great things happened because we met, exchanged ideas and things happened.

      In my 25 years in Rotary it now feels that the FELLOWSHIP aspect has become secondary to raising money for this, that and the other, all very important of course, but I sense we have started to focus on the wrong item too much.

      Rotary needs to be stimulating, exciting, fun, whacky, silly at times, not too serious, and massively appealing to potential new members. Rattling tins outside your local store is about as exciting as watching paint dry, why would someone want to sprnd their valuable spare time doing that? ughhhh. When a potential new idea comes along, all too often, it’s not adopted because we never did it that way,!!! QED

      • I agree. The emerging generations are looking for different experiences. They have to be intellectually challenging, personally engaging and socially meaningful.

      • If we go back to why Rotary was formed, it was about FELLOWSHIP, …

        You hit on an important point. Market research strongly shows that the emerging millennial generation wants meaning, wants service, but they also want social experience. This means successful service club must be more than just a place to do, but a place to belong.

    • Bill I would love to learn more of what you did to get the buy in of the existing members to change their outlook on the growth and the somewhat metamorphosis of the club. k.stark@industrialadmin.ca

      • I would also love to hear about this as well. Getting people to even consider the need for change is such a huge hurdle.

    • AS PAST STATE PRESIDENT OF THE NEVADA JAYCEES i feel the junior chamber of commerce should focus on building new business people with mwwtings that focus on building a business tis wattract those wanting to grow a new or existing business. just a thought.

      JCI SENATOR 28073

      • … focus on building a business…

        We love to emphasize the community service aspect of our organizations without noting how we can help build your professional life as well. Thus many who might join our ranks see service clubs as just a redundancy of service he/she already does in their church or private charity.

    • I’m a member of several Civic organizations and I believe this is a good article that could be related to particular organization. I think all leaders should look at this article seriously look at this article and think about how they could change their way of thinking to encourage new members and retain new members and their particular groups. If we are going to survive we are going to have to make some changes. just because it worked many years ago is not what’s going to work in the present day and time. I think that this article could be shared with any organization leader.

    • Hi Michael,

      I’ve been in the National Exchange Club for nearly 15 years and I am 32 years old. I’m a third generation exchangite so it was a natural transition to join this organization which focuses on Americanism including helping our veterans, Youth and Prevention of Child Abuse. In this time, I moved up the leadership role, serving as club president one year and then serving as president of the California/Nevada District and now I serve on the National Board as a Regional Vice President.

      We’ve been trying to find a way to appeal to a new generation of potential members. There’s a few of us under the age of 40 and some of us in Exchange under the age of 30, but many of us were attracted because of the program of service or we were generational exchangites. When I compare Exchange to some of the international service clubs, I see that Exchange still has great potential. The issue of homeless veterans and child abuse is still a major problem in our society, and even moreso when you factor in that the VA has been cutting assistance to veterans and there are other factors in child abuse including sexual abuse and human trafficking of young teenagers. These issues have not been eradicated, but when I compare it to Rotary and Lions for example, there main projects (eradicating polio and helping kids with glasses respectively) are issues that have, for the most part, been resolved (although polio is still a problem in other underdeveloped countries which Rotary is bigger in those parts of the world).

      But I just can’t seem to find a solution on how to get folks involved with Exchange which is the oldest service organization in America. I hear people talk about these two issues all of the time, homeless veterans and child abuse, but people don’t want to get involved or help build a club.

      I’d love to see the National Exchange Club and all of these service clubs appeal to new members and a new generation, as it would be terrible to see all of these service clubs that have done over a century of great service to their communities, die overnight.

      • Hi John.Loved what you had to say and the insights you shared. Know this is an answer pretty late after this post was done but would love to reach out to you. I am in Florida and just started working with a club.

  2. I’m also a recent Rotarian since I joined my club in Aug/2015 and I’m president-elect for 2017-2018. I’m very excited but at the same time a bit concerned as some of the ideas you mentioned in your article, reflect exactly the level of flexibility I would like my fellows to agree to adopt or implement if we want to help retention. Thank you, Michael. I’ll follow you from now on in an effort to get more ideas. I’m on District 6930, Boca Raton West (FL) club.

  3. In Exchange we also find the younger generations shying away from formal meetings, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Will volunteer to do projects, but no time to listen to speakers or meet to just eat and adjourn. Trying to adapt the fixed members into a new format is also a challenge.id be interested in new ideas…

    • Interesting article but nothing was really said about the only national organization – Exchange Clubs of America. We are still shrinking but in much better shape than a few years ago.


    • Bradley,

      Rotary has experimented with a New Generations format for clubs where one week they have a dinner/speaker, then the next meet at a nonprofit for a service club and the week following for a wine and cheese mixer at some entrepreneurial business.


    • I will be president of our local Optimist Club in October. We have mostly long-term, older members. Ages 65-90. They cling to the weekly meetings. New members, who are often younger, join for the service aspect of our club and have virtually no interest in meetings. I feel as if we have an identity crisis. We have to maintain the weekly meetings (and speakers) for the 14-16 older long term members who come on a regular basis but we rarely see the newer, younger members. In fact, many of the newer members come once or twice and then we never see them again. The difficulty in reviewing the club structure is disappointing the long-term members in hopes that the newer members will actually start to show up. My challenge is accommodating both groups.

      • Michelle,
        You should look seriously at the club within a club format for the new members. OI has designed the format for exactly this situation. As an older member (70) and a past district governor I understand your clubs situation. I hope I am still young enough in spirit to work with the younger members and embrace the changes they bring.

  4. Good points and I plan to quote.

    However, my experience is different – having left a knife and fork type noon lunch club to co-found a Sunrise Rotary club which has steadily grown to 100 members and which frequently wins best club in the district awards. Our sponsored Rotaract and Interact clubs have recently really taken off and may be a source of future Rotary members.

    Of the 40 clubs in our District we have, by design, the most stringent membership requirements, particularly requiring significant discretionary authority in a business or organization, such as the ability to sign company checks or the ability to hire and fire people.

    If a person is too busy to join our club, that’s exactly the type of person we want. “We meet at 6:45am with coffee ready; you don’t have anything else scheduled at that time, do you? Good. This is what we would expect of you as a member…”

    We have enforced classification restrictions of no more than 5% from any one industry – a new bank president had to wait two years for an opening to get in.

    Everyone must contribute and be active. We drop people who do not stay active. “You have to cull from the bottom as well as add to the top or you dilute quality.”
    (No, I’ve never been in the Marines) To us bigger is not necessarily better. Quality over quantity. We’re not totally rigid, one of our members became elected to the U.S. Senate and we approved that as an excused absence.

    So you get the idea. Setting high expectations.
    That gets applied to doing significant worthwhile projects. And having fun while accomplishing those goals!
    Word spreads … (aided by our PR committee).

    To me, adapting to new aspects of society is reasonable, but loosening standards seems like a race to the bottom.

    About me: I’m an energetic, 40 year old, entrepreneurial, internationally aware, person who somehow happens to be in a 70 year old body.
    One of my goals for the next two years is to spend time with some great 30 year olds in our club to suggest to them how they can bring into the club top people in their age cohort.

    Life is Great !

    • Hey Michael,

      First & foremost, thank you for explaining what I’ve lack the ability to put into words about the declining passion of my generation to be a part of these amazing, longstanding community organizations.

      Let me give you a little background about myself. I’m a 29 year old, 4 year kiwanian & president elect of my local kiwanis club next year. I’ve honestly been a part of the Kiwanis family for more than 15 years of my life. You see I’m a former member of key club (Kiwanis high school organization) & a former member of circle K international (Kiwanis college organization). I’m a part of the small percentage who has mostly made their way full circle in through the K-family.

      Our Kiwanis Service Leader Programs that are a part of the K Family truly offer the ability for families to be a part of the same organization, but in their own way! This allows many opportunities for camisoles to give back to the community together. So I truly believe in the value of having the interact club for high schoolers.

      Although I think we struggle with recruitment & retention on all levels of our Kiwanis organization, I’m very hopeful for our future the more I work with all the levels in the Kiwanis Family & other community organizations such as rotary & exchange club!

      God Bless,
      Megan, Northshore Mandeville Kiwanis

      • Megan,

        Is there anything particular on the recruitment/retention scene you could recommend to others?

      • Megan, your story is one that needs to be told throughout the K family. Quite some time ago, I suggested to the New York District Membership person that keeping a data base of college Circle K members (especially seniors) and their eventual place of employment and to notify both the Circle K member and the respective local Kiwanis Club might be a good idea for recruitment. Never heard anything in response

    • I like the dedication to quality over quantity. I’m sure it adds a level of ‘exclusivity’ to the group. I suspect you find you can do as much with 20 committted members as you can with 60 vaguely engaged ones.

    • Wonderful Steve great to hear the good works your club is doing in your area and on membership. Great ideas for all to try

    • I am impressed with your sharing. PP Doris Chang, Rotary Club of Melawati, RI District 3300.

    • Steve,

      Brilliant. I’d love to chat with you about this. I’m a iPDG in So. Calif.

    • Steve–I also feel I am a 40 year old business person residing in a 70 year old body. Can’t retire until we sell our veterinary practice. I love what you said. We are down to 16 active members but we sponsor both an inbound and outbound RYE student each year and have a very active Interact club. There is also a very active Rotaract club in the area that we help sponsor. We have lost several members through death and transfers out of the area, but we have also lost members who do not see the value in our organization. We need to find members who see the promise that Rotary can provide.

  5. This is a very helpful perspective and reflects what we are also dealing with. As newly elected President whose career demands travel I was fortunate to find another member who agreed to Co-President. We are looking for examples of how to engage the younger generation and make it meaningful. With time being a precious commodity these days we will likely go to two meetings a month rather than every week with social hour every now and then at the craft brewery.

    We are also looking at web meetings and doing more digitally but those are general ideas with no specifics to offer yet.

    I particularly like the idea of appealing to how we can help them, rather than a pre-defined mission. In fact, I’m in the process of writing some radio commercials and you’ve given me some great material.

    Looking forward to exchanging with everyone.

    • I believe empowerment is the key. The Millenial generation is infused with creativity. Giving them the opportunity to come in and rethink our service clubs unleashes them to create a space that will attract other Millenials.

  6. Michael Thank you very much for stressing retaining members. I maintain a blog called Retention Central; a blog I created when I was the Zone 34 Membership Coordinator.

    Myself, and my colleague in Zone 33, Bevin Wall, have argued that for quite a while. Reference: https://zone34retentioncentral.blogspot.com/2011/05/only-true-measure-of-effective-club-is.html

    Retention Central is at: https://zone34retentioncentral.blogspot.com/

    I am happy to say that Zone 34, according to the last information I have, is the only Zone in North America that has had an increase in membership two years in a row, and is on tap to have an increase this year, not including the annexing the ABC Caribbean Islands. And our District 6960 has had a membership increase three consecutive years, now going on four. All because we began stressing that members are club’s customers and the key is retaining them and being selective about who clubs attract.

    • It is a bit puzzling that in an organization stacked with business people that retention doesn’t get more attention. For if they were bleeding customers as fast as we’re bleeding members, you’d bet they’d be all over it looking for solutions. The RGR Index is a solid way to get members thinking about retention (after all, it is easier/cheaper to retain a customer than acquire one.

      • Michael

        The fundamental reason RI didn’t stress membership retention was that RI didn’t know who its customers were. RI Board of Directors, back in 2007, believed that RI served the world. It did not realize that it is in the creating and supporting Rotary Clubs as they created and supported Rotarians. They didn’t realize that Rotarians make the world better, one community at a time. Why did this happen? Simply put, inbreeding. https://zone34retentioncentral.blogspot.com/2014/09/rotary-inbreeding.html

        Thanks to some of our young lions, such as John Smarge and Brad Howard, RI has recognized its problem and is attempting a turn around.

      • Michael,

        We’re deluding ourselves in thinking that Rotary is made up of top business people. In fact, most clubs may have only one, possibly two members that would currently fit that definition. Most who were are not retired. A greater and greater percentage of members are made up of community volunteers and non-profit administrators that drive out the business leaders.

        • Some ways this reflects the shifting economy. In many towns there are no longer Captains Of Industry. Instead there are the local managers of chains. The top locals tend to be independents….lawyers. Or else government.

  7. Mandatory reading for anyone in Rotary before it’s too late.

    Check out http://www.rotaryeq.org to see how we are redefining Rotary in Perth, Western Australia.

    • Love it! Breaking down a rotating schedule of Projects Meeting, Impact Night, Speaker Night and Social Meeting. This is similar to the format of the Portland New Generations Rotary, a group I’m following. I signed for your newsletter and look forward to following your progress.

  8. Thank you, Megan. I, too, was in College Kiwanis — it remains more than twice as large as the largest college fraternity in the United States yet is constantly confused with the convenience store. I cannot imagine my life without my full-time Kiwanis membership since 1983. Unmatched experiences and life-long friends around the world. Agree with the article that clubs must meet member needs. One excellent model is the eKiwanis Club of Chicago — which was started by Circle K alumni. It is active and has won Distinguished Club honors in multiple years in the Illinois-Eastern Iowa District. Myself and a young colleague are just beginning to create such a club in Providence, RI.

    I am programs chair for my Kiwanis Club of Newport, RI, as I’ve always believed good speakers are a benefit of membership. We sponsor a Builders, a Circle K, and recently an Aktion Club for youth.

    New ways of organizing are always needed to make sure civic volunteerism continues to exist.

    • Thanks Jim Roehm, I have been in Kiwanis since 1989, I took 3 year off to spend time with my Mom who suffered and eventually died from Alzheimers Disease. I never regretted the time away but I sincerely missed my club. I’ve been back now making 25 years as Kiwanis and I am incoming President in Northside Naples Kiwanis Club this 2017-2018 year. I look to the youth for guidance, I want to know what to provide them to motivate them to join, what type of programs, family activities to engage them. Any ideas? I want this to be such a fun year for all of us. I am tech saavy and provide media and website to our club. I believe we have the best Kiwanis website anywhere.

    • As a Rotarian and advocate for Social Capital, I would strongly recommend Robert Putnam.s book noted in this article. for anyone involved in service clubs anywhere in the world or involved in any type of non profit society or charity, Putnam provides a big picture and historical look at the topic which provides a foundation for any individual or group wanting to serve others.

      • The loss of social capital is a huge concern as our nation continues to split up in warring tribes. This is where our service clubs have a huge advantage. In most places the membership reflects a diversity of political interests. There are great opportunities to promote our clubs as ‘third places’ where those of all stripes meet in a spirit of brotherhood.

  9. It would be interesting to see the current membership totals in each of the organizations that you mentioned in your article compared to 10 years ago.

  10. Excellent article, thank you. Here in Silicon Valley, home of “disruption” as norm, there is a company called Hands On Bay Area (www.handsonbayarea.org) whose mission is to create custom volunteer events and programs to connect a company’s employees to schools, parks, and nonprofits that need help. HandsOn is paid ($3k minimum) by local businesses to manage their service projects staffed with their employees. Google, Levis, AirBnb, Charles Schwab have signed up with them. I am the president of our local Los Altos Kiwanis Club and although we appreciate the volunteer efforts by these large institutions, I have to wonder how this effects our Kiwanis membership as a whole. Fewer people seem to have time to make lunchtime meetings. WE have increased our web presence (website, facebook) and have attracted people interested in our mission of serving Children of the world. I would be interested how other social service organizations attract quality members.

    • This reflects a growing trend (especially among Millenials) of service being eposodic rather than sustained. So the idea of taking a day with your coworkers to paint the local Boys and Girls Club is much more attractive to this cohort than committing every third Tuesday to sitting on the Board of the Club.

  11. “However, for most of our service clubs the issue is not recruitment but retention. ”
    YES! But, this is not being looked into by Lions Clubs International. They have been recruiting and not looking at clubs that misappropriate donations meant for the needy.

    I joined a Lions club in my hometown to have a better platform to spread to members in my country on what I have learned about ‘shut-down’ learners. My club was not interested in such a service.

    I continued attending meetings and joined as many of the projects as possible. I was made a director of the club and I began to notice that the 2 bank accounts presented to the members did not reflect the activities carried out. I questioned on this matter via emails to all members and was dismissed through a hastily convened EGM.

    Subsequently, 14 members, including 5 Past Presidents have resigned because of my dismissal.

    My emails to LCI have been ignored. I believe that recruitment is important but just as important is ensuring that long serving members do not resign.

    • I liked the details covered, it is something we all know… Sorry to hear about the Lions club that didn’t spend money appropriately… This is tough to know the real story… My club has “substantial” accounts and will reduce the budget based on what our one fundraiser did. Spend a lot, you incentivize the club to get out and raise more to do more… Do little, and you become non-vital to your community… and will not keep members or get new ones.
      As a PDG in Lions, and current extension chair (form new clubs) I am interested in the gist of gathering and forming a new club based on interests… In Lions we have a “branch club” perch that could allow the formation of groups that are interested in the same thing, that can have all the minute details of membership done by someone in a current club… meet when, where, and as you want and make the difference you want.

      • Rotary has the equivalent of Lions’ Branch Club. They are Satellite Clubs, set up to service other small communities, interests, modes of meeting, etc – eg breakfast meetings, internet meetings.

        As so many others here have commented in one way or another, the day of top-down management of volunteers has gone. Our members have a right to be treated as equals, with shared information, shared responsibilities and shared decision making.

        My own club has for many years operated a large fundraiser, which over time came to have its own financial year, bank accounts, self-appointed Chair and committee and which eventually entered into written contracts with external bodies.

        So, after 20 years, I returned to the position of President, determined to open up the club. I partially succeeded, but ultimately resigned my position when it became clear that the “Old guard” was not going to report to the board or accept its authority – even regarding public image, contracting and financial reporting. After 28 years, I am still a Rotarian, but I attend other clubs and as many service projects of all types as I can get to.

        Want a club to fail? That’s simple – just ignore the wishes of the members and the law of the land. My club has recorded annual membership losses for all but one of the past 10 years.

        In my travels, I frequently see the “leaders” ignore those that they lead.

        In my humble opinion, the top-down authoritarian structure of Rotary invites these outcomes. It’s way past time that grand, multi-year plans and thick rule books were tossed out. The club is the working heart of Rotary (and Lions, etc).

        Listen to the heart. Follow the heart. Simplify at every opportunity, even at the cost of some old duffer who has been doing his own thing for a couple of decades and resists change with every fibre in his body.

  12. Service clubs are an investment. The more you buy in the greater the return. And i dont mean just $ money.
    As a Rotarian of 38 years , I view my club as family and world wide members as close friends. I look yo making the world a better place by rlimination of polio as the nobelest of gosls. My week is shorted in quality if I miss a Rotary Club meeting with quality people who truly put service above self.

  13. Great one Michael!
    I’m a member of Rotary Club of Ota District 9110 Nigeria and I’ve been a Rotarian for over 11 years now. I like seeing members as customers; and just like every customer would appreciate quality service and stick to whomever provides such the best, so also will a club member that is actively involved be easily retained. Its assumed that one is keyed into the ideal of an organization that’s why one joined, right? So, let them be involved; put them in committees, ask for and value their ideas, let them give talks, conduct surveys, write and present reports, attend functions beyond the club level, etc. Such members are easily retained and even engage in active/fruitful recruitment! Activity is the root of retention, no matter the age band or tribal affiliation.

  14. I joined the Lions club in 1978 and even today I am a member of the local Lions club.What motivated me is the opportunities we have to serve the community as a group or team.We could achieve establishing projects which were beyond the capacity of one individual.As a team we had the expertise and the the resources. Being the part of an International organisation we were able to convince the community that we can achieve big things.Again the grants from the Lions International foundation always gave us that extra push to complete our dream projects.What any club needs ti sustain the membership is a sense of commitment among the members to serve the community.The fellowship and networking are only the by proudcts.

  15. I respect all of the service clubs you spoke of, but there are 3 you omitted: The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), The American Legion, and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) . Some may present the argument that these are “exclusive” service clubs, and that is a valid point as far as membership is concerned. But not only do these agencies take care of Veterans, their families, and Veteran related issues, we in turn support our communities with food drives, scholarships, etc. And we all face the issue of retention, especially with the younger generation. We encourage our younger members to speak up about changes, and have implemented quite a few. Why? Because someone listened and said, “That makes sense.” All of these organizations need to make better strides towards recruiting and retaining this generation. They are our future.

    • Debra, certainly didn’t mean to overlook the veteran’s associations. As a child of a combat veteran of WW2, I spent considerable time in my youth at the American Legion. Heard many stories how the mental health services at the Veterans Admin were worthless and how the Legion members took it upon themselves to help their comrades….which included suicide intervention, wife beating, as well as addiction. Later I learned that a local VFW founded a group of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1950s….back when there was still an enormous stigma.

  16. Excellent article.It’s hit to the point.

    Chamnan Chanruang
    ARPIC Zone 6B,Chiang Mai,THAILAND

  17. Lions like Rotary is struggling with an ageing and declining membership here in the UK. The average Lion is now 63 years old – and I’m told by a Rotary collegue that its more like early seventies for Rotary. Yet outside of Western Europe and the US, Lions is thriving. Our worldwide membership is, as of end of June 2017, 1,449,987 (i.e. just 13 off 1.5 millon), our largest ever, with over 47,000 Clubs in over 207 countries. So why do Service Organisations thrive in some places and struggle in others? Is there a natural life-cycle for such Clubs, with their relevance declining as counties become more developed? Is it inevitable that such organisations will reach their ‘sell-by’ date?

    • The growth outside the US is reflective of emerging societies understanding the need for broad-based social capital. There are a lot of American institutions in decline in North America yet ascendant in the developing world. The Society Of Friends (Quakers) are virtually dead in the USA, but growing leaps and bounds in Central Africa.

  18. Michael, I find your post on this subject quite interesting. Having studied the decline of social skills, character and other “we-centric” motivations over the past 40+ years, I can say that the drop in service club involvement is another symptom with the same root cause. As our society becomes increasingly self-interested, it’s hard to make the case for service — “what’s in it for me” seems to be more important than “what’s in it for them/us?” I just wrote something similar to my own newsletter group and you might find it of interest: http://tinyurl.com/y7ujyg8e

    I’m currently working on my latest book which is specifically about Rotary and the Four-Way Test. We have to be able to answer the question “why does it matter” in a relevant way if we are to engage younger members. True, changing the format and focus of meetings and such may be part of the answer because our young professionals are used to getting “connected” when it’s convenient for them, and regular meetings may not fit their busy schedules, but there is NO substitute for face-to-face, in person interaction and we need to find a way to engage them on that level before we will be a “tribe.”

  19. I’ve been to a lot of club meetings, projects and events for the Lions, Kiwanis, Elks and Moose. As a person in her 40’s, most of the members are not friendly or not even willing to engage back in a simple conversation, they question why your attending their meeting rudely, even after a member of theirs has introduced me, as a member, or daughter of a member, fellow community volunteer, potential member. I find it is not a welcoming atmosphere. Its very cliquish and often times its a “good ol’ boys” club.

    I’ve been to many meetings where theres a political agenda or its very sexist. A recent meeting not one, but 7 different members with a lewd joke to tell, they meet weekly, had no agenda or speaker lined up. Sadly, I was not the only potential member in the audience.

  20. My response to this.

    I have taken time to read most of the contributions here and no doubt they have been very eduvative.

    My personal views about declining membership of most service organisation is that new member who eventually take a leave do from inception pasuaded without using the word forced to join clubs in a bid to increase membership number of such clubs. These new member often lack the basic tool and ingredient that a true service person have and this is the passion to want to render selfless service without looking back, most of them also join because they just want to be called a Rotarian or wear the pins, in addition to these, they also sometimes expects come kind of quick personal or material gains which don’t come and then appears as a disappointment to them. No doubt it cost financially to sustain as a dedicated member of these organisation in the area of visitation to other clubs and attendance at function locally, District wise and Internationally, these are ways a new Rotarian can educate and grow passion as member, so when they eventually find out of what it takes then they fall out if not sustainable, I have find out that some of my Club member who left after a year or more have not attended any outside functions including trainings and have served as officers of the club, at the end they complain not to understand what Rotary is all about, sad.

    Finally, most frightening is the lack of willingness of even club leaders to introduce their children to Rotary at yunger age for them to understand what the experience is and thereby recruiting from the family members.

    I am 43 years of age and the President Elect for my Club, I have co sponsored my 17 year old son to attend RYLA and also encourage him to join the Rotaract Club in his University were I also graduated and served a club member and officer through my stay.

    My opinion on these issues may not be apply across board but at least we can look at each of them an apply local content to new strategy at the point of recruitment and level of sustainance.

    Many thanks
    President Elect
    Rotary club of Ago-Iwoye Metropolitan
    District 9110 Nigeria

  21. In Brazil, it is not different. Maybe, one challenge that Rotary has is the diversity of opportunities. As an example is the definition of alumni by Rotary. Do we know how many kinds of programs or activities Rotary has and that generates alumni? So a young Rotarian to be responsible by de Alumni Commission under a Rotary Club has to study many documents e understand how each one operates.
    It’ss not easy to evolve a new Rotarian quickly. Are there solutions? I think that there are. But we have to run.

    • Thank you Chico for this critical point. I am a past Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar but never once in the past two decades has RI ever reached out to me in this capacity.

  22. Traverse City, Michigan, Rotary is NOT dying. It is changing, it is becoming very much younger. And yes, we are informal. At most of our meetings, impromptu comments are made from the members, often in jest poking fun at the speakers. Committee chairs are changed regularly and new people taking over responsibilities. We still have our Rotary Show (75 years) and it is going strong producing lots of fun and funds for charitable works, at home and abroad.

    • America is becoming a more informal country. This challenges us to look closely at our rituals and ask emerging leaders if we’re outmoded.

  23. I am another 40 year old in a 70 year old body with a passion for change who sees a need for re-stating our vision around the areas of focus that bind us together, identifying the key intentional growth strategies, increasing opportunities for cause-based volunteerism (including Club Service) and generating a sense of urgency and understanding around the whole subject of change.

    Our eleven year old club embarked on a conscious process of cultural change based on Service-Centered Leadership back in 2013-2014. It grew quickly in the beginning from 0 to 30 plus and dropped to 4 members in 2009-10. We are now back to 25 members but still have a long way to ago if we are to achieve continuity of service culture along with its handmaidens – continuity of leadership and increased volunteerism. Securing our future will probably take ten years of constant application of our core service philosophy to the quality of volunteer members we engage.

    Our District has 63 clubs and is one of the more successful with an average ongoing rate of membership attrition of about 1% which reduces to 0.5% if we take out the impact of 2 new clubs. Close to half our clubs have experienced chronic decline which in many cases can be traced back 14 years using figures available on request from RI.

    Our club won the Governors Cup in 2013-2014 and 2016-2017 and have been the top TRF per capita giving club in the district for the last 4 years. These positive outcomes reflect a focus on quality over quantity. They have been holistic and impressive.

    Understanding change early in the process is essential and John Kotter sets out the leadership route map in his excellent book “Leading Change.” Harvard Business School Press ISBN 0-87584-747-1.

    In relation to change, he identifies six classic errors in the left hand column of his matrix:

    1. Allowing Too Much Complacency (Rotary’s #1 Enemy)
    2. Failing to Create a Sufficiently Powerful Guiding Coalition
    3. Underestimating the Power of Vision(or the vacuum if one is lacking)
    4. Undercommunicating the Vision by a Factor of 10 (or 100 or even 1,000)
    5. Permitting Obstacles to Block the New Vision (including elder naysayers)
    6. Failing to Create Short-Term Wins

    The six solutions are listed in the right hand column:

    1. Establish a Sense of Urgency (Eliminate “Happy Talk”, Create a Necessity)
    2. Create a Powerful Guiding Coalition(a small group of like-minded thought leaders)
    3. Create a Vision (Characteristics of an effective Vision)
    4. Communicate the Vision(Key Elements of effective communication: Situation, Problem, Implication, Need)
    5. Empower others to act on the Vision(Confront those who undercut the Vision)
    6. Celebrate Short-Term Wins (Congratulate achievers, build momentum)

    Clubs need to establish their own sense of mission around mission statements which capture their local community’s part of Rotary’s dream for the world in which we live. This maybe

    “A family of nations where every community is free from hunger, thirst and disease, literate, and at peace within itself, with its neighbors and the world.”

    Coca Cola are based in Atlanta and were main sponsors of this year’s convention. Many may remember with affection this powerful message which dates back to the 70s:


    We’d like to help the world to live in perfect harmony
    We’d like to live as one in peace
    The dream of Rotary
    That’s the real thing.

    We’d like the world to live in health with water all for free
    We’d like to give the world a spring
    And call it Rotary
    That’s the real thing

    We’d like the world to read and write in perfect harmony
    We’d like to show the world a book
    And call it Rotary
    That’s the real thing

    What the world wants today
    Is the real thing

    In a few words, the points that shout out most loudly from the wise responses are:

    Vision, Mission and Plan
    Inspiring Rotarians to Learn for themselves
    Leadership comes before membership
    Quality over Quantity
    Providing a welcoming experience
    Providing service opportunities and welcoming new projects
    Recruit Passion-caused based Volunteerism -Time over Treasure
    Consistency and Continuity -Short-term fixes don’t work
    Family events
    Education and Public Image
    Use of technology

    Worldwide, the number of clubs is increasing. Small can be beautiful.

  24. Insert Volunteer Fire Departments and same issues…Excellent Article

  25. I’m in Kiwanis and I have many Mexican friends in Rotary in Mexico. They tell me the same thing is happening there. This is an international trend.

  26. Michael I am the Zone 30 Rotary Coordinator, responsible for inspiring the growth of Rotary in 12 districts in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. Your comments echo principles and ideas we have been espousing for the last few years and they are gaining traction: attract, not recruit; regard members as customers and adopt an attitude of members first; provide value to members and an outlet for their passions; loosen attendance and meeting rules and provide alternatives to the usual meeting (social events, service activities, etc.); be family friendly; embrace an atmosphere of change and entrepreneurship; get rid of anything (activities, traditions, etc) that the members don’t want and exist only because “we have always done it that way; get continual feedback from members; etc. The message is always received gladly. The stumbling blocks are primarily 2 fold: first, changing leadership every year and having to teach all these principles over again; and second, the “old guard” in clubs that stifle innovation. Rotary leadership at the international and zone level is very progressive and pushing change. But getting it to the club level is a task.
    Would love to chat/trade ideas/ etc. with you. Many thanks

    • Rotating one year leadership may be one of those ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ things we could rethink. Every nonprofit board I’ve sat on had presidential terms of at least two years. The best one was actually a six-year commitment: two as president-elect, two as president, and two as immediate past president. This provided leadership stability but it also gave leaders long enough to institute change.

      • Michael, I agree about the relevance of longer term focus of clubs than just a single year.

        My volunteer body I was a member of had a “6 from 10” clause in its constitution. Anybody could hold any position for several years – but no longer than six out of any consecutive 10. That meant infrequent but essential rolling change to President, Secretary and Treasurer, as well to all other roles.

        Yet too often in Rotary I see leadership positions reserved for Past District Governors or squatted on but the incumbent, year after year, sometimes for decades.

        We need to spend more time on where we are going and much less on where we are coming from.

        Otherwise, it’s like trying to drive looking only through the rear-view mirror.

        • “That meant infrequent but essential rolling change….”

          I had an employee – a recovering alcoholic and in Alcoholics Anonymous – who shared with me their literature on AA’s Principle Of Rotation. It describes why frequent rotation of leadership is essential to keeping a group vibrant. It was an excellent guide as we rewrote the Values and Principles Statement for a nonprofit board I was serving on. I encourage all groups – nonprofits, service clubs, chrurches, even private companies – to consider those principles.

    • “the “old guard” in clubs that stifle innovation…” right on Brent. That is what I have been up against in my club.

      The people who do all the club management have been doing it forever and know how to do it… a ripple down effect starts there.

      Nice to hear these conversations I have felt alone in these thoughts.

  27. I am highly disappointed in the international service organization that I have belonged to since high school (over 17 years ago) is not in your graphic to lead this story, Civitan International!

    Former March 17, 1917, we just celebrated our 100th anniversary as “builders of good citizenship” and raising funds for developmental disabilities research at our own UAB Civitan International Research Center in Birmingham, AL.

    When I travel town to town…I always see every other organization’s logo on a welcome sign, but 9 out 10 times no Civitan sign.

    Still, the main problem I have personally witnessed continue and to face is that even though we do community service projects and build new clubs to increase membership…nobody seems to ever truly want to be the leader for a year as an officer or board member.

    On top of that, I agree that people want to come and volunteer and make a difference because others are doing so and they feel compelled to do the same. They do not simply join a club. Sadly, when you are disorganized or unknown the organization will inevitably die.

    Good read and I hope you will add our logo!! http://www.civitan.org

  28. I feel like they are at risk because of the terrible user experience of the technology that our clubs subscribe too. the innovation is still so far behind and if the user experience is bad, then it doesn’t get used.

    I was terribly saddened to hear from the developers of the clubrunner platform that they were ‘very proud of what they had made’. Rotary uses clubrunner.

    Hearing this made me disheartened and I began to consider finding another service club. I felt myself pulling away from and tuning-out a dying service club for old people.

    When old things try and control change and cannot see their own shortcomings, it hurts everything. Rotary is doomed unless they put out an RFP for new club management software.

    • We use DACdb which I am very happy with.

  29. I am a Rotarian member in Australia. One of the problems facing most clubs here is declining membership. As a general statement most Rotary clubs average age is growing substantially and members are starting to be limited because of various age related issues. At the same time, younger people are simply not interested in committing to what can be a time intensive group. Most of us in this digital age with our various family and work commitments are time poor. Younger people can not see any advantage in some of the rituals and practices in Rotary and to be perfectly honest neither can I. Ritual helps establish the community but is seen by most younger people to be irrelevant. The concept of tribe can do away with the old rituals and replace them with newer more appropriate ritual.

    Anyway just my opinion.

    • Much agreement Wayne. We have this young, energetic, creative generation ready to take the reins and looking for a place to have impact. It’s why I emphasize that a club hungering for growth should open up and allow Millenials to remake our rituals.

  30. Baby boomer here, and not a joiner. I recall my parents’ and especially my grandparents’ generation joining service organizations with gusto. It seemed to me that most were in it for social standing, making business and friendship connections, and socializing. All of the organizations had a primary and worthy charitible goal, and some of the members really put their back into it–but, even then, I sensed thta most did not. But there were plenty of members, so the roof always got repaired on time.

    I was a career as a military officer. By the 1990s, the officer clubs at most bases were practically kaput– a few around the world still hummed–but most of us preferred to socialize off-base; senior officers no longer had the power/williningness to compel attendance. Simply put, the business case for joining officer’s clubs died–you could have a sucessful career without having to invest time and dues. The same may be said for service organizations–the business imparative to join is no longer there.

    I’ve given presentations at Rotary and Lions meetings. One grandfather was a Mason, the other an Elk. I’ve been in a few VFW huts, and I’ve known my share of Ks, JCs and Knights. Good people all, but hearing what the aging members did at meetings never compelled me to join–like church, a lot of efforts and guilt trips were devoted to just keeping up attendance and the property!

    As an outsider, I do wonder why there isn’t more consolidation going on. The service organization idea still appeals to some, but the options are many and most all are being diluted drip by drip. I see some fantastic Masonic Halls and great Elks property locations, and I wonder if their destiny is to be sold off or rented out one by one to support the dwindling remaining clubs and the national organization. If so, that’s a pitiful waste; if this were a shrinking but viable business, a merger would be in order. One vibrant organization is about all my town of about 10,000 would seem to support. We’ve got at least six, and I’m told some have meetings that average fewer than 10 attendees. Half of the churches have been sold off as well.

    Personally, I give to charities online, and volunteer at many work-sponsored activities. Although I won’t likely ever join, I do think service organizations are a positive alternative for many, and a good influence on society. I wish you well, and hope that the end game isn’t a sale of a final piece of property to support those at headquarters to the bitter end.

    • You make a great point about MAsonic Lodges and Elks halls. These properties are real assets in the community and for a lot of smaller towns it would be a smart move to consolidate all the various service clubs under one banner with one location. Then you could run it as a Third Space for community.

  31. Thank you so much for such a clear view on the current situation of service clubs. I am the current District Governor for Rotary District 7930 in the Boston area. Our district has declined by 150 over the past three years. Some of that is through attrition, but a fair share is from lack of engagement. Although I am committed to a plan of 150 by 6/30 to rebuild, it is not without a great deal of programming aimed at retention.

    All members, but especially new members, require that they feel purposeful and appreciated and the dialog in the comments and replies above indicate that we have just allowed our great culture to transform into bad habit. We need to change that soon and reverse the direction we are heading.

    We have revised our budget to shift money from district programs that benefit district leadership to club support. Our membership and public image committees have been combined, and our co-chairs are focused on mini-grants that support clubs interested in attracting new members via social gatherings aimed at building relationships. We are also fueling the conversation about creating and implementing small, in-meeting service projects and other quick and effective projects that do not rely on district grants. An extension of this is to recommend clubs redirect some funds to provide $200-500 for every new member to design and implement a service project that is at the heart of their personal passion. The recommendation is for them to recruit two other members for their team, have the project be within the Six Areas of Focus, and for them to deliver an impact report at the conclusion of the project. Providing these new members a vehicle to fulfill their passion early in their membership will begin to create a bond that should stand the test of time. The district is looking at providing some matching funds for this concept as well. If this pilot project works, we will recommend that the idea be extended to all members.

    The old days of 100% of the club being engaged in a single project are long gone. Whether it be because member interest in social causes are too broad, schedules are too irregular or we make it too complicated, we need to find ways to adapt.

    Rotary has a good thing going and we are needed more today than ever. We must figure this out, one club at a time, and create the ability to replicate several models that can and will succeed. Whether that be service memberships, satellite clubs, caused based clubs (tribes), it doesn’t matter. The good that social organization do must be maintained, or dare I say, be magnified a thousand times.

    It is a challenge that is difficult to get our arms around, especially with the annual change in leadership. But if we stop leaving our business skills at the door, and choose to use them for the good of Rotary, we can start to build a strategic plan complete with action steps and measurable results. That will take a multi-year plan built upon the needs, wants and desires of our members, translated by club and district leadership that spans multiple years.

    Are we capable of doing this? Yes, and we will. Else our beloved service organizations will perish!

    I am about to send my monthly message to our district, and with your permission, I would love to replace it with your message as it so eloquently unravels what I have been trying to effectively communicate for quite a while. If I do not hear from you today, I will save your story for an upcoming release.

    Thank you for your insight and your commitment to Rotary!

    • Dave, I really like the idea of funding a project for new members to get them immediately engaged. Please let us know if the pilot is successful.

      Two months after I joined the Rotary Club of Port Orford I proposed a new program. It was funded and I have been off and running ever since.

    • The old days of 100% of the club being engaged in a single project are long gone. Whether it be because member interest in social causes are too broad, schedules are too irregular or we make it too complicated, we need to find ways to adapt.

      A service project which captures the imagination of 80% of your members still leaves 20% on the sidelines. Multiple smaller opportunities where newcomers can create something which excites them is a far better approach to a project designed by committee of long-timers.

  32. Michael ,
    I am currently the President of a Lions Club in Australia , our membership is sitting around 60-62 members , there is another Lions in our town that our club Sponsored plus two Rotary clubs , Kiwana’s , View ,and a mirriade of smaller groups working for the community.
    We are a town / district of about 150 thousand people .
    Retention is a huge problem in Lions due to age most members tend to leave around 70 because they feel they are no longer able to assist we have changed that around and encourage the older wiser Lions to stay as mentors . I once visited a club in Singapore that has over 200 hundred members on the books , no one ever leaves as a member , they may not attend but the Club pays the fee’s and once you join you are a Lion for Life , they have a very very active working club of about 50 members. Here in Tewantin Noosa we actively look for activities that take us out of the meeting room and our comfort zone this we find keeps members interested and new young members involved . I say that in order to get new members do not ask your friends to join, they are your age , ask their kids , that’s where the future lies with the young . A great read , thank you .
    Lions President Chris Pullin
    Tewantin Noosa Lions Club
    MD 201 Q4 Australia

  33. I found this article to be spot on the issue. As an Lions Club district governor, I am trying to get clubs to shift out of the “status quo” but, to your point, there has been a long history of decline. Clubs are trying new things but they are, unfortunately, in the minority. Many clubs are doing the same projects that have been done for 30 years. The other item that I see is to most US based “service” club – “service” consists of some fundraiser instead of actual service to their community. I feel this is a result of the declining membership and and change in demographics.

    Most research shows that younger adults want to be socially active – they just don’t want to be active in the clubs as they exist today. We, as social organizations, must change – the answers I give my clubs – “If you have a question about should your club change and evolve – look back to the dinosaurs and see how that worked out for them” and finally – “no one every joined a Lions Club because they had an overwhelming desire to flip a pancake – they want to make a difference in the world around them”

  34. This is a very good post, NOT all of it is true as a hole… Rotary (112 years old) is NOT down 20% as reported 30 years ago it was at 1,200,000 members and as sad as it is to say – due to so many reasons as of this date it is “UP” to 1,220,000 members NOT much over some 30 years. Like so many things older members do pass away, OR retire & quit. Over the past 20 odd years MOST of our American Rotary Clubs are working to bring in younger members and to make it more “FUN” and NOT the old mans club of the 1900’s, I am a past Club President, a past Governors Aide and the President of one of the Rotary “RAG” groups. Work at the bottom with your Rotary Club (Family) and all of the parts on the top of Rotary will take care of its self.

  35. Excellent Read

  36. I’m a Lion from Mexico and I’m thankful to you for share it.

    I’m totally agree… you make me rethink and ask myself what we have to do to grow.

    Thank you!

  37. Regarding Rotary again, we are bound to a common club constitution that comes nowhere near meeting legislative requirements.

    There are at least a couple of thousand legislative regions in Rotary’s world, yet the 400+ page Code of Policies and its Model Club Constitutions, etc, stultify and confuse at every turn, eventually leading to a “stuff them – I’ll do what I want” attitude.

    I can’t speak for Lions and the rest, but Rotary would be well advised to consider loosening the ties that bind us and, for example, adopt a simpler approach by which clubs are franchised, while still requiring them to comply with local law.

    Message to USA: You are not the only country in the world. Flexibility is essential.

    • Message to USA: You are not the only country in the world. Flexibility is essential.

      I wonder about this as well. After all, we have numerous business people engaged in Rotary who are engaged nationally. Certainly, they understand effectiveness across international borders.

  38. I believe one need to survey the IRS members to find out what they want to do to make their communities better places to live with an annual plan of action for a successful vol Civic org.

  39. I am a Rotarian.
    We are responsible for where we are now and our failure to recognize the need for a fundamental re-think, a makeover from top to bottom of the way we “do business.” Service is the business which we must market; Human resources made up of engaged volunteers of all ages are what we need to deliver, and standard systems underpinned by the most modern technology to ensure consistency, continuity and quality.

    Robert Kotter summarizes the change initiatives we need to take with beautiful simplicity in his much respected book ‘Leading Change.” At the core it is an 8 step process. Change requires enough initial consenus often in the face of hard-nosed opposition, and a bucketful of faith and courage.

    We have a new documented vision without a cause.
    Do you know what it is? Are you even aware that we have one?
    We need an inspiring global vision to unite us in common causes.

    We declare the need for engagement.
    We fail to deliver opportunities for the passionate.
    We recruit for quantity with insufficient regard for quality, passion and discretionary time.
    We target groups with little or no discretionary time and limited financial resources while at the same time calling for money.
    Our expectations are low.
    We fail to acknowledge the key role of Club Service volunteers.

    We acknowledge the danger of status quo.
    We continue to offer unchanging membership and adult education experiences
    We lack the tenacity to change.
    We listen to the forces of inertia who out number those who want change – so they leave first and nothing happens.
    We say “no.”
    We fail to lead.
    We fail to offer meaningful help to clubs who would accept it if it were only available.

    The list goes on and on.
    Failing clubs, often where there has been a pattern of decline for more than a decade, are large in number. Our 11 year old club grew quickly to over 30 but was down to 4 in 2010 – we hit rock bottom and took remedial action.

    Expect things to get worse before they get better and do not be discouraged. Take a look at Kotter’s solution and, in the words of Nike.. “Just do it.”

    It worked for us because we made it work – most of our leaders were disillusioned leaders from other clubs.

    • We listen to the forces of inertia who out number those who want change

      Excellent observation. My thoughts are that people in leadership rose up to leadership because they worked well in the system. Thus any attempt to change the system threatens the very skills they used to get to the top of the system.

  40. I think the Lancaster Rotary Club is well attended. I can’t always be there because
    I am a public speaker, having survived the IIWW in Germany, and I travel out of the
    area quite a bit.

    I enjoy the speakers, the food and the professional atmosphere of the club.
    Let’s continue doing what we are doing.

  41. Super conversations. Why has Zone 34 grown? Consider reading this recent BLOG post on Retention Central. https://zone34retentioncentral.blogspot.com/2018/02/rotarians-should-focus-for-success.html

    Be sure to view the two referenced videos of presentations made at the 2018 International Assembly.

    I have heard many people say that Zone 34 is growing because its Florida and Georgia populations are growing. Nonsense. The populations of 42 of the 50 United States are growing. Why isn’t Rotary population growing in those states?

  42. Michael,

    I’m the State VP of Sons in Retirement (SIR), a northern CA men’s social organization with 14,000 members. Unfortunately, 25 years ago that number was 36,000.

    We have some of the answers and have encouraged our 115 independent branches to focus on RAMP — recruiting, activities, member relations and publicity and image, as well as leadership succession. Unfortunately, a number of branches won’t get with the program even thought training is offered to branch leaders in each of those roles.

    We also have major issues that I believe will eventually cause our organization to fail:

    1. Our name, Sons in Retirement. We haven’t made retirement a membership qualification for several years, yet we cling to the 60 year old name that was originated at a time when the world was so different.
    2. Our requirement that members be male. The limitations of that go without question.
    3. Our refusal to allow our branches to participate in “worthy causes.”
    4. Our failure to recognize that monthly lunches are not our drawing power and that our social activities and events are what draw our members and their spouses/partners to the organization.

    I’d love to get your perspective on what we are doing and talk to you about how we can get others to recognize and embrace change.

  43. This article and the comments have been very helpful! I’m getting ready to meet w/ our small town’s President-Elect in a few minutes to discuss ways to refresh/strengthen our struggling club. I quit our club after 7 years of extremely active membership. Now that we’re having this conversation, I might rejoin. I believe the one-year-President rule hinders long-term planning like this, but this article & comments have given me the global perspective I believe our club needs. Thanks so much!!

  44. I agree with all that both you and the many people adding comments have written.
    Recently I made a film for Lions, which involved me in working with local schoolchildren. We made a film for ‘Sight Wee’ 2018. This shows the children being taught to read Brail and learning how to guide a blind person correctly. It also show an interview with Tony Giles a Blind travel writer who is also 85% deaf without his hearing aids. Tony has a mission to travel to as many countries as possible. A true inspiration. The film encourages young people to bring old spectacles into school, which will be collected and made use of by Lions. We have trialled this in our area with great success. The school even wrote to all parents informing them about what we were doing and invited all parents and relatives to attend the assembly where the film was shown. A great success. Through Lion magazine all Lions Clubs in the UK were offered the film for their use in schools in there are. Articles were submitted and published at least twice in ‘Lion’ magazine. No interest was shown. We thought OK let us just make the effort in our district. The district Sight Officer had been informed about the project but we had heard nothing from him. I wrote again several times, still no reply. Eventually, frustrated I wrote a rather curt note have you even received all the mails that I have sent. Eventually a reply came back, simply ‘receive’.
    I have only been a member for a few years. Many in the club have been members for up to 45yrs.
    While attending conventions I have noted that many are only concerned with going out for charter dinners. Here they talk about what they have achieved in the past frequently referring to what we did when I was president in 19…. They appear to be stuck looking through the rear view mirror at where they have been. We all should be looking through the windscreen, looking at where we want to go and how we are going to get there.
    I have talked with many who have left Lions. A couple of years ago we lost in one year the equivalent of six clubs. Yes more joined but they did not stay long. When asked why they had left many said ‘I no longer have the time’. However approached quietly for a real discussion they felt the club was not going anywhere. They felt that in time as these older members, member who did not want change died so the club too would die. Change such as admitting women members actually saw members saying ‘if this happens I will leave’.
    Others said ‘reading the ethics at every meeting’ and standing up and toasting your local club and Lions International was old hat. One said in his usual frank way ‘it feels like standing up for the bl**dy Queen.
    I too am frustrated. I too feel is it worth all the effort that I am putting in. The reason that I have stayed and encouraged others to stay is that we cannot change anything from the outside. If we want change, it must be from the inside. However, there comes a time when you do have to concede, it is never going to happen. I am wasting my time. I have passed your details to many others in the hope that we may be able to ‘rescue’ the situation.
    Come on someone where do I and many others go from here. Getting tired of banging our heads against a brick wall.

  45. Hello America and hooray for real ‘service’ organizations … and there still are many!

    Say, I spent some great years in the United States Junior Chamber (‘JAYCEES’), who like lots of other civic organization, had a one-gender population and others had ‘auxiliaries’ – with the U.S. Junior Chamber it was JAYCEES for guys and JAY-C-ettes for the ladies.

    However, in 1984, all that changed with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling mandating that all genders combine. That was fine with me as I trained as a young guy with men and return as a leading officer later with men & women.

    The JAYCEES basically is a leadership training and individual development organization for young people between the ages of 18 – 40 – they just recently adopted an Alumni Association – they also have an international side called the Junior Chamber International or JCI and have a highest status membership ranking called, JCI Senator.
    Man, I can recall the days in the late 1970’s into the 1980s when our U.S. JAYCEE President would present the late, beloved Jerry Lewis with a 1.5 Million Dollar check for MDA … or when seven of the last eight U.S. Presidents were JAYCEES in the younger days from President Ford to President Clinton – Republicans & Democrats.

    I have extraordinary memories and experiences in JAYCEES with organizing political debates, delivering Turkey Baskets for Thanksgiving, doing Change Charities & Candy Cane Exchanges to the Toys for Tots & teens Projects – WOW.

    Even of the late in lil’ Rhody. the JAYCEES have brought forth some outstanding programs in the environment with creating beautiful Arboretum & Riverwalks that were award-winning venues to achieving Tree City USA status via the statewide government RIDEM and the National Arbor Day Foundation.

    So whatever happened to such great groups like JAYCEES from nearly 400,000 members to now hovering around 30,000 – well, it can be many things from the status of marriage, single-family households and dual parents working, ups & downs in the economy (that affects DUES), the need to do our ‘own thing’ in society, the cause versus the group-thing to of course, the obsession of the portable phone and Internet that keeps young people mesmerized at their screens.

    The needs of community rebuilding, organizational socialization, professional development and personal achievement in reaching out to many diverse elements of our communities and regions is still there.

    We need to see the ‘leadership’ element in all these great ‘service’ groups to make our country a more cohesive, collegial and super productive nation in can continue to be …. pace-setters for peace, mercy and prosper! Yes, GOD Bless America!

  46. I was a rotarian for many years. When in 2017 Rotary International decided to adopt a position contrary to individual rights protected by the United States Constitution, it became clear that RI does not support basic human rights. I will never again be fooled by this organization.

  47. Great articole. As a former president of our local Rotary Club (twice) I know whereof you speak. Plus some good ideas.
    Thanks Again.

    Ted Bird

  48. This article supports many of the thoughts I share in my “We’re Not Your Grandfather’s Oldsmobile” article from 2016. Michael and I are on the same wavelength.

    In fact, he shared with me that he used to be a Kiwanian…and now is a Rotarian. All of the service organizations like ours do tremendous good for our communities…and I daresay these cities and towns we serve could not afford to pick up the slack if we were to cease operations.

    To me, that is why it is all about survival of the species. While the Kiwanis mission to improve the lives of children and youth resonates best with me, I admire anyone who joins and is active with any service group. We have all got to continuously seek ways to make these important community assets more relevant for future generation.




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