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.

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59 Comments

  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.

    Reply
    • Bill,

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

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

      Bill,

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

      Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
    • 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!

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
    • 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?

      Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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…

    Reply
    • 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.

      https://www.nationalexchangeclub.org

      Reply
    • 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.

      http://pngrotary.org/who-we-are/

      Reply
  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 !

    Reply
    • 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

      Reply
      • Megan,

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

        Reply
      • 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

        Reply
    • 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.

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

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

      Reply
    • Steve,

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

      Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

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  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

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

    Chamnan Chanruang
    ARPIC Zone 6B,Chiang Mai,THAILAND

    Reply
  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?

    Reply
    • 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.

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  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.”

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  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.

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  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
    Rotn ADEWALE TAIWO
    President Elect
    Rotary club of Ago-Iwoye Metropolitan
    District 9110 Nigeria

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

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  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.

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

      Reply
  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:

                   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib-Qiyklq-Q

    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
    Rotary
    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.

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

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  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.

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  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
    Brent

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

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