Today I want to share with you the most valuable piece of advice I have ever received as a Rotarian. This simple quote genuinely helped me through a few challenges a little while ago, and I only wish I had have received it many, many years earlier. It has helped my decision making process as a district leader, but it can also be of use all Rotarians who are trying to move this great organisation forward, and in your non-Rotary lives as well.
So, what was that piece of advice that I found so helpful at a challenging time? What are these words of wisdom?
Don’t water your weeds. I guess some may find this quote a little cryptic, but as soon as I heard those words, they immediately resonated.
This is the time of year we often hear club presidents comment that they are only now getting into the swing of things and feeling confident in the role, and of course now they only have a few months remaining before someone else steps up. “It would have been nice to know at the start of the year what I now know as president.” Take it from me, a three year posting in my role is no different, and as the end to my tenure approaches, I now have plenty of advice that I’d love to send back in time to myself three years ago. But I guess that’s life. It’s one big learning curve. That’s why I think it’s important to pass on this one piece of advice to those who will be at the forefront of our membership struggles for the years to come.
I guess the crux of the matter is that we have to pick our battles. At the moment our Aussie cricketers are in India learning (sometimes the hard way) which ball to leave. It’s the same in life. I came into this role with a load of energy and good intentions, and some bold ideas about what clubs needed to do to attract and retain more members. I was slashing my bat at every ball that came my way. No doubt about it, I have certainly learnt a lot in this role in three years. I have been fortunate to have rubbed shoulders with some great Rotary minds and have acquired some good tips. But to be frank, it has always been about change that isn’t happening. Resistance to change has been my constant battle. Prior to my current district role, I spent three years as an assistant governor, and another two years prior to that as district TRF grants chair. It didn’t take me long to work out that district appointments are primarily about leading horses to water. No matter how hard you try, no matter how cool and refreshing the water, you just can’t make horses drink.
The thing about weeds is that they don’t need watering. They will grow on their own by sucking the nutrients and moisture from the soil that your (desired) plants need. In the same way, I’ve seen perennially (membership) challenged clubs suck the enthusiasm out of not only their own members, but the district leaders who try in vain to turn things around. That’s why I feel district leaders need to triage clubs from a membership development perspective. There will be clubs at the healthy end of the scale that do not need urgent attention, likewise there will be clubs at the terminal end of the scale that are either beyond help, or as is often the case, refuse to accept it. Some patients won’t recover from major surgery, even when it's the only option. Priority must be given to those clubs that need AND ARE WILLING TO ACCEPT help, and have a reasonable prospect of recovery. To do anything else is merely watering weeds. Clubs WILL shrivel and die. We need to accept that and move on, applying our most precious resource: TIME, to where it can do the most good. And that’s really what this blog is about – the productive use of our time and energy as leaders. Because each of us has only a finite amount.
I do want to be crystal clear on this, we need to make ourselves and other membership resources available to all clubs, of all shapes and sizes, everywhere. But it's got to be a two way street. They've got to be fair dinkum about it, and they must understand that the type of thinking that got them into the membership doldrums will not get them out if them. Most will want the situation to change, but only few are prepared to MAKE CHANGES in order to bring it about. In some cases an entire new plan of attack needs creating. Sometimes it’s just about pointing out existing Rotary documents that are available online, sometimes it’s about visiting clubs and presenting a different viewpoint on the topic, and sometimes it’s just about having a chat with a few members over a coffee. But there comes a time with some clubs, that the banging of heads against brick walls just has to stop. It’s a story I can tell over and over again of clubs at which maintaining the status quo has become paramount. When the prospect of handing in a charter is not seen as the worst case scenario, but the lesser of two evils compared with the other option which involves being dragged kicking and screaming out of the comfort zone, it’s time to move on. If it sounds callous, I’ll cop it. But if by letting those clubs drift into oblivion, you free up the energy and passion to fight for and work with the clubs that genuinely need and will respond to help, it’s the right thing to do.
There’s a little known fact regarding the inception of the Rotary Club of Seaford, the club I built from thin air and joined last November at its charter night. In October 2014 I was asked by our then district governor to speak with members of a small, membership challenged club in the same region. This club, which I will refer to as the Rotary Club of Next Door, has hovered between 6 and 8 members for as long as I can remember. I was of course very keen to have that conversation, and was ready, willing and able to help. But I have always stuck by a steadfast rule since taking on the role of district membership chair; I will only go where I’m invited. If any club wants help, they need simply ask. But I have never, and will never try to force help upon a club. I made this clear to the DG in question, and he fully expected I would get a phone call from the Rotary Club of Next Door within days. Again, that was October 2014.
In anticipation of that call, I started researching the demographics of the region so as to be fully prepared to help that club, but as a result of that research, I noticed the massive population growth in nearby Seaford, a region totally devoid of service clubs. That realisation was the spark that lit the Seaford flame within me, and two years (and one hell of a lot of work) later, the Seaford club was chartered with 21 members. Four months later, we have 26 members.
It is now two years and five months since I was told to expect a phone call from The Rotary Club of Next Door. That phone call never came and instead my watering can has spent a good deal of time a few miles away in Seaford, and at a number of other clubs in the district where it has been appreciated.