Engagement. It’s a word that is so hard to fully grasp, yet so very important to Rotary. It can be quite difficult to explain what member engagement means, but one thing’s for sure; we all seem to know when members are engaged and when they’re not. Most clubs seem to have those members that turn up to everything, and those members you rarely see.
Engagement can be described many ways, but I actually quite like the definition of engagement from an engineering perspective: “To make one part of a machine fit into and move together with another part or parts of a machine.” A Rotary club is like a machine that has lots of working parts, but the machine will only work at its best when all of those parts are engaged and working together.
We do bandy this “engagement” word around quite a lot. I tend to recall it was around ten years ago that we Rotarians started to hear this concept of prioritising engagement over attendance. As an organisation we had become obsessed with members attending meetings and measuring attendance.
We had “attendance” officers and attendance reports, and up to only a few years ago had to return said reports to district leaders. We used to hand out 100% attendance certificates to members who had made it to every meeting in the year. I must admit I have a few of those certificates filed away somewhere (you can still buy them here - sigh!). My former club, the Rotary Club of Edwardstown had a tradition whereby if 100% of the club’s members attended the one meeting (i.e. no apologies), the president had to shout the bar. It happened twice in 19 years (once to me).
The problem with esteeming attendance is that one could be regarded as a good Rotarian simply by attending a lot of meetings, yet make very little contribution to what really mattered - club projects and fundraising initiatives. We still have rules that dictate minimum attendance requirements of our members. In layman’s terms it is still a requirement of membership that members attend a minimum of 50% of club meetings and/or service projects. The actual formula is a bit more complicated than that, but we’re not all mathematicians. For those members who struggle to meet those minimum requirements, do we just terminate them, or is it worth putting in the effort to find out why?
How do we elicit better engagement from our members? That can be a hard question to answer, but there’s a much tougher question ahead. Every member is different, and every member is perhaps looking for something a little different from their Rotary membership, but there is one formula that applies universally to every single member: Action expresses priorities. That beautifully eloquent and simple quote is attributed to Mohandas Ghandi, and I feel it says a lot about who turns up to what. The difference between those who say “yes” most of the time, and those who say “no” most of the time (or don't even bother answering the question) is quite simply about priorities, and if Rotary is not a priority for some of your members, you will find it pretty hard to effectively engage them in club activities. Rotary’s motto “Service Above Self” to me implies that part of the deal for members is at least occasionally being prepared to put the needs of the community and the club ahead of our own.
If you really want to do something in life, you generally find a way to make it happen. Most people who achieve great things do so because they had a great desire to do so. Talent, luck, timing and genetics all play a part, but none so much as desire. If Rotary is a priority in a member’s life, more often than not they will engage. If Rotary is not a priority in their life, more often than not they won’t. We often hear “I can’t do the Rotary thing because I have XYZ”. That's not unreasonable provided XYZ is occasionally told “I can’t do your thing because I have Rotary commitments”.
Now for that tougher question I signalled. Instead of asking “How do we better engage our members?”, we need to be asking “Can we make Rotary a bigger priority in the lives of our members?”. It’s only natural to give priority to those things in life that reward us the most. I feel it comes back to the reasons people originally join Rotary. There was likely some sort of gap in their life that at the time they thought Rotary might fill. No-one buys a drill because they need a drill – people buy a drill because they need a hole.
Some people have a burning desire to volunteer and give back. For some it's about meeting more friends. Some will see Rotary as an opportunity to network and advance their business horizons, and there are those who have been really touched by the work we do and just want to be a part of it. There are many more reasons people join, and it’s often a combination of all of the above, but what we do know is that when members’ needs are not being met, they become disaffected, disinterested and disengaged. As a result, Rotary will quickly drop down their list of priorities. We also know that when members are in this place, we are most likely to lose them. This is why I feel it is vitally important to ask these sorts of questions during the process of introducing potential members to the club, so we can gain some understanding up front of their motivations. It’s unlikely Rotary will find a place amongst anyone’s top priorities if those needs are not being met, or if they can’t foresee a way those needs might be met.
We must also understand that people’s priorities change. The dedication of even the most committed Rotarians is likely to wane if they lose their job, or face a sudden health concern or family trauma. It is not always possible to know what is truly going on in people’s lives. We all wear masks at times and put on a brave face.
I do have a few suggestions for engaging and re-engaging disengaged members:
- Was a mentor formally appointed to the member when they first joined to guide them through the Rotary maze? If so, that mentor needs to be having a conversation. If not, the club probably missed a chance to get off on the right foot with that member.
- Speak to them. Don’t email. Don’t text. Pick up the phone and have a chat. Don’t accuse. Don’t chide. Keep the language constructive. Just ask how they are going. Tell them you’re missing them and ask if everything is OK. More often than not if you ask them, they’ll tell you what the issue is. If it is a club related issue – i.e. they’re not happy with the way something has been done, or there is a personal conflict – you really need to know. But alternatively, if it’s a personal issue – an illness, an affordability issue, heavy work commitments, family problems, etc., it’s important to know about that too. Obviously confidentiality is important with personal issues.
- Find roles that take advantage of their talent and expertise.
- Concentrate on what they CAN do, not on what they CAN’T do.
- Ask THEM what they would like see done in the club. Make sure they are aware that their input is valued. How would THEY like to become more involved?
- Time is a valuable resource for everyone, so we need to use it productively and effectively. It’s no use telling members that you need their input at meetings if your meetings are unproductive.
- Try to have a program of meetings and events which is diverse and capable of interesting a wide range of people. You won’t be able to attract everyone to a program which is predominantly cooking sausages.
- Keep communication channels open. Make sure that anyone who is absent from meetings for a period of time is still receiving emails, bulletins and other correspondence.
At the end of the day though, there is a fine line between encouragement and badgering. If you have to twist someone’s arm out of its socket to join or re-engage with Rotary, is it really worth it? I have spoken and blogged at length about leading horses to water and watering weeds. How much energy can one expend trying to light a fire in those whose actions suggest their priorities lie elsewhere? Should we instead divert our energy to supporting those who exhibit more passion?
I hate to admit it but sometimes we bring people into Rotary that just aren’t compatible: square pegs in round holes. We've all done something that seemed like a good idea at the time. Like paying up front for that twelve month gym membership, and visiting three times. I guess that’s how gyms make their money! Both parties (the club, and the prospective member) need to be aware of each other’s expectations before induction. There’s a Goldilocks zone when it comes to inducting new members. We shouldn’t leave members hanging on so long that they are wondering if we value them, but nor should we rush to induct them so quickly that one party regrets it.
For as long as I can remember, we Rotarians have been harangued about membership from club, district, zone, and international leaders; and I can tell you the heat has been turned up considerably over the last few years. But it’s always been about numbers. As a district membership chair, I receive constant reports on numbers in and numbers out. I will always argue however, that quality trumps quantity. Our relentless push to increase our numbers sometimes leads to counterproductive outcomes. When I ask my Rotary colleagues in other clubs across and outside of my district how many of their members are productive, the answer is often as low as half. Ironically it’s often the smaller clubs which have the highest productivity per member, because there’s no option but for everyone to jump in and do their share. There is nowhere to hide.
Imagine how much more our organisation could achieve if every one of our 1.2 million members were fully engaged in service above self.