Friday, 30 June 2017

Reflections of a District Membership Chair

Last month I wrote my last blog as District 9520 Membership Chair.

This first blog of my post membership chair days is about reflections on my tenure and some of the pivotal moments. But I also want to acknowledge some of those people who have inspired and helped me along the way. This one is longer than usual, but I won't be churning blogs out quite as frequently now.

This actually wasn’t a role I ever went looking for to be honest. I was much more interested in the public image side of Rotary. At the time I was asked, I was serving the second of a three year term as an assistant governor, and wasn’t really looking for anything more at district level in the near future. But I did have some strong views about the way we did things at all levels which had been formed over my Rotary journey, a journey that commenced at age 18 when I became a Rotaractor. I spent ten years in Rotaract, ten of the most amazing years of my life. I got to know a lot about Rotary from an arm's length, and developed a healthy respect for the organisation, but I always thought it was a bit stuffy. It was pretty much all men in suits at the time. After over ten years in Rotaract I was asked to join the Rotary Club of Edwardstown and for some reason the timing seemed right. It had then voted to accept females into membership and my wife Debra joined with me.

Fast forward to the time I was asked to take on the district membership role, I had almost 17 years of Rotary plus those ten in Rotaract behind me, but at 45 was still a relatively young Rotarian. That's a sad statement in itself. I think that combination of experience and being a good generation behind the average Rotarian in age worked in my favour, and having already served at district level for a number of years I was fairly comfortable with Rotary life at district level.

The Proposal
Then District Governor Nominee and good friend Jerry Casburn was the person responsible for getting me into the role. We were both Assistant Governors at the time and were having a chat at a district conference, one of those chats about the future of the organisation and its challenges, and he just popped the question (not on bended knee), “Will you be my district membership chair?” He either saw something in me or thought if nothing else I would rattle the cage, maybe both. I then rattled off a list of conditions that would have to be met for me to agree to take it on. I won’t list them all but in essence it was about doing it my way. I didn't want all of my innovation to by stymied by traditionalists, and I have never marched well to the beat of someone else's drum. To my shock, he said yes. Bugger! I can't emphasise strongly enough that whatever I was able to achieve would not have been possible without the undying support and empowerment offered by Jerry and our next two district governors, Dick Wilson and Sam Camporeale. That is something I will always remember, but sadly I know it’s not the case in Rotary districts everywhere. I’ve seen elsewhere that it’s not always about getting the best person for the job. I’ve seen elsewhere PDGs shuffled around the various big district postings to “keep them busy”, and I’ve also seen extremely talented and capable people crushed when their bright ideas get the kybosh because “we’ve always done it this way.” Worst of all I've seen membership decline right across our land because too many people want to stick to the ways of the past. Lucky for me, that was never an issue in D9520. I got to try new things with the blessing and support of everyone around me, and I feel we did get to make a difference.

The Message
Our district leaders had been telling the rank and file for many years that they needed to find new ways to do things, but when it came to membership leadership at district level, I felt we had to lead by example and find new ways to do things too. Every year our District Governors Elect head off to San Diego and are told “this year we need to get serious about membership”. Then every year those District Governors elect tell their district leaders and club presidents “this year we need to get serious about membership”. And you can guess what the rank and file have been told each year by their new presidents. As one of those in the rank and file, I was totally over being beaten over the head with the membership stick, and I recognised that membership fatigue was setting in. The message wasn’t changing, and people had stopped listening. Now that I was about to have considerable influence in the lead role for membership at district level, my first task was to change the message. I felt that it was time to stop telling Rotarians to find new members. It was time to start looking closely at the processes within our clubs and how they affected the recruitment and retention of members. It was about taking time to sharpen the axe instead of continually swinging it harder at the tree.

A few years earlier I remember reacting strongly to a letter to the editor of Rotary Down Under, in which the author had suggested there must be something wrong with the younger generation, because they weren’t joining Rotary. I wrote a response suggesting that maybe the problem wasn’t with the younger generation, but with Rotary - and it was published. Many concurred with my statements, but many didn’t. I found out fairly quickly that you meet with a fair share of resistance when you start questioning the way things are done. But I also started attracting supporters, and by my actions empowered club leaders to be brave and get these issues on the agenda. Of course I wasn’t the first Rotarian to suggest we needed to change, far from it. But I think I was probably the first district leader to get really “in your face” about it D9520. I will openly admit that I’ve been deliberately provocative with my language about the need to change, and I have no regrets whatsoever. The cage needed rattling, the pot needed stirring, the boat needed rocking and the bear needed poking. I have no doubt been struck from a few Christmas card lists as I have made a few enemies in this role, but I have made literally hundreds more friends.

The Epiphany
After reading about a Young Professionals’ Summit held by Rotary in Chicago, I was really keen to run my own here in Adelaide. I had great support from Nicole Hayden, Senior Coordinator, Membership Resources & Support at Rotary HQ in Evanston, who ran the summit. I had been fortunate to meet Nicole at the International Convention in Sydney, and she was very helpful with information and feedback from their summit. I did a lot of research in order to give a presentation on what younger people we looking for in Rotary, and that information from Nicole was invaluable. It was during this research that I had quite the epiphany. It suddenly struck me for the first time that our meeting-centric platform was our organisation's biggest problem. Younger people are happy to volunteer, they’re just not so keen on meetings. If Rotary was to seriously turn around its membership fortunes, we had to start to focus more on volunteering opportunities and lose our obsession with meetings. I cannot describe how bright this light bulb was that had suddenly switched on in my head, but that revelation would become central to all of my efforts and strategies from that point. There are those who don't share my thoughts on this topic, and we do indeed need diversity of opinion when it comes to membership matters, but no-one will ever convince me now that more doing and less meeting is not the way forward. For the record, I have never suggested that meetings aren't important, just that we have too many of them and a more productive use of our volunteers' valuable time could be found out in the community. Meetings should be about planning and idea sharing, not guest speakers, fines, bling and dodgy food.

The Speech
PDG Dick Wilson gave me an extraordinary opportunity during his year as governor, the same year we ran the aforementioned Young Professionals’ Forum. He asked me to speak about membership at his district conference. The request first came through someone on his conference committee, and I initially thought they had me mistaken for someone else. Why would he want a talk about membership at a district conference?  I had spoken at numerous district assemblies and PETS, easily 50 clubs, even an institute, but invariably to audiences primed to hear a membership message. I remember suggesting to Dick that a district conference audience weren’t really going there to hear about membership. But he thought it was important, and gave me a free reign to say whatever I wanted. Now that can be dangerous. I set about crafting what I considered to be my most challenging presentation ever, and I told Dick that this was going to be right between the eyeballs. He gave me a wink and said, “That’s what I’m hoping for”. It was basically following up on that premise that most of our barriers to recruitment were as a result of our meeting-centric platform. There’s a video recording of it here if you can spare 25 minutes. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that presentation I gave, and perhaps more importantly the audience I gave it to really did set things in motion in a way I couldn’t have predicted. Dick is clearly a lot smarter than me. He is a surgeon and I’m just a guy who sells lollies, but he knew all along what he wanted. He knew that a stimulating and challenging message would achieve more if it was delivered to an audience that didn’t normally sign up to hear it.

I genuinely feel from that point, the rate of change has picked up in our district. I also made a conscious decision to be “in your face” about new flexible options for meetings as a result of the 2016 Council on Legislation changes.

The New Club
The other factor that I feel has encouraged clubs to try new things is the chartering of the Rotary Club of Seaford. It was a long and hard road getting that club (now my club) up and running, but it is a stunning example of what is possible if you’re prepared to change things up, and I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t part of my initial motivation – to showcase what was possible. I have blogged at length about the process and what I’ve learned from it, so I won’t go over old ground again, but I am really pleased that people are asking how it all happened with a view to trying some of the innovations which work at Seaford.

Over the years I have collected a vast repository of membership ideas from the numerous seminars, webinars, conferences and conventions I have attended, blogs I have read and conversations I have had. And I guess I’ve had a few good ideas of my own, but I had often wondered how successful a club could be if it didn’t just talk about these initiatives, but actually implemented them. As it turned out, the only way to find out was to start a club and follow all of those great ideas, and it has worked a treat. I’m not going to pretend that the Rotary Club of Seaford is some kind of Rotary nirvana; we do face some of the same challenges that other clubs face, but getting a club started from thin air was a pretty amazing achievement. We’ve found some amazing people and are doing some amazing things. Special thanks to Charter President Cecilie Cardwell for her unyielding enthusiasm and hard work, especially given she became a mum for the first time only a few months before last year's charter. Yet another Rotary alumni shining as a Rotarian.

The People
I have always maintained that the more you put into Rotary, the more you will get out. I have put a lot in, but I’ve got a lot out too. I have met some extraordinary people, including my top three Rotary heroes.

I shared a stage with Past RI Director Stuart Heal in a membership Q&A at last year’s district conference. Stuart sparked a fire in me many years with his straight talking commentary on change, a fire that still burns. I shared my car with best selling author Michael McQueen for three hours to and from a conference. I'm one of his biggest fans and have hung on his every word about the battle for relevance and attracting the next generation of Rotary. Ten years ago as Edwardstown club president I was so very impressed by then RI President Bill Boyd, and to meet him and have him sit in on a membership workshop I conducted was also a massive thrill. These three Rotarians have all been huge sources of inspiration along my Rotary journey.

Earlier this year I was flown out to speak at PETS in D9710 Canberra and also PETS in D9570 Gladstone, where I again met many more amazing people. A special mention to my friend Mark Wallace, who asked me to speak in Canberra. In his previous position as RDU Magazine editor, Mark regularly gave me a national voice, not without personal repercussions once, and this is something I will never forget. I am simply shattered that he has been lost to Rotary. I also need to acknowledge my good mate Steve Hayter, who has been my right hand man by partnering with me in a number of presentations around the traps, and has been a great reference point when I've questioned the relevance of my thinking to a younger audience. He's a real giver, a deep thinker, a great presenter and has a way of brightening up the room. Thank you for your support in this role Steve. I really hope we see you back soon.

The Regrets
I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention. I won’t take it personally, but I am disturbed that our district membership has continued to decline over my tenure. If anything the curve is getting steeper. Ours is but one district in but one part of the world experiencing considerable losses over the last decade or so, and to an extent we're just caught up in that current and being dragged along. Rotary's current global membership challenges are not so much a product of today's actions, but yesterday's inaction. Quite simply our organisation has not managed to keep pace with the rapidly changing society we inhabit. In many ways we're still trying to selling encyclopedia sets in the google age. We reap what we sow, and in the same way yesterday's decisions are affecting today's outcomes, today's decisions will effect tomorrow. 

I regret that more clubs didn’t come forward and ask for help. I virtually begged for membership challenged clubs to put up their hands, but only one club did, the Rotary Club of Norwood. Only a few years ago there were talks of handing in their charter, but as a result of working with that club, preparing and sticking to a rejuvenation plan, that club is now reinvigorated and growing. I learned early on that a large part of district leadership is about leading horses to water, but I never get over the sight of horses that died of thirst within reach of the waterhole. 

I regret the loss of two clubs under my watch, Brighton and Barmera. We also lost Marion and Lameroo a few days before I stepped into the role. Interestingly, Lameroo (a remote community in the Murray Mallee) now has a new thriving Lions club less than three years after losing its Rotary club. Many of us attributed that loss to economic downturn following a long drought and the exodus of young families. It's clear now that Lions are offering something that Rotary didn't, and when I find out what it is, there will definitely be another blog.

As I look back I think one of my best achievements was being able to change the membership conversation and provide genuine options for the path forward. That was my part in sowing the crop. I guess I won’t get to see what we reap from that for a few years yet.

The Future
Where to for me from here? Well I’m looking forward to spending some quality time in club land. As a new club, Seaford will need some mentoring and guidance for some time, and I am very happy to be organising projects and cooking sausages again after a stint of frying bigger fish. The offers have been there to do more stuff at district level, but other than participating in the odd membership conversation, I am happy to take a step back for now. 

After little more than a taste of working on membership initiatives at zone level, I am more than a little frustrated that the opportunity to continue this work appears to have evaporated along with the RI funding that we depended on. The future co-ordination of membership initiatives at zone level appears uncertain at present, but if a way to make a tangible difference were to present itself, I would certainly give it due consideration. I did apply for a position on an international membership committee which advises the board, but missed out.

The last three years have certainly been my most challenging, but also my most rewarding. There have been times that the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion have severely affected me, but every time I have been uplifted by the extraordinary people around me. Three years is a long time and I feel it’s good for both me and the district to have a change. I have great faith in my successor PDG Euan Miller to forge the next phase of our district's membership strategy. It is important that these roles have new input and fresh ideas from time to time, and I am excited by the new emphases and strategies Euan is about to implement. Euan has been a mentor of mine since my early days of finding my way at district level and a good friend, and I will happily support him from the back seat if asked. He was also the main driver of Norwood's impressive turnaround, so I know he has what it takes.

Right now I am working very hard as the convener of the upcoming Regional Membership Conference on August 26 & 27 (please click here and book your ticket NOW), and that will keep me busy for a few months. I’m also doing a bit of work behind the scenes for the upcoming Polio Ute Relay, but both of those jobs will be over in a few months.

The Family
I have two wonderful families. My Rotary family, who have seen quite a lot of me, and my wife Debra and children Aaron and Elise, who have supported me throughout the journey but haven’t seen as much of me as I would like. I want to say a special word of thanks to Debra for being so forgiving and supportive. It hasn’t always been easy, but she knows how important Rotary is to me and never complains. I will never take something on without giving 100%, and I hang up my boots from this role knowing I have given it my all. 

1 comment: