Not Engaging Rotary is Killing Clubs

2013-14 RI Theme

2013-14 RI Theme (Photo credit: Rotary District 9685)

I am proud to say that I consider incoming Rotary International president Ron Burton a friend. One of my first Rotary Club make up meetings in 1985 was at a small club that had bad food, a bad program, REALLY bad singing and (surprise!) very few members. However, as I sat down, a man reached his hand across the table and said, “Hi! I’m Ron Burton from the Norman Rotary Club” and introduced me to a Rotarian guest he had brought. Over the years, Ron and I became good friends. So much so that, one day in 1989 we had breakfast together in Norman while discussing some pending legislation in our state (Ron and I are both attorneys). As you might expect our conversation that morning eventually turned to Rotary. I was preparing to “move up the ladder” in my club to be president in a few years. Ron had already been District Governor and held other positions in Rotary and with The Rotary Foundation. I had a desire to someday be our District Governor and sought advice from him. After listening to his advice, I then asked, “Ron where do you want to go in Rotary?” He said, with a very overt confidence, “Marty, I’m going to be President of Rotary International some day.” His demeanor and his “swagger” told me this was not just a pipe dream. It would be a reality. Starting next month – July 1, 2013 – Ron Burton is  the President of Rotary International – only the second one from my State of Oklahoma.

The incoming President’s annual theme is always a closely guarded secret. Much like the rest of you, I did not know it until it was revealed in January at the International Assembly. However, Ron has told me before that he had his intended theme in mind for some time. If you have not seen his speech given to the gathering of incoming District Governors, I recommend you watch it. Here’s a link to it:

One of the messages President-elect Burton brought in that speech was the following:

“If we really want to take Rotary service forward, then we must make sure that every single Rotarian has the same feeling about Rotary that each one of us here has today. We need to make sure that every Rotarian has a meaningful role to play, that they’re all making a contribution, and that their contribution is valued.”

In writing my blog posts, I often get frustrated trying to find the right words to impart my message. Wow! The words of our incoming President truly hit the proverbial nail on the head in summarizing what should be our motivation to make Rotary successful. Too many times, clubs and Rotarians focus only on bringing the bodies into Rotary. Sadly, we don’t also bring their hearts. It is easy to fill a room with members of a Rotary Club. However, unless and until we turn those members into Rotarians, they have no motivation to stay. Why are they in the meeting room? Are they “earning” a line on their resume? Are they “connecting” with others to further develop their business network? Are they fulfilling a “job duty” to “participate in community service? None of those reasons are good foundations for making a Rotarian. One of the frustrations I am feeling with my newly forming Rotary club is that we are not being very successful in getting members to engage Rotary. Are they willing to come to the meetings? Yes. Are they friendly and willing to help? Yes. Are they participating in service projects? Yes. Can we take off the training wheels? Not yet!

Parents will understand that last question. When a young child has ridden a bicycle for some time with training wheels, they are very confident. Getting on the bike and riding is a “no brainer.” That training-wheeled bicycle is a fun toy. Then comes that day when you, as the parent, need to remove the training wheels. The otherwise confident child is now scared and nervous. That fun “toy” of the child is now often dreaded. It is not FUN, it is DANGEROUS! The otherwise usually nervous and worried parent, seeking always to protect their child, is now VERY nervous and worried. What if the child falls? What if he or she gets hurt? Most parents run alongside the bike either holding on, steadying the bike and the child and ready to jump in and “save” the child from falling. However, as the child gets more confident, the parent relaxes and so does the child. Soon, riding is back to being a “no brainer” and the bicycle back to being a cherished toy and a means of transportation. I hardly feel the need to steady the bike for my 22-year-old. I’m confident in his riding abilities, and so is he.

Why does such a usually traumatic event occur in the aging of a child? Well, first, the training wheels are not part of the socially accepted protocol for an adult bicycle (NOTE: Seniors do seem to enjoy three-wheeled motorcycles!). Second, removing those training wheels is part of the maturation of a child and gives the child confidence, even though it sometimes comes with a few bumps and bruises. The result is that, once the child establishes his or her balance on the bicycle, he will never forget how to ride again. Bicycle riding then becomes a means of transportation, exercise and fun for the rest of the child’s life.

The bicycle riding story can be a metaphor for making a Rotarian. Right now the ‘fledgling” Rotarians in my club are not quite ready to remove the training wheels. Why? Although they have bought into the concept of Rotary (they are riding with training wheels), they haven’t shown me they are ready to ride on their own. Mostly, it is because they don’t know how to translate their willingness to serve and participate into the ability to form and conduct a project or a service. In other words, they don’t feel the “balance” necessary to ride the bike without the training wheels. “We need to make sure that every Rotarian has a meaningful role to play, that they’re all making a contribution, and that their contribution is valued.”

What is a “meaningful role to play?” It has to be more than just being a volunteer labor force. Yes, that is important and for some people, that is the most we can expect from them. Some people are comfortable being the followers. They don’t want to lead. Of course, being a follower is also “making a contribution.” However, regardless of what that contribution is, it is good when “their contribution is valued.” Someone who considers themselves just a “laborer” in a club may reach a point where they start realizing they are being used. They become disoriented and start thinking they are just a stepping stone for others to advance using their experience and their labors. Some may feel they are only being given a role or position because there is no other place to put them. They eventually start thinking they are just being placated and they start to resent their place and the club.

When I was young, although I was tall and smart, I was, quite frankly, afraid of my own shadow. I was not aggressive. I can still recall being in gym class in seventh grade and wrestling on a mat with another boy who was half my size… and he was manhandling me! He was about to pin my shoulders to the mat when, out of nowhere, some “killer instinct” arose within me and I flipped him over and pinned him instead. The coach sent in another, bigger boy to wrestle me. I grabbed him, threw him to the mat, and pinned him too. I was then told to leave the mat so others could have a turn. But I didn’t want it to end! I WANTED to wrestle. Something from deep inside me “clicked” and I found that ability to defend myself and be more aggressive. That translated into wanting to play football and basketball and also translated into giving me more confidence in school, scouting, and other relationships (NOTE: It did NOT translate into understanding girls. My wife will tell you I am still struggling with that today.). What caused that switch in my little 13-year old head to “click” from being a meek and quiet boy to being a more aggressive, confident teen? Although he may not have realized it, but I believe it was that gym coach. Knowingly or unknowingly, his putting me on a wrestling mat with a smaller, lighter boy who was smashing my face into the mat wakened something within me. As Rotarian leaders, we need to find out how to throw the “switch” inside of club members to make them Rotarians.

I have often quoted the 1992-93 RI Theme of Cliff Dochterman, “Real Happiness is Helping Others.” I was my club’s president that year and that theme has been firmly entrenched in my mind. Helping others is something each of us should want to do. It’s human nature! When we do help others, we each get that “warm and fuzzy” feeling inside. It makes us want to do more. I do feel that the most defining moment in the development of the OKC Midtown Rotary Club was when, after getting a District Simplified Grant to purchase some tools for a local high school’s drama department, several club members went to deliver the tools. Most of our members were shocked by the reaction of the teachers and the students who were overly appreciative of our club’s gift – so much so to the point that some were crying. I sensed that experience affected the Midtown members to a point where they wanted to do more. As the Midtown Club was chartered, it consisted of all younger people (their average age was around 32) with no former Rotary experience. However, almost all of the members of that club now “get it.” They understand the value of service. They understand the need to help. They ARE Rotarians! This last year, they led the District in approved grants. However, sadly, many other clubs in our District didn’t make a single Foundation grant application, nor did anything more in their community other than write a few of their own checks.

“We need to make sure that every Rotarian has a meaningful role to play, that they’re all making a contribution, and that their contribution is valued.” That is President Ron’s challenge to us. How can each of us, as club leaders, make that happen? It’s not difficult. If you have carefully vetted your incoming members, you know you have someone who can become a Rotarian. Therefore, it is often just a matter of finding out where to let them fit in. Those of you who might have taken a CPR class know that you don’t just yell out to a group, “Someone call 911!” If you do, everything thinks that someone else will make that call. Instead, you point to someone and say, “Sam. Call 911!” Then Sam knows it is his job and you (and the victim) are counting on him. Similarly in a Rotary Club, when you just ask for volunteers, you often get no response. However, if you said, “Sally, would you be willing to head up the service project?” She will say yes. Even though she is willing, volunteers are often humble and just feel there is someone out there better able to do the job. If you recruit them for it, they will engage. Once they are engaged (i.e., “making a contribution”), you must help to make their experience successful. Once it is successful (i.e., “their contribution is valued”), they are a Rotarian for LIFE! What if, instead of being a club leader, you are that new member still trying to find out how to fit in? That is sometimes more difficult, particularly in a larger club. However, as a new club member, you should strive to learn all you can about Rotary and about your club. Be willing to “tag along” on projects and committee meetings to see where there is the most need. Do your best to understand how your club works and ask to help someone with their job. First, that shows your willingness to participate. Second, if you do a good job, it most likely will get you consideration for the next project as a leader. But most of all don’t be afraid to volunteer. Ask to do something! Ask if you can lead some project. Ask how you can be more involved. However, as you start to serve in your club, your proclamation of, “I’ll do it…” usually needs to be followed with the qualifier of, “…if someone will help me know what I am supposed to do.”

You can tell the difference when entering a club meeting where members are engaged versus one where they are not. I have sat in club meetings where the “highlight” of the meeting was listening to a high school student read the next week’s cafeteria menu. That same club meeting was one where I was not greeted by anyone, not befriended by anyone at my table, and only introduced with a short, “and we have Marty Postic visiting from Oklahoma City.” That caused some people to nod in my direction. The entire club was listless and I left there wondering why anyone would want to join it. If THAT was my only exposure to Rotary, I would not be a Rotarian today. The first “young person” Rotary Club in our District was the Bricktown Rotary Club. They were one of the first clubs to meet in the evening. They met in (gasp!) a bar. They served alcohol (I’ve seen several of their members with a t-shirt, emblazoned with, “We are a DRINKING club, with a COMMUNITY SERVICE problem”). However, what was most impressive about that club was most of their meeting time was not spent on a speaker (in fact, they would typically put the speaker on first for about fifteen minutes), but was spent discussing ongoing or upcoming service projects. I was just amazed to hear about all they were doing. These projects discussions usually involved the project chairperson giving a status report, describing the next step in the project and asking for volunteers. Done in the way that it was, there was a lot of “peer pressure” for members to volunteer. If you just sat there and didn’t engage a project, you were typically called out! They even tried to get ME involved to volunteer for some of their projects!

That club where I first met Ron Burton eventually “went out of business” a few years later. Why? Their members were not engaged in Rotary. Their members were “engaged” in a coffee klatch. They wanted to sit and talk and then write checks to help. Quite frankly, we are all too busy to just do that. Those clubs that are identified in the community as a “lunch club,” a “breakfast club,” or – even worse – an “old man’s club” will fail. They won’t grow. They can’t grow because no one can come in and change the club dynamic and the community’s perception of that dynamic. The way to fix the problem is with an entirely new club. The community where I first met President Ron did start a new club a few years later. It is dynamic, active and engaged. I sincerely doubt that new club could have grown out of the shell of the former club.  It needed to start anew.

So, where is your club? Are you already marked with the “tattoo” of the “old man’s club”? You know you really can’t completely remove a tattoo, don’t you? Nowadays, many people opt for a temporary tattoo. It can be removed…or changed. Hopefully, that is where your club is so there is still the opportunity to change it and fix it.  However, my hope and my dream is that your club is the one like Bricktown and like OKC Midtown where they are identified – tattooed, if you will – as active, energetic and ambitious SERVICE clubs. If that is where you are, membership development becomes easy. Projects become easier, because you have members willing to help and willing to give. If your club members do not engage Rotary, your club will die. Which tattoo will your club wear?



5 thoughts on “Not Engaging Rotary is Killing Clubs

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