Rotary Membership Analysis 1: Introduction

by Quentin Wodon

Millions of people worldwide are members of service clubs. Rotary International has 33,000 clubs and 1.2 million members. Lions International is even larger with 46,000 clubs and 1.35 million members. Kiwanis is smaller but still large with 8,350 clubs and about 233,000 members. These are probably the three best known service club organizations not affiliated with any particular faith or political point of view, but many other organizations have adopted the club model.

Service clubs are membership-based non-profit organizations engaged in charitable work, but their members also value the networking and fellowship opportunities that clubs provide. Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis were all founded about one hundred years ago. Rotary was founded in 1905 in Chicago by Paul Harris. Kiwanis was founded in 1915 in Detroit. The first Lions club was created in 1917 also in Chicago. All three organizations aim to serve. Rotary’s motto is “Service above Self”, while Lions’ is “We Serve” and Kiwanis’ is “Serving the Children of the World.”

There is a wealth of information on the history of service clubs. Several books have been written about Rotary’s founder Paul Harris, among others by Walsh (The First Rotarian: The Life and Times of Paul Percy Harris, Founder of Rotary) and Carvin (Paul Harris and the Birth of Rotary). For Rotary’s centennial, Forward wrote a history of the organization entitled A Century of Service: The Story of Rotary International. There is even a website dedicated to the history of Rotary, including at the club and district levels. Similar books have been written about Lions International, among others by Martin (We Serve: A History of the Lions Clubs) and Martin and Kleinfelder (Lions Clubs in the 21st Century). And if you are looking for a history of service clubs, Charles’s book (Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions) may do the trick.

Service clubs have had their critics, including Nobel Literature Laureate Lewis whose novel Babbitt published in 1922 was a satire of middle class conformism and behavior. Still, service clubs have fulfilled many valuable functions and, as Charles has suggested, mirrored broader shifts in society. Overall it is fair to say that for the better part of their first century, service clubs thrived. Yet as society evolved, service clubs have had to adapt, and there has been concern that they may have lost ground. At least in North America, membership has declined, especially in the last few decades. Growth in the developing world has enabled organizations such as Rotary International to maintain their worldwide membership, but challenges abound.

Is the golden era of service clubs over? As a member of a Rotary Club, I don’t think this is actually the case. But a quick look at Google’s Ngram Viewer may give club members pause. The Viewer charts yearly counts of sequences of letters (n-grams) found in more than five million books digitized by Google up to 2012. It can be used to assess how popular some topics have been in literature and research.

The Figure below plots the number of times that the sequences of letters “Rotary International”, “Lions International” and “Kiwanis International” have appeared in digitized books over time according to the Ngram viewer. Even if Rotary seems to continue to be mentioned more often than Lions or Kiwanis, after a spike that followed the creation of the three organizations in the early 1900s, there has been a decline in the number of times they have been mentioned in books, even though the number of books being published has steadily increased.

Google Ngram Viewer Data
Google Ngram Viewer Data

There is no doubt that service clubs are facing challenging times, at least in North America, even if the extent of the decline in membership may have been overestimated. Unfortunately, while historical accounts of the rich heritage of service club organizations are readily available, in-depth analysis of their current challenges is harder to found, at least in publicly available studies.

In order to grow again, service clubs will need to assess their strengths and areas for improvements. They will need to understand who their members are, why they joined, and why they stay or leave. The vitality of clubs will depend on their ability to engage members with different interests, so that the whole is larger than the sum of the parts. But in order to do that, an assessment of how clubs are doing, and of what they are doing well and not so well, will be needed.

In the next two to three weeks, I will try to provide through this blog a “crash course” in service club membership analysis. A number of different questions will be considered. What is the membership challenge faced by service clubs? Who are their members today? Why do members join? How satisfied are they with their membership experience? How can districts identify geographic areas for growth? How can clubs innovate to attract and retain members? To what extent are clubs and districts involved in service work? How much do club members donate? What types of projects are clubs involved in, and what makes them successful?

The analysis will be based in part on a book I published earlier this year (available here), but I will add other materials as well. My hope is that this analysis will be useful to the readers of this blog, and as always you are invited to comment on the findings I will share.

Note: This post is part of a series of 10 on Rotary Membership Analysis. The posts with links are as follows: 1) Introduction, 2) The Challenge; 3) Why Do members Join?; 4) Volunteer Time; 5) Giving and the Cost of Membership; 6) What Works Well and What Could Be Improved; 7) Targeting Geographic Areas for Growth; 8) Initiatives to Recruit Members; 9) Fundraising Events; and 10) Telling Our Story.

3 thoughts on “Rotary Membership Analysis 1: Introduction

  1. Dear Quentin,

    I regularly read your blog and I am impressed. Congratulation to you for closing a gap by rightly analyzing our large organization and raising valid questions. One of the questions, as I have understood, is whether we focus enough on our new areas of focus. My answer to this question is: Unfortunately still not – by far! Simply said, apart from EndPolio we are proud ‘to do good’ with our service projects, but we are far away from ‘making a difference’ in the world, which people in and outside Rotary are truly aware of.

    As the CEO of the Rotarian Action Group for Population & Development (RFPD), a resource for clubs and districts for ‘Maternal and Child Health’, I am working for this area of focus every single day. I believe that we are missing out on a chance, since not enough is reported about what we are doing (current projects) and what else Rotary may also be capable of. I am too busy with project work to find the time for writing articles and doing PR work and I am also not a journalist, an educated writer as you are. My question would be: Could we send you papers, reports, documented results, publications, so that you would have necessary material to write articles about the area of focus ‘Maternal and Child Health’, which is lagging behind in Rotary as well as amongst the MDGs? Of course I and my colleagues would be happy to answer any questions you may have on the material.

    I apologize if I completely misunderstand your email and call for papers/material below. If so, please let me know. I just felt it is time to respond and share with you my problem and my thoughts.

    Looking forward to your response.

    With best regards, Robert

    Prof. Dr. Robert Zinser PDG D1860 (Germany) RFPD CEO

    • Robert, yes, please send your publications, and I can see which one I could feature as part of our briefs and papers series, and highlight in blog posts. A bit of editing may be needed, but please send the materials and I will read them carefully. Note that I joined RFPD last year, and I would be very interested in opportunities to collaborate. One of my aims is to progressively build a set of online courses for Rotarians on core topics of interets to Rotary – so let’s talk!

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