by Quentin Wodon
Membership in service oriented organizations has been declining in North America. This trend was spotted already 20 years ago among others by Putnam who argued that traditional forms of social capital and civic engagement were eroding. This has implications for Rotary.
As I mentioned it in a previous post about community service by youth, Putnam suggested several potential explanations for the perceived decline in social capital and civic engagement. The entry of women into the labor force reduces the time they have for investing in social capital and community life. Higher labor mobility may prevent workers from planting deep enough roots in their communities to nurture civic engagement. Demographic and other transformations may also play a role, including through the rise of superstores versus neighborhood stores. And most importantly, the technological transformation of leisure (the introduction of the VCR at the time Putnam wrote) leads to a privatization and individualization of leisure time. Putnam’s Bowling Alone article pointed to the fact that people still bowl, but fewer now do so in leagues.
While Putnam’s central thesis has been much debated, he clearly had a point and Rotary has not been immune to the challenge of declining membership facing traditional service organizations. In 2003 North America counted more than 430,000 Rotarians. Ten years later, this had dropped by more than 50,000 below 380,000. The fate of many other traditional service organizations has been similar, and actually often worse. All things considered, Rotary has weathered the storm relatively well even if losses in membership have been substantial in the last decade (worldwide, losses in North America have been compensated by gains in membership elsewhere, including in low and middle income countries).
In my book on membership in service clubs published earlier this year, I discussed a number of factors contributing to the difficulties encountered in North America today by some (not all) clubs and districts to recruit members and retain the members they have. Let me briefly restate the main factors here:
1. Lack of resources. Because of dues and other commitments, membership in clubs has a financial cost that not everybody can afford, especially during hard economic times.
2. Lack of time. Life and work pressure keep people busy; membership in clubs may take too much time for some, especially under the traditional weekly meeting format.
3. Less prestige. Membership may not have today the same prestige in local communities that it once had.
4. Less professional networking opportunities. Membership may not bring the same professional networking benefits than in the past, or at least there are now more alternative ways to network professionally.
5. Lack of vitality and size. Some clubs may not look attractive to younger generations; they may not be as vibrant as they used to be, especially when they are very small.
6. Lack of interest in community service. This last factor is controversial, and personally I don’t believe that there has been a reduction over time in interest in service work, but some have suggested that this also has contributed to membership loss.
There are practical responses to each of these six factors that clubs and districts can adopt, and I will discuss them in this series. Solutions exist to reduce the cost of membership, both financially and in terms of time requirement. Prestige and professional networking may not be the main drivers of membership today, in which case a loss in prestige or networking opportunities may not matter as much for growth. Vitality can be achieved even by small clubs, and the “minimum” size for clubs to be vibrant need not be large, so that it is often attainable. Finally, the ideal of service is very much alive, but for some it may now be expressed in different ways that clubs must find ways to adapt to.
In order for clubs and districts to respond to the challenges they face, these challenges must be recognized and discussed. The challenges are of course well known to many Rotarians, but in my (limited) experience they tend to be acknowledged only in a diffuse way. Many clubs and perhaps even districts seem not to have clear multi-year strategic plans that identify their strengths and areas for improvement, and set agreed upon priorities for growth with a distinct market positioning. Perhaps the management structure of clubs and districts – with leaders changing every year – contributes to this state of affairs (there is only so much any leader can achieve in one year as Club President or District Governor). But even with this structure, which has the benefit of being democratic and participatory, clubs as well as districts should be able to put together strategies for growth.
In this post series or “crash course” on membership analysis, I will discuss growth strategies. But I will first share results from an analysis conducted for two districts as to why Rotarians join the organization and what they appreciate the most as members. Understanding the benefits that Rotary provides is the first step in articulating a clear value proposition, noting that this proposition does not need to be the same for all clubs. That will be the topic of the next few posts in this series.
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.