by Quentin Wodon
In order to put together a clear value proposition, clubs and districts need to understand who their members are and why they joined. Since each Rotarian has his own particular reason(s) to join, assessing at the level of a club or district what motivates the membership is not as straightforward as it may sound.
Richard King, a past RI President, once suggested 20 answers to the question: why join Rotary? His answers ranged from friendship to business development and the opportunity to serve. There are probably more than 20 reasons why individual members join, so Richard had a point. But at the same time 20 different answers may not be practical to build a focused growth strategy.
So, what are the most important reasons for members to join Rotary? Given the diversity of countries and settings in which Rotary operate, each club and district needs to find its own answer to that question. In 2012 we decided in my district to find out the answer through a membership survey (the survey was also implemented in another district with similar results; in total about 1,000 Rotarians responded, which suggests statistical reliability). We designed the survey questionnaire in a more detailed way than is usually done in Rotary to try to dig deeper into this and other questions. I extensively used the results of the survey in my recent book on Rotary. Through this post, let me share the main results as to why Rotarians said they joined.
Rotarians were asked to rank the top three benefits of membership from a list of a dozen as follows: (1) Enjoying the weekly meetings; (2) Enjoying other fellowship activities; (3) Maintaining/developing friendships; (4) Serving the local community; (5) Serving the international community; (6) Creating business opportunities; (7) Networking professionally; (8) Meeting other Rotarians when traveling; (9) Enjoying recognition from membership; (10) Learning leadership or other skills; (11) Serving in club/other leadership positions; (12) Interacting with Rotaract/Interact; and (13) Other (please specify).
Serving the local community was mentioned as the main reason to join by almost 40 percent of respondents in my district. Enjoying the weekly meetings ranked second with almost 20 percent of respondents. Friendships came up third at 15 percent. International service was fourth at just above five percent. All other benefits listed in the questionnaire were ranked lower.
In order to check whether the responses were potentially biased (some Rotarians might mention service because this is the stated goal of the organization, but they may have joined instead for networking and professional opportunities), members were also asked why they believed others joined. The results on that question were slightly different with networking professionally coming up higher at fourth. But the top three categories remained the same: first service, next the weekly meetings, and third friendships. While this test to reduce potential bias in responses is clearly far from perfect, it helps in establishing some trust in the robustness of the survey results.
These results are important for thinking about the value proposition of clubs. Let me emphasize three points here.
First, what is the experience or “product” that Rotary is selling to its members? Darrell Nevin, the Chair of our district membership committee and a dedicated Rotarian whom I like and respect a lot, often says that our product is first and foremost our weekly meeting. He is to some extent right. The weekly meetings came up second in the survey as the main benefit from membership, and the importance of friendships also relates to those meetings since you meet your friends at the meetings. Many clubs work hard to line up great speakers and this also enhances the value of the meetings. But the opportunity to serve should not be forgotten, and for 40 percent of respondents to the survey, this was ranked first. Without great service opportunities, weekly meetings will not be enough. Darrell would not disagree of course, but it seems to me that in a number of clubs, the existing opportunities for community service may not be as developed as they should be. Now, we all know that in most clubs not all members are seeking to actively serve through these opportunities. Still, for many members this is a key reason to join and stay in Rotary, and it is good news.
Second, you may recall that in my previous post in this series I mentioned six factors contributing to difficulties for some clubs and districts to recruit members and retain the members they have. The six difficulties were lack of resources, lack of time, less prestige, less professional networking opportunities, lack of vitality and size, and lack of interest in community service. I mentioned that while prestige and professional networking may have mattered a lot a few decades ago, they may not be the main drivers of membership today. The survey results just mentioned suggest that this is indeed the case. And the results seem to refute the idea that interest in service is waning. This is important for how to market clubs to local communities.
Third, there is a fundamental difference for Rotary clubs between local and international service work. Personally, while I am involved in local service work with several organizations, I place an even higher emphasis on international service. This is in part because I know how much Rotary’s support is needed abroad and how international grants can make a major difference for communities in developing countries when they are well implemented. But as an employee of an international organization, I am probably biased. Most Rotarians clearly favor local over international service. Local service offers an opportunity to be directly involved in a project, and to make direct contact with the less fortunate. International service projects may not provide the same experience, as much of the work involved in putting these projects together is related to raising funds. This is important of course, but often not as personal. So, while clubs should aim to implement international projects if they can, local projects are more important for most clubs.
To sum up, the three most important reasons why Rotarians join seem to be the opportunities to be involved in local service projects, attend the weekly meetings, and develop or maintain friendships. In the next post of this series, beyond the stated desire to serve the local community, I will discuss the extent to which Rotarians are actually involved in service work… Stay tuned!
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.