by Quentin Wodon
Rotary is a service organization. As discussed in the previous post in this series, the opportunity to engage in local service projects is the first reason stated by Rotarians for joining, at least in my district. Does this sound too good to be true? Isn’t Rotary mainly a business networking organization whose members are only nominally engaged in service projects? Even if Rotary provides networking opportunities, it does not mean that its members are not actively engaged in service work or seek such opportunities. This post provides estimates of the time invested by members in volunteer work for Rotary using the membership survey that I conducted for my district (for details, see my book on Rotary). The results are encouraging, but at the same time the impact of Rotarians in their communities may not be as large as it could be.
Let’s start with the encouraging result. How much time do Rotarians allocate to service work through their clubs and districts (i.e., not counting other service work they may be engaged in outside of Rotary)? When all Rotary service activities are taken into account, the average Rotarian in my district allocates almost 13 hours per month to Rotary. This does not include time to attend club meetings and fellowship activities – this is additional volunteer time for service work. Many members allocate less time than this average, but some allocate much more time to Rotary than the average, especially when they are in positions of leadership for their club or district. Note that if Rotarians who are more engaged in Rotary had a higher response rate to the membership survey, the average amount of time allocated by Rotarians to service work may have been overestimated. Still, even at a lower number of hours per member, the volunteer time investment for service work among the membership would remain fairly substantial, and this is the good news: many Rotarians are truly dedicated to Rotary and its ideal of service.
Let’s now share two results that are less encouraging. The first is that out of these 13 hours, only 3.4 hours are allocated directly to local and international service projects that benefit communities. Only slightly more than one in four hours of service put in by Rotarians through their clubs and districts results in a direct benefit for the less fortunate. For my district, with 2400 members, this still represents 100,000 hours for local and international service projects per year. But one may wonder where the other 266,000 hours of service provided by members went.
Well, most of the service work of Rotarians goes to ensuring a proper functioning of clubs and districts. These service activities include among others membership development, member orientation and education activities, the organization of fellowship activities, planning for club meetings and lining up speakers, providing support to Rotaract and Interact clubs, working on other club internal matters, serving on the club board or as secretary or treasurer, providing different types of support to district or international Rotary activities, working on club public and media relations, fundraising in many different ways, etc.
All of these activities are important. Without those investments clubs would not exist and therefore would not be able to put together local and international service projects. But as is the case for many other volunteer organizations, Rotary may not always be as efficient as it could be in terms of allocating the time of its members in a way that helps achieve its ultimate goals – making a positive difference in the life of the less fortunate. One fourth of the volunteer time of members allocated to local and international service projects seems to be too small a share to me, especially given the fact that part of that time is organizational (meetings to decide what to do or how to allocate funds are not a scarcity in many clubs and districts).
There is also a second reason why the impact of Rotarians in their communities may not be as large as it could be. As I mentioned it in a previous post, which I am reproducing here in part, vocational service is an important avenue of service in Rotary, and it may take many forms. Unfortunately, perhaps the most important expression of vocational service, namely the use of one’s professional skills and experience to serve communities through other groups such as NGOs, is not emphasized enough.
Let me take the example of one large club in Washington, DC. The club is strong, with a large membership. It runs many different successful service activities, including among others distributing food for the homeless, providing dictionaries to third graders, planting trees in parks, tutoring students in public schools, providing grants to local organizations, visiting wounded warriors, designing international projects, etc. Yet for most of these activities, the professional skills of the membership do not come into play in a major way. When service projects make use of the professional skills of the members, this is typically the case for only a few of those members. My club – and probably many others – could probably achieve more in the community by designing and supporting projects for which the unique legal, administrative, managerial, financial, medical, and other skills of the membership would be tapped. Many Rotarians have deep professional skills, and these skills have a high value. But in my (limited) experience, relatively few Rotarians use their skills in their Rotary service work in a systematic way.
There are of course exceptions. One of them is the work of Rotarian Action Groups (RAGs). These groups are led by Rotarians and Rotaractors in their field of expertise in order to help clubs implement projects and exchange ideas and experiences. There are today close to 20 RAGs operating in various areas. A brief description of RAGs together with the contact information for each of the groups is available here. But the work of many RAGs, while very important, tends to focus more on international than local projects, and the reality is that as discussed in the previous post in this series, a larger number of Rotarians are involved in local than international projects.
New models are needed to encourage Rotarians to use their professional skills and experience in service to their local community. What I have in mind are models such as Taproot (to take just one example) that facilitate pro bono work by professionals in the community. We do not have such models yet at scale in Rotary, and probably other service clubs do not have them either. If Rotary and other service organizations were not only promoting, but also facilitating the use by members of their professional skills in service to the community, either with their own systems or by partnering with groups that specialize in this type of facilitation, clubs and their members could make an even larger difference in the life of the less fortunate.
So, overall the good news is that many Rotarians are dedicated and put in many volunteer hours to enable their clubs and districts to strive. But what is less than ideal is the fact that activities in support to the functioning of clubs and districts eat up most of the volunteer time allocated by members to Rotary, and this in turn leaves less time for putting together great local and international service projects. In addition, too few members seem to rely on their professional skills in their service work. Because of the dedication of Rotarians, we have huge potential to make a difference, and we do, but probably not as much as we could.
This post discussed the volunter time allocated by Rotarians to service work. In the next post in this series, I will discuss the funds donated or raised by Rotarians for service projects.
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.