by Quentin Wodon
How can districts and clubs increase their membership? Strategic plans, whether at the level of clubs, districts, zones, or regions, tend to focus on both retention and recruitment, with in the case of recruitment special attention paid to women and minorities, at least in North America.
At the level of Rotary International, various initiatives are being tested. Let me briefly mention four here. The associate membership pilot is great for individuals to be able to test the waters when joining a club by benefitting from membership at a reduced cost for a limited period of time. The corporate membership pilot enables firms to nominate employees to become members, with full dues paid for the first employee and lower fees for additional employees on the basis of their attendance at weekly meetings. The innovation and flexible clubs and the satellite clubs pilots enable clubs to tailor how they function and meet to adapt to the needs of their members.
All of these pilots are useful, but it is also interesting to look at often simple but creative initiatives taken by clubs to recruit new members. Two such initiatives are described in this post.
Rule of 35
In my district many Rotarians are above the age of 50. Some clubs, especially when they meet in prestigious locations and when they are large (which may require having a paid staff to help run the club), are expensive for young members. This is the case of one large club created more than 100 years ago for which dues and meals come up to about $2,000 per year.
In order to attract younger members, the club has adopted an interesting pilot rule of 35. When it was adopted in October 2013, the rule stipulated that for up to nine new members under the age of 35, the one-time initiation fee for membership would be reduced by more than half and quarterly dues would also be reduced. Most importantly, the fees for lunches would also be reduced by half and new members under 35 would be allowed to pay the lunch fees at the door when coming, instead of paying for all lunches throughout the year as done by other members. The idea was that a reduced lunch fee paid only when new members attend would not be much more expensive than what young professionals would pay elsewhere for their lunch. Those admitted under the pilot rule would need to be selected/approved among applicants under the age limit, and they would benefit from the rule until they reach the age of 35, after which they would pay full dues. The new members would be expected to participate actively in the club’s service and other activities
Interestingly, cost simulations undertaken to assess the financial implications of the pilot rule suggested that at the margin and under reasonable attendance assumptions, revenues from the new members under the pilot rule would almost cover the additional cost for the club of their membership. This was the case because the overall cost structure for the functioning of the club was already paid for by the existing membership. The net potential cost for the club was assessed to be small in comparison to the overall budget of the club, and the potential benefits in terms of attracting dynamic new young members was deemed large. Even better, if the new members were to remain in the club after reaching the age of 35, there could even generate after a few years a net financial gain for the club, apart from having contributed to membership gains.
Another interesting concept piloted by several clubs in my district and in fact many other districts is the recruitment of new members in batches through open houses. Open houses are typically held on a week day after working hours in an easily accessible location with prospective members being invited by current members. Club leaders make brief presentations about the club, but the piece of resistance of the evening tends to be a presentation by one or more nonprofits that have benefited in the past from the service activities of the club. General information on Rotary is also provided to guests, and plenty of time is made available for discussions around cocktails.
Guests may sign up at the open house for further information, which leads to a visit to the club during a weekly meeting. It is important to take good care of the guests during that visit, and in some cases the guests may meet separately with a few members as opposed to the whole club. This helps to make sure that guests get answers to all the questions they may have. A second or third meeting may be planned for additional follow up as needed, whether at the club meeting place or a different venue. One club that recently implemented an open house got 60 guests to attend, of which 12 became members. The personalized attention given to guests makes a real difference.
Competition between Clubs
In many geographic areas, different clubs co-exist, and they all try to recruit and retain new members. In Washington, DC, there are now four clubs, two of which were created in the last three years. Is that a problem? Not necessarily. A bit of competition between clubs is a good thing, if only to encourage the clubs to innovate and improve the experience that they provide to members. In addition, clubs in similar locations often target different segments of the potential membership. They tend to meet at different times – breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and they may have a very different profile in terms of their membership. Some clubs may be more formal than others. A comparatively expensive club meeting for lunch is not likely to compete too much with a cheaper club meeting for breakfast. Some clubs may emphasize professional networking and speakers more than others, while still leading useful service projects. Other clubs may emphasize service and volunteering more. In any large city, there is room for several different clubs which can also collaborate on projects and activities, and thereby learn from each other.
Getting hard data on what types of initiatives tend to succeed best in order to attract and retain new members is not straightforward, in part because the quality of implementation is essential when considering new initiatives. Clubs and districts may have a few good recipes to try to boost the membership, but in the end results depend on the quality of the cooking – that is the quality of the implementation, which itself depends on the dedication of the existing membership in the effort.
If you have great examples of successful initiatives to boost the membership, don’t hesitate to share them through a comment on this post! There is also a Rotary group that you can join on the website of Rotary International to discuss those issues. The next post in this series will focus on the link between fundraising and membership.
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.