Three Lessons Learned as a Rotary Club President

Every year on July 1, some 35,000 new Rotary club Presidents take on the reins of their club, leading 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide for a year. As I just completed a year as club President, I thought it might be useful to share a few lessons learned over the past year.

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1. Prioritize

Unless you are a member of a large club, it is probably best to focus a club’s energy on only one main goal each year, as opposed to pursuing many different goals. One year goes by quickly. Trying to achieve too many goals may mean not achieving any one well enough.

For my club, our top priority this past year was to rebuild our membership. After many years of decline, we started the year officially with 18 members. In practice, we had at best 15 members since two members told us they were relocating over the summer and another member had to be terminated.  Of those 15 members, about half were fully engaged. We had no choice but to focus on rebuilding our membership. Thanks to a few initiatives explained in a free ebook as well as a bit of luck, today we have 40 members. We know that we will lose a few members due to relocation or termination in coming months. But we also have a few additional prospective members already identified, and we are clearly a stronger club today than we were a year ago.

When we started the year, we had other objectives apart from increasing our membership. In some areas, we did well. In other areas, we still have a long way to go. But what helped us is that we were clear on what our main strategic objective was for the past year: rebuilding our membership.

2. Invest in your local community

Many clubs are involved in both local and international service projects. As I work in international development, the fact that Rotary implements projects in developing countries is important to me. However, it is also clear to me that what sustains most clubs is local service, not international projects.

International projects often involve only a few dedicated club members. Without strong local service opportunities, clubs are at higher risk of losing their purpose and dynamism. The same holds for relationships. International relationships are great, but what will help a club strive are first and foremost the local relationships that a club and its members build, how well the club is known and respected in the local community. There may be exceptions, but it is hard for clubs to do well without a strong local presence.

3. Serve your members

Sometimes, there is a bit of a debate among Rotarians as to whether Rotary is a membership organization or a service organization. It seems to me that Rotary is by its very nature a membership organization first. Without a strong membership, Rotarians can’t achieve as much in their service work.

Recognizing that Rotary is primarily a membership organization has implications. Clubs need to respond to the needs and preferences of their members. This may mean a stronger focus on service in some clubs, but in other clubs it may mean a focus on, say, attracting great speakers. There is a lot of heterogeneity between clubs as well as Rotarians, and that’s a plus.

To bring value to their broader communities, clubs do need to engage in service work. This is an imperative, and I would not remain a Rotarian if this were not the case. My own priority in Rotary is to engage in service work. But not all Rotarians have the same priorities, and priorities can change depending on the stage of one’s own life. There are multiple ways to contribute, and all should be celebrated. All clubs and Rotarians should find their own niche. Diversity in Rotary is a strength that should be nurtured. But for this, a focus on serving the membership is essential.

These are three simple lessons I thought I should share. Nothing surprising really, just my two cents at the end of a year as club President with success in some areas, and a work in progress in others. Please feel free to comment and share your own views.

Free ebook 3: What Does Service Mean in Rotary? Simple Stories of Inspiring Rotarians

The third free ebook in the Rotarian Economist Short Books series has been released. Rotary’s motto is “Service above Self.” What does this mean in practice? The book answers this question by providing examples of the work that Rotarians do. The book also explains Rotary’s “avenues of service.” The hope is that through simple stories of Rotarians at work, readers – including new Rotarians – will better understand what service in Rotary is about, and be inspired for their own volunteer work. To download your free copy, please go here.

Technical note: due to the Smashwords website features, I am listed as first author, but the correct order of the authors is the order provided in the downloadable files.

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Free ebook 1 – Double Your Membership In Six Months: 10 Lessons from a Rotary Club Pilot

The first ebook in the Rotarian Economist Short Books Series has just been published. It provides 10 simple lessons for Rotary clubs to grow. The book is based on the success of the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill in doubling its membership in six months. The book is free and available here in multiple formats.  Please share this link widely for others to benefit from this resource. And if you like the book, please consider writing a quick review!

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Interact Membership Survey

by Quentin Wodon

Interact is a vital and growing part of the Rotary family. Globally, Rotary Intenational estimates that Interact membership may be close to reaching 400,000. At the same time, we know relatively little about who the members are, why they join, and what they do. In addition, because Interactors are high school students and thereby minors, Rotary International does not maintain an individual level database of Interactors as it does for Rotary and Rotaract.

In order to learn more about what Interactors do, I launched as Interact chair for my District an online survey. The survey will help us understand better what motivates Interactors, what they focus on, and what they would like to have support for. I would like to invite all Interactors – including those in other Districts, to fill the survey. Responses are strictly anonymous as the survey does not ask respondents to identify themselves or provide contact info.  The survey is in English, but if there is demand to translate it in other languages, I will be happy to consider that – just let me know through the Contact Me page of this blog.

If you are a Rotarian adviser for an Interact club, or an Interact chair for a District, please encourage Interactors to fill the survey. The link for the survey is: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/ZBF9CDX. (If you read this from Rotary District 7620, please do not use the link above as we have a separate link for that District; send me an email through the Contact Me page and I will give you that link).

If you have questions, again, please send me an email through the Contact Me page of this blog. If we get enough responses, I will be happy to tabulate results from the survey for specific geographic areas if that is useful to you. Note that while the survey does not ask about the Rotary District to which Interactors belong (many Interactors probably do not know the answer), the questionnaire asks about country/state location, so we will be able to look at data by geographic area.

Please, spread the word about the survey so that we get a good number of responses and provide a meaningful analysis. The main results of the analysis will be shared through this blog so that we can all learn from the responses.

Rotary Membership Analysis 10: Telling Our Story

by Quentin Wodon

This is the last post in this series on Rotary membership analysis. The post is about the importance of telling our story. It seems obvious that we should tell our story, but how to do so may not always be straightforward, in part because many clubs are not used to do so. In addition, there is a lot of diversity in what Rotarians do, not only internationally and at the district level, but even at the level of individual clubs. Which story should be told? How should it be told? Who should stories aim to reach or target? Which types of media should be used? These are all questions to which I will come back in this blog in the future. For now, let me share a few simple thoughts as a way to close this series of ten posts on membership analysis and promotion.

Diversity in Service

Telling our story is essential to attract and retain members. And we have many stories to tell. Rotarians are involved in a wide range of activities. In order to illustrate this diversity in the area of service projects, my daughters interviewed two dozen Rotarians for the book on which this series of posts is based. The first interviewee told the story of a group of young girls from her native Bolivia who went on a journey from poverty to winning the country’s national rhythmic gymnastics competition with a “little help” from her and fellow Rotarians. The second story was about a great tutoring program in a public school that has been featured on this blog.

Some of the stories were about support to the less fortunate in the local communities in which Rotarians live, whether through the bountiful backpack project that provides meals and snacks to children in need or renovation projects to help disadvantaged families in need of better housing. Other stories were about international projects, from building awareness about HIV-AIDS through soccer to supporting orphanages in Africa and burned children in Chile. One story was about employment and therapeutic services for persons with disabilities in Brazil. Two stories were about access to water in India.

Friendship and peace projects were also part of the list, as was a prosthetics project for amputees in Iraq. An innovative literacy project in Ecuador, the provision of an ambulance for a community in Nepal, and a scholarship program for the hearing impaired in Washington DC were also included. In still other stories, Rotarians talked about service they have provided outside of Rotary in many different ways, often by founding or managing nonprofits.

Arguably all of these stories and projects made a real difference in the lives of the less fortunate. All should be told (and were on this blog), as should other initiatives and events implemented by clubs and districts. I am convinced that there is an appropriate media outlet for any good story. Both traditional and social media can be used not only in order to promote Rotary, but also– and probably even more importantly – to promote the cause of the less fortunate we are trying to help.

Traditional Media

Many of us were raised in the traditional media era – television, newspapers, radio… These media remain important and stories can be targeted to them for publication or coverage. The ability of clubs or even districts to be featured in major traditional media outlets is however limited. Competition for visibility in major media outlets is fierce, and only top stories – especially impactful and innovative projects or major community-based fundraising events – should be targeted at those outlets, often through personalized and strategic contacts.

But there is also a wide range of smaller media outlets that are often looking for good materials. Even if those outlets have a smaller reach, they are worth investing in. If you subscribe to Google alerts about Rotary and related topics, you will see that every day local newspapers publish stories about Rotary. Clubs should be more systematic in targeting these media opportunities. Even district conferences can be worthy of a media story – as done last year by my District Governor who landed an interview about our district conference with a local TV station.

Social Media

Let me admit here that it took me some time to engage with social media. I published my first blog only in 2013 and I started to be serious about blogging at work in 2014 (the World Bank makes this easy with many different platforms by topic on which staff can propose blog posts). As I started to blog more, I realized that the blogs were read. This may have been obvious to some of my colleagues, but again it took me a while to warm up to this form of communication.

Well, three months ago I launched the Rotarian Economist blog. It took some work, but the blog now has more than 1,700 followers from all over the world. In other words, this can work. You or your club can also engage in social media, perhaps not through your own blog if you do not have enough time to commit to it, but then in other ways. You could write for your district or zone blog if there is one, or for the blogs of Rotary International listed on the right side of this page. Apart from blogs, you could also use other social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Again, if you do decide to engage in social media, you should make sure that you plan ahead in order to have good materials to share on a consistent basis over time. But it can really pay off.

Club Website and Materials

Let’s face it: many clubs have so-so websites. A club’s website is the club’s public identity. It should be attractive, modern, dynamic, purposeful. I mentioned earlier that there is a lot of diversity in the service work of Rotary clubs. That is a good thing since members may have different interests. But while diversity is great, clubs should also aim to stand for something, develop their own niche, and communicate their positioning. They should develop great brochures that can be shared with prospective members and others in the community. Too few clubs develop such materials, even though they can be very useful in attracting members and making Rotary better known locally.

It is likely that none of what I have shared today through this post is new to you. But I wanted to end this series of posts by emphasizing the importance of communicating our story. This matters for the future of clubs and yet as statistics shared in a previous post in this series suggest, this is not done nearly enough.

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.

Rotary Membership Analysis 9: Fundraising Events

by Quentin Wodon

In my district more than four in five Rotarians donate to their club or foundation, and three in four donate to The Rotary Foundation (of Rotary International). As mentioned in a previous post, with about 2,400 members in the district, these donations generate $1.5 million in new funding per year for Rotary service projects. These donations are very important, but they are only part of a broader story. Substantial additional funds for service projects are also generated through fundraising events organized by clubs at which non-Rotarians donate funds or purchase food or tickets. These events are great for both fundraising and public relations. This post provides examples of a few community-based fundraisers and discusses how they contribute to the image of Rotary in the community and the possibility of attracting new members.

Large Fundraising Events

Several clubs in my district have been implementing successful community-based fundraising events for many years. Let me mention two here. A first example is the Crab Feast organized by the Rotary Club of Annapolis every year in early August. This is probably the largest crab feast in the world and it fits perfectly with Annapolis’ identity since the city is located on the Chesapeake Bay which is famous for its crabs. The 2014 edition of the crab feast was the 69th. The feast is an all-you-can-eat event with a reasonable price tag: $65 per adult and $20 per child. Some 2,500 hungry crustacean fans attend the feast and devour a massive amount of crabs, ears of corn, crab soup, hot dogs, beef barbecue, and soft drinks or beer.

In 2013 the event generated $71,000 in net revenues to fund projects submitted by local nonprofits. The organizers have also been working with local nonprofits for organizing the event itself. This includes Annapolis Green, a local environmental group, to compost all the crabs and other food, utensils, and beverages in order to make the event environmentally friendly (zero waste goal).

The Annapolis Club Crab Feast
The Annapolis Club Crab Feast

Another great event is the Octoberfest held each fall to provide fun activities for families as well as food, beer, and music all inspired by centuries-old traditions from Germany. Children can get their face painted, as well as engage in a wide range of activities that include preparing pumpkins and other frightening displays for Halloween. Local dignitaries participate in a Roll-out-the-Barrel ceremony, a Polka Dance contest, and a Chicken Dance Contest. The event is organized jointly by the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek with the Fredericktowne Rotary and the Rotary Club of Southern Frederick County. And another Octoberfest is organized by four clubs in Caroll County. These events generate substantial funding for nonprofits.

Events for Smaller Clubs

Both the crab feast and the Octoberfest are fairly large events that require a small army of volunteers to put together. The Annapolis club is large, and the four Frederick-area clubs are also large enough to put these events together. The events pull the club membership together like no other activity, but one should not underestimate the amount of work involved.

What can smaller clubs do? Smaller clubs too can find their niche with community-based fundraisers. After I joined my current employer in Washington DC, one of my first contacts with Rotary was with the Rotary Club of McLean in Northern Virginia. How did I meet them? Well, they have a burger and lunch stand at McLean Day, the main community event of the year in McLean which brings thousands of people for family fun each year to one of the area’s parks. As many others, we went to the event as a family. I don’t know how much the McLean club has raised in net revenues through their stand at the event, but I do know that this is great for their image in the community and a great way to talk to prospective members who may pass by.

Identity and Membership

Fundraising events are strategic not only for raising funds, but also for public relations and for attracting new members in clubs by making the clubs better known locally. Ideally, all clubs should aim to develop a clear identity in their community, and most should organize an annual family friendly event. Part of the identity of clubs should be about the type of service work they do or fund, and the type of members they attract. But part should also come from fundraising events.

Friendly and (if feasible) family-oriented fundraising events help in positioning Rotary as a youthful and welcoming organization, as opposed to its traditional image as an exclusive club. Family-oriented events also tend to be announced in the local media, which builds the brand. And clearly, when the proceeds of fundraising events are distributed to local nonprofits, this is another opportunity to get recognition and coverage in the community and the local media. Last but not least, all of these benefits are likely to help clubs attract and retain members.

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.

Rotary Membership Analysis 8: Initiatives to Recruit Members

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.

Open Houses

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.

No Panacea

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.

Rotary Membership Analysis 7: Targeting Geographic Areas for Growth

by Quentin Wodon

Service clubs that articulate a great value proposition should be able to grow. At the club level and even more so at the district and zone levels, it makes sense to target public relations and marketing efforts to geographic areas with the largest potential for growth. How can such areas be identified? This post suggests one way to do so. The approach involves three steps: (1) Calculating membership rates; (2) Estimating expected membership rates; and (3) Computing potential membership gains from shifting low performing areas to their expected membership rate (for details, as for other posts in this series on membership analysis, please see my book on Rotary).

Calculating Membership Rates

Most Rotarians are well-to-do. A simple way to calculate membership rates by geographic area consists therefore in dividing the number of Rotarians in an area by the number of well-to-do households. A proxy for well-to-do households is the number of households with incomes above a certain threshold in an area. There is no income eligibility threshold to become a Rotarian, but since as discussed earlier in this series membership is not free, it is reasonable to assume that membership will be observed mostly among households with relatively high incomes.

In a series of briefs that I wrote on districts in zone 33 (see the briefs & papers page on this blog), I computed membership rates by area in the zone considering households with incomes above US$100,000 per year as the reference group (income data were obtained from the American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau). The same income threshold was used for all geographic areas except those in districts 7610 and 7620 where income levels and the cost of living are especially high. In those two districts I considered an income threshold of $150,000. The geographic areas were counties and large (administratively autonomous) cities. The average membership rate in the various districts in zone 33 turned out to be 2.8 percent. In other words, for every 100 high income households there were on average three members of Rotary in a typical district.

Estimating Expected Membership Rates

Membership rates are however not by themselves good measures of how well different areas and districts are performing in terms of their ability to attract members. This is because there is a strong negative relationship between the number of high income households in an area and the corresponding membership rate. In the figure below each dot represents an area (a county or autonomous city) within zone 33. Membership rates on the vertical axis tend to be lower in areas with a larger number of high income households on the horizontal axis (in logarithm to reduce the influence of extreme values). The negative relationship is statistically significant. The red dot line represents the expected membership rate given an area’s high income population. By construction about half of the geographic areas have membership rates above expectations while the other half has membership rates below expectations.

Membership Rates

Why is there a negative relationship between membership rates and the concentration of high income households in an area? Several explanations could be suggested. In areas with many high income households, work pressures and time availability to participate in Rotary may be more constrained. The prestige associated with membership may also be lower in those areas, and opportunities to be involved in service work through other organizations may be more numerous. Whatever the causes of the negative relationship, it should not be ignored when estimating expected membership rates by area, and thereby in assessing whether various geographic areas are performing above or below expectations.

Computing Potential Membership Gains

The next step in the analysis consisted in simulating potential gains in membership by area from raising the membership rates of the areas whose rate was below expectations. Two simulation scenarios were conducted. First, all areas with a lower membership rate than expected rate were assumed to be able to reach the expected rate. Second, only half of the gap between actual and expected membership rates was eliminated for areas with lower than expected rates. In both simulations the areas with a higher membership rate than the expected rate kept their membership rate constant(no gain in membership under the two scenarios).

Overall, in zone 33, membership (using 2010 data) was simulated to increase from 36,539 to 47,436 under the first scenario, and to 43,205 under the second scenario. The exercise suggested substantial potential for growth. In addition, it also suggested geographic areas that could be targeted for growth by districts and the zone. The simulations identified areas with strong potential for growth because they combined a comparatively low membership rate (versus the expected rate) and a substantial number of high income households. In my district for example, the analysis suggested that there was substantial potential for growth in five top areas: Montgomery County, Price Georges County, Baltimore County, the District of Columbia, and the city of Baltimore.

This type of analysis and simulations should be considered as indicative only. Alternative modeling approaches could be used to calculate membership rates and assess the membership growth potential of geographic areas. Each alternative method would yield different results. Still, the point being made here is that it does make sense for districts and for zones, as well as for clubs in some cases, to identify promising geographic areas for growth so that this information can be used together with other relevant factors for designing and implementing coherent and targeted membership growth strategies.

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.

Rotary Membership Analysis 6: What Works Well and What Could Be Improved

by Quentin Wodon

How satisfied are Rotarians with various aspects of their membership experience? This question was asked in the membership survey on which many posts in this series are based. In this post I will share summary results for my district, but readers should remember that because clubs and districts are all unique, each club and district should conduct its own assessment of strengths and areas for improvements – these can differ substantially between clubs and districts.

Satisfaction with the Membership Experience

One of the questions asked in the survey was “How do you think your club is doing in the following areas?” Twenty five different areas were identified in four categories. For each area members could rate their membership experience as excellent, good, average, poor, or don’t know. The areas were:

  1. Club Membership: Quality of the existing membership, Diversity in the membership, Growth and retention, Gender balance, Age balance, Efforts to meet/welcome new members, and Fellowship between members;
  2. Club Meetings: Location convenience, Location décor/atmosphere, Quality/variety of the food, Quality of the speakers, Organization of meetings and timeliness, Day and time of meetings, Club attendance at regular meetings, Quality of other meetings/events, Greeting and treatment of visitors, Attendance at district/other events;
  3. Information/Communication: Communication from leadership & assembly, Quality of the club’s newsletter or bulletin, and Communication with the local media;
  4. Service activities: Amount of local service activities, Quality of local service activities, Amount of international service activities, and Quality of international service activities.

Rotarians were highly satisfied with the quality of their club’s membership (81% favorable ratings, i.e. an excellent or good rating) and the fellowship between members (77%). Ratings were lower on the ability to attract (46%) and retain (43%) new members. On diversity in general, ratings were fairly encouraging (66% favorable), but gender (58%) and age balance (40%) ranked lower. As to the ability of clubs to meet and welcome new members, it was rated favorably by 61% of members, which is too low given that this should be a top priority for clubs.

Most aspects related to club meetings were rated very highly, with favorable ratings ranging from 76% to 91% on seven of the ten attributes in this category. Recall that in a previous post I mentioned that meetings as well as service projects were two core products that clubs are “selling” to their members. On meetings, clubs are doing well with the existing membership. The three aspects related to meetings that were rated lower were the quality/variety of the food (with still 70% favorable rating), club attendance at regular meetings (60%) and especially attendance at district/other events (33%). The issue of low attendance at district events is widespread – but annual district conferences and other events can be implemented successfully (see the 3-part story on district conferences here).

Ratings were relatively good for internal communication within clubs (71% favorable ratings for communication from the club leadership and 66% for the quality of the club newsletter/bulletin), but lower for communication with local media (32%, the lowest score for all attributes combined).

Finally, local service activities were well rated (66% for the quality of the activities and 63% for the amount of local service done), but this was less the case for international service (50% and 45% respectively).

Level of Club Involvement

In order to triangulate the above results, another question was asked as to whether Rotarians found their club’s involvement with various activities excessive, adequate, or insufficient. The activities included were: Membership development, Member orientation/education, Membership retention, Fellowship activities, Support to Rotaract/Interact, Other club administrative/internal matters, Service to the district, Local service projects, International service projects, Club public relations and/or media, Fundraising, Rotary International Foundation, and Other.

Very few members responded that their club’s involvement was excessive in any area, although one in ten Rotarians suggested that fundraising may be too prominent (there may be a risk of donor fatigue for a small share of the membership). The areas for which more than a fourth of the membership requested more active involvement by clubs were membership development, member retention, member orientation/education, club public relations and/or media, and finally support to Rotaract and Interact clubs.

These results should not be too surprising. At least in North America, many Rotarians may feel that the results broadly apply to their own club or district. The membership challenge in high income countries is recognized by members, which is why they see membership development, member orientation and education, and membership retention as top priorities that clubs should invest even more in than they do right now. But it is worth noting that the issues of the support provided to Rotaract and Interact clubs and of the visibility of clubs in the media are related to the membership challenge. Rotaract and Interact may help in building the future pipeline for Rotary membership, and media relations are essential for Rotary’s public image, which is also likely to affect the future membership pipeline.

What Next?

What works well and what could be improved tends to be acknowledged by clubs, but I still wanted to share those basic results from our membership survey to provide more precise quantitative estimates on perceptions about those issues. Sometimes quantification can help focus attention, and when membership surveys are repeated over time, this helps for monitoring and evaluation.

We are now more than half-way through this introductory  series of posts on Rotary Membership Analysis. In the next four posts in the series, I will move a bit closer to some of the solutions that clubs can implement to confront the membership challenge. I will first discuss how to estimate relative potential for growth by geographic area – an approach that can help in targeting resources to areas that are underserved by Rotary. Next, I will discuss some of the strategies that have been implemented by clubs in my district to boost membership. After that I will discuss interesting initiatives for fundraising that have the added benefit of also building community awareness of Rotary. Finally, I will briefly touch on the use traditional as well as social media to promote clubs and districts and the importance of telling the story of our successful 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.

Rotary Membership Analysis 5: Giving and the Cost of Membership

by Quentin Wodon

Apart from volunteering their time, another way through which Rotarians contribute to service projects is by giving money. This can be done through the Rotary Foundation, as well as through club foundations or the clubs themselves. Rotarians also pay dues for their membership. In some clubs these dues may be high, especially if weekly meetings involve lunches. In other clubs the dues may be lower. By adding up what Rotarians give to Rotary and their membership dues one can get an estimate of the overall cost of membership. Calculating this cost is important. Clubs should be aware of their cost of membership and they should regularly assess whether this cost is appropriate or too high. This exercise was done in my district through the membership survey already mentioned in previous posts (as before, for details see my book on Rotary).

Cost of Membership

So, what is the cost of membership in my district? On average, according to the survey this cost came up to $2122 per year per Rotarian, of which a bit more than half was for dues and meals (most clubs meet for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and charge for meals whether Rotarians attend the meeting or not, but there are exceptions). The rest consisted mostly of donations. Specifically, the survey suggested that about four in five Rotarians gave to their club or club foundation with an average gift of $409 per year. Three in four gave to the Rotary Foundation (of Rotary International) with an average contribution of $386 per year.

These estimates do not include other potential costs, such as the cost of participating in annual district conferences, the conference of Rotary International, and a number of other events such as Christmas dinners, installation diners at the club or district level, club fellowship events, etc. So in my district the average cost of membership is likely to be of the order of $2,500 or more, and for those who are able to give generously, it is likely to be substantially higher.

Now, my district is located in a fairly wealthy area of the United States, so it is likely that the average cost of membership will be lower on average in the United States as a whole and the same is likely to be true for other countries. Still, the cost of membership can be significant, and it is therefore a concern for many clubs, especially during hard economic times. As mentioned earlier in this series, a high cost of membership may act as a barrier for new members to join, but it may also lead some existing members to leave even if they do not say openly that this may be the reason (as Rotarians know, retention of existing member is a challenge for some clubs).

Note also that I use the term “cost” here in a generic way. If Rotarians were not members of Rotary, they would still probably give to other charitable organizations. Similarly, while Rotarians volunteer with Rotary, they also volunteer with other groups and the survey documented some of that. All this implies that while not being a member of Rotary might help to save on dues and the cost of meals, it might not generate a “cost saving” equal to the estimated overall cost of membership as calculated here, simply because donations might then be channeled through other organizations. At the same time Rotarians are likely to assess the value proposition of membership in part in function of the way they perceive the overall cost of membership to be – considering both dues and donations (even if those are voluntary). Therefore it does make sense to estimate the cost of membership in a comprehensive way.

Is the financial cost of membership too high? The membership survey asked this question. Nine in ten Rotarians in my district responded that the cost was reasonable for them, which is encouraging. But one in ten mentioned that the cost was too high. And since potential members who did not join, as well as members who may have left, were not part of the sample of the survey, it seems fair to say that for a larger share of the potential membership, cost is indeed an issue. The survey also suggested substantial variation in costs between clubs. For example, for one of the clubs that has higher dues because of the cost of weekly meals and the location of the meetings, 30 percent of the members considered that the costs were too high.

Three Additional Points

In the rest of this post, I would like to make three additional points on (1) the cost structure of clubs, (2) the cost of district events, and (3) the relationship between cost structure and giving.

First, it should be clear from the above discussion that each club should make its own assessment of its cost structure and adopt appropriate measures as needed. Different clubs have different cost structures, and this helps in targeting different types of members. In Washington DC, two new clubs were created over the last three years. These clubs serve primarily young professionals and their dues are lower than in many other clubs in part because they do not have weekly meals that must be paid in advance. For example, one of these clubs meets for cocktails. A third club meets for breakfast but it recently decided to reduce dues by letting each member pay for his/her own breakfast instead of charging all members the same fee. In my club, which has higher dues and costs for meals, a pilot rule was adopted last year to reduce the cost of membership for new members under the age of 35. These new members pay lower dues and benefit from reduced prices for meals. At the margin, because the basic operating cost of the club is covered by the existing membership, this pilot rule does not have a negative effect on the club’s bottom line and it may help recruit younger members (the rule will be evaluated to assess whether it has worked).

Second, I mentioned earlier that the average estimate of the cost of membership obtained through the membership survey did not include special events such as district conferences. When these conferences are expensive to attend, this reduces attendance, and it increases the full cost of membership for those who attend. As discussed in the 3-part series in this blog about district conferences, it is important to maintain the cost of those events affordable for more members.

Third, there is probably an inverse relationship between the cost of dues and meals, and the ability of Rotarians to support service projects through donations. We all must live within our means, and a higher cost for meals and dues may reduce the ability to give. The weekly meals and meetings with speakers are a key component of the Rotary experience in most clubs, but if the ultimate purpose of Rotary is to serve, each club must think hard about the appropriate balance between the share of the overall cost of membership that goes to dues and meals, and what is allocated to or raised for service projects. The answer to that question must be answered by each club given its own circumstances, but this is clearly an important question to think about.

In the next post in this series, I will discuss what Rotarians think is working very well in their club, and what may not be working as well.

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.