Well, That Didn’t Work, Now What? The Joys and Challenges of Starting (or Reviving) a Rotary Club

In January of 2016, I asked, and was granted, permission from our District Governor to start a new Rotary Club.  As an Assistant Governor covering five clubs in four rural counties, I had three clubs with membership in the low 30s and two clubs with a membership around 12.  All clubs were getting older and had difficulty attracting younger members.  There are many reasons for this, of course, but a significant issue was that the smaller communities no longer had a large, young, white collar work force.  The younger people had either relocated to larger cities, or commuted to them for work.  The ‘good jobs’ are virtually non-existent in these once thriving towns.

Even though there was a smaller pool of potential Rotarians, I thought that we could tap into a desire for community service among those that remained in the community.  Originally, the concept for the new club was to create a regional club that pulled members from the five county area.  The new club would have fewer meetings, a lower dues structure, and rotate meetings among the 5 county catchment area.  Also, it was thought that the club would serve as an incubator for the existing clubs.  As members learned about Rotary, and their family and work responsibilities changed, they might choose to transfer their membership to the more tradition club focused on serving their community, rather than the larger area.

That was the idea, but this is what happened.  First, what worked:

  • We were able to attract a diverse group of members that were under-represented in traditional clubs. These were often government managers, educators and small business owners, and those early in their career.  At the time of charter, we had 20 members, with an average age of 47 years (23-62 years), 70% female, 5% Hispanic, 15% African American, 80% Caucasian.
  • Within the first six months, we identified our service project focus (mentoring youth, reducing hunger and improving education), conducted our first major fundraiser, implemented projects that supported our three areas of focus, involved the larger community and youth groups in our service projects, created a website and presence on social and traditional media, offered a variety of meeting options (social, service, traditional program), developed a 4-year strategic plan, had a 3-deep club leadership plan and encouraged Rotary education through attending District Training Assemblies.

I am very proud of the structure we were able to put in place so quickly.  Fast forward 12 months, and this is where we are today:

  • We have 12 members (our goal was to have 23); average age 54 years (35-76 years), 58% female, 0% Hispanic, 42% African American, 58% Caucasian. Currently, we are reasonably reflective of community demographics; however our total membership is way too low for the club to be effective.
  • While I expected a higher than average turnover in membership during our first year, it was significantly higher than anticipated. We have lost 13 of the charter members and two members recruited after chartering.  While losing 15 members in one year, and retaining only 12 is nothing to be celebrate, I don’t think it is as desperate as it may first appear.  Ten of these members resigned almost immediately, within the first three months.  So obviously, we didn’t do a good job of setting expectations for the charter members.  Three other people resigned at about the club’s 6 month mark, and all three had major shifts in their work and family life.  The last 2 people resigned around the club’s 12 month mark, citing work or family commitments.  If I discount the initial drop off in membership, we had a first year turn-over of 30%, which is higher than average, but not outside the range of established clubs.
  • Most members come from one county, rather than the larger catchment area. This is fine, as we’ve abandoned the original concept of being an ‘incubator’ for traditional clubs, and this allows us to focus our service projects more effectively in a smaller geographic area.
  • We have experienced turnover in key positions and need to rebuild a robust club leadership plan.

In summation, we are now squarely in the midst of a ‘rebuilding’ effort.  Our Board of Directors met last evening, and this is our path forward:

  1. Identification of issues. We are surveying both current and former members, using separate surveys, to see if we can identify areas for improvement.
  2. We have changed our meeting schedule based on member feedback:
    1. Regular meetings—Second and fourth Tuesday at 5:30 pm
    2. Optional Social meeting—First Friday at 5:30 pm at a local watering hole
    3. Board meeting—Third Tuesday at 5:30 pm
    4. We will continue to have varied meeting locations and only rarely meet over a meal, to maintain our low cost and flexibility.
  3. We are going to increase the number of service activities.  We will be implementing an every-other month in-meeting service project concept as described recently at the RI Convention in Atlanta.  We will use these meetings as vehicles to enhance public image and new member recruitment.  Additionally, we will allocate $100 for each new member to create a service project of their choosing.
  4. We will have a heavily focused and time-limited new member initiative. We are developing sales language and tools, including an updated club brochure, to facilitate new member recruitment, and beginning next month, we will have weekly 15-minute conference calls to encourage members in their recruiting efforts.  Our goal is to have 28 total members by this time next year.  With a 25% attrition rate, that means we need to recruit 19-23 new members!

So while we are not as strong as I’d hoped we’d be at this point in our journey, we are I believe, on the right path.  Look for an update in 3-6 months.  Please share your ideas in the Comments section.


2 thoughts on “Well, That Didn’t Work, Now What? The Joys and Challenges of Starting (or Reviving) a Rotary Club

  1. Increasing the number of service activities is a great idea and the in-meeting projects can be done quickly, cheaply and develop high levels of member engagement. More service activities will increase member engagement and will begin to develop a ‘story’ and service focus that can be used to ‘sell’ the club to potential new members. Looking forward to the update.


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