Rotary International 2014 International Assembly Speeches
RI President Ron Burton @ International Assembly 14
"Youth in Membership"
Good afternoon. I am honored to be here today, addressing you, the governors of 2014-15. And as I stand here looking out at Rotary’s future leaders, I think it is altogether fitting that I talk about something that is critical to our very existence. And that is membership.
We have talked so much about membership in Rotary in recent years. We need younger members, we need more women, we need a more representative cross section of our communities. But the fact of the matter is, we just need more members. And I think we all know why. With more members we can build stronger clubs, we can have a greater impact on our communities as well as the world at large, we can increase support of our Rotary Foundation, thereby putting more hands and hearts to work changing more lives. And as a result, we can attract more publicity, which will in turn strengthen Rotary.
We’ve been spending a lot of time talking about attracting members. We talk about making Rotary look good, we talk about public image, we talk about all the things we can do to get people interested in Rotary membership. But I think we haven’t been talking enough about something that’s even more important, and that’s making Rotary membership work for all of our members, so that they don’t just join a Rotary club — but stay and become Rotarians.
We need to look harder at our clubs, be honest with ourselves about the obstacles to membership, and be open to change — so that we can make Rotary not only an attractive choice, but a viable choice, for people of all ages. There are many Rotary clubs that are doing just fine, with a growing membership, productive service, and engaged Rotarians. But there are many more that are standing still or going in the opposite direction.
Part of your job as district governors will be identifying those clubs and helping them turn Things around. And that will mean figuring out what’s not working in those clubs — and the best ways for them to move forward. It will mean helping them to think creatively, and honestly, about how to engage Rotary — and how to grow for the future. And, in many cases, that may mean doing things a little bit differently than they are being done now.
Not every Rotary club has to be a traditional one. And some of the best clubs out there don’t look anything like the Rotary clubs most of us probably belong to. A few months ago, Jetta and I were in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, and we had the chance to visit the Charlotte End-of-the-Week Rotary Club. They meet every Saturday morning from 10:00 till 11:00 at a local church. We walked in unannounced during their meeting and surprised them. There wasn’t a business suit in sight. The first thing I noticed was that off in one corner of the meeting room were everyone’s kids! They were quietly entertaining themselves while sitting around a table with some paper and crayons and some toys, keeping themselves busy and having fun while their parents got on with their Rotary meeting.
Most of the members are from the Haitian community in Charlotte. I don’t think any of them would call themselves wealthy, but I can tell you that club has some great Rotarians. And they’ve found ways to make Rotary service work for them. They have adapted to their community. Nobody pays for meals. Each week, someone takes a turn bringing something for everyone for Breakfast, like bagels or sweet rolls. Nobody’s missing work to be there, nobody’s missing time with their kids, and a lot of the members are married couples; when Saturday morning rolls around, the whole family heads off to the Rotary meeting together! Now that’s what I call bringing the family of Rotary to life.
They’re doing some great service, better than many traditional clubs. Locally, they volunteer at Second Harvest Food Bank, Urban Ministries’ St. Peter’s Soup Kitchen; they support Ronald McDonald House, donate computers to the Relatives Crisis Center, and collect toys and household items for the battered women’s shelter. Internationally, they support several projects in Haiti, partnering with other Rotary clubs to support telemedicine projects, a water treatment system, solar pumps, and storage tanks. They have also partnered with the UNC-Charlotte STARS Alliance to assist with a two-week Computer workshop. Now they are planning to support a school in Haiti.
They’re enjoying Rotary to its fullest, without having to make a lot of sacrifices. Their kids look forward to it every week; they get together with their friends on Saturday morning, and maybe even get a doughnut out of it! And I can tell you, these kids are growing up with good feelings about Rotary, and I’d say it’s pretty likely that one day they’ll decide to be Rotarians themselves.
The average age of the members in that club is probably around 35. Not too many clubs can claim that. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were sitting in these seats here in San Diego not too far down the road — because they are engaged in Rotary, enjoying Rotary, achieving in Rotary. And isn’t that why we’re here?
If we want to attract young members, we have to think about what life is like for them. They’ve got busy jobs, and probably their spouses do as well. They probably have young kids who they don’t see nearly as much as they’d like to. And their budgets might not be what ours are, at our stage in life.
Which brings me to one more issue that we need to address, if we’re serious about bringing more people into Rotary, especially young people. And that is the issue of cost, of just how much it really does cost to be an active member of a Rotary club. That’s not a problem we can solve in Evanston. The dues each of us is paying to Rotary International this year are 53 U.S. dollars — that’s about one cup of fancy coffee a month. That’s not stopping anyone from being a Rotarian. What’s keeping people out aren’t the RI dues but the costs that are set at the club and district levels — costs that can reach thousands of dollars a year. And that’s just membership fees, which don’t include Rotary events like club projects, district conferences, annual dinners, Foundation fundraisers, and zone institutes.
Do we really want to be charging people that kind of money for things they don’t necessarily need or want, when what they do want to do is serve? Isn’t that a little self-defeating? Wouldn’t we do better to keep those costs down — and get our numbers, and our service, up? One size doesn’t fit all in Rotary. Some clubs do want the nice meals in the fancy restaurants, and that’s OK. Nobody’s telling any club that they have to change. But we do need to be open to doing things in different ways, on a local and club level. We need to encourage Rotarians to do things the way they work best in their own community. And that’s why we’ve made the decision to establish and support regional membership plans — so that every area of the Rotary world can move forward on membership in a way that will be the most successful for them.
The one thing we do know for sure about Rotary is that we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, because the world isn’t the same as it was. We need to be bold. We need to be flexible. We need to be tolerant. We need to remember that the strength that you see in this room — hundreds of people speaking dozens of languages, from every possible background — is what makes Rotary what it is. And if we understand that, then we have to also realize that we can’t be looking to recruit only people who are just like us.
Rotary is a place where we embrace our differences. And just as we accept that Rotary is going to be different in every zone and district, we also need to accept that Rotary is different in every club. As long as we’re working toward the same goals, as long as we’re sharing the same ideals, we are all Rotarians. And Rotary is big enough for all of us. Whether our club meets in a hotel restaurant or a church basement, a brew pub or a city park — whether we have a three-course meal or a piece of pizza — that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we do what Rotarians are supposed to do: put Service Above Self.
It’s time to say, “Let’s
try something new,” instead of “We don’t do that
in Rotary.” It’s time to be proactive instead of reactive
because that’s the attitude that’s going to get us stronger
clubs today — and a stronger organization tomorrow.
It is my distinct pleasure to share that every district governor-elect will receive his or her own sample of the pin at the membership breakout session following this plenary session. Immediately following the assembly, all the members in the RI database who have sponsored a new member since 1 July 2013 will receive their own pin and the appropriate backer, based on the number of members they have sponsored.
I am pleased to report that over 6,000 of these pins will be distributed to club presidents so that they can recognize the sponsors in their clubs. I encourage you to support this program and let your clubs know that we recognize their efforts to increase Rotary’s membership.
Attracting more women, younger members, and supporting vibrant clubs and innovative service projects — that’s how we’re going to engage Rotary and change lives. And it’s how all of you are going to Light Up Rotary — all over the world, when you come into office on 1 July, as Rotary International’s newest district governors.
Thank you.- 2014-15 R. I. President Ron Burton
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