Rotary International's future depends on chartered clubs successfully creating and retaining Rotarians. Some present and potential Rotary International (RI) leaders understand this reality. Do they have the foresight and fortitude to weather necessary changes and overcome outdated corporate practices and mindsets?
If anyone studies available membership statistics, past RI presidential citations, educational materials, and public information, including the Rotarian magazine, they probably would notice something that may be more than a coincidence. The drop in dues-paying Rotarians, particularly in mature legacy markets, appears to have begun near the time RI leaders started actively promoting diversity and prioritizing The Rotary Foundation (TRF) and polio eradication.
So think about each element, starting with diversity. RI really should be more diverse. Diversity further advances the Object of Rotary. But RI began promoting diversity by pressuring clubs to go on amateurish recruiting binges. The result was Rotary's Recruiting Death Dance. In hindsight, RI should have, through its districts, identified and explored various ways to serve underserved genders, generations, ethnicities, and geographic areas. But RI leaders self-imposed a major obstacle; they ignored RI's by-laws. Back then RI By-laws stated, and Section 15.090 still states, that the first responsibility of district governors is organizing new clubs; the second is strengthening existing clubs; and the third is promoting membership growth. Instead, past RI leaders encouraged and educated zone and district leaders to prioritize TRF. Promoting and supporting TRF and polio eradication, particularly in North America, quickly became the path to higher recognitions, accolades, and directorships.
TRF is a wonderful organization. The eradication of polio is a project of unimaginable value. Rotarians have supported both and continue to do so*. In the 1980s, many North American clubs even began spending resources to serve TRF by being local collection agencies. An unintended consequence evolved: RI and its administrative district leaders began approaching this service as a obligation. Many districts resorted to pressuring clubs to meet targets. Some have gone so far as to require clubs to meet annual fund donation quotas before they can even apply to use district designated funds. Since most Rotarians are attracted to and remain in clubs because of the friendships they develop and good things they do locally, how do such actions help start new clubs, strengthen weak clubs, or promote membership growth?
RI is making a sincere attempt to brighten its future. It has established membership development as its priority and is reorganizing operations. Necessary changes will be painful and will take time to implement. Some sacred cows, out-dated thought processes, and misdirected practices must drop by the wayside. New leaders are surfacing; leaders who realize that RI's future depends on having a worldwide network of successful clubs; leaders who know that RI must return to centering its resources on creating and supporting local clubs because
*The author of this Rotatorial is a major donor and has administered the polio vaccine to Nigerian children.