Innovate to increase membership Past RI President Kalyan Banerjee urged incoming Governors at the International Assembly to look at newer ways to attract people to join this “amazing” organisation.

If I ask you what is Rotary, I know I will probably get 540 different answers. When someone asks what Rotary is and we’re not sure of our answers, I believe we need to tell them simply about those things that have kept Rotary strong for over 100 years. Tell them about our core strengths, service, fellowship, diversity, integrity and leadership.”

With these words PRIP Kalyan Bannerjee held, in rapt attention, the audience at one of the most crucial sessions on membership at the International Assembly in San Diego this January.

Addressing the 538 DGEs and their spouses at the colourful meet, which was nothing short of amazing, he said he was “a bit awestruck” at the huge gathering held in the American city known for its white beaches and great weather.

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Commenting on the huge diversity of Rotary, so visibly demonstrated in the huge auditorium at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the annual venue for this crucial RI event, Banerjee said, “As all of us squeeze into the hotel elevators, we’re seeing dresses we’ve never seen before and hearing languages we’ve never heard. Doesn’t this incredibly amazing experience make us all stop and wonder at the miracle of Rotary?”

Their love for Rotary had brought them together as also “what we can do because of Rotary and we are ready to do more.”

But while Rotarians lived by the core values of Rotary: “the roots of the Rotary tree that makes our branches spread far and wide and strong and through more than 34,000 clubs,” it was time to pause and think why this big tree was not growing bigger.

Reminding the DGEs what PRIP Richard Evans used to say — growth is the only evidence of life — Banerjee said the collective leadership at the Assembly needed to reflect on why in the “past two decades RI has been fairly static in its membership. We were 1.22 million in 2007; in 2015 our membership stands at 1.18 million.”

The growth in Asia, Africa and  Eastern Europe had just about balanced the declines in both the American continents and much of Europe, Australia and Japan.

We were 1.22 million in 2007; in 2015 our membership stands at 1.18 million.

“Does this mean that clubs that do more community projects as in Asia and Africa, tend to attract more members?” If this was true, a greater focus on community and international service projects in the districts with declining trends might promote growth faster. The new Foundation grant model that encouraged and facilitated the usage of District grants for both local and international projects, could further help do this.

No one-size solution

Banerjee said there was growing realisation that one size does not fit all — Asia’s needs were different from those of Europe and America. Even North and South America had different needs and priorities, which could again vary depending on the way communities and cities live and work.

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PRIP Kalyan and Binota Banerjee with PDG Daniela Tranquilli Franceschetti, D2080, Italy.

Innovation was the order of the day and new models to increase membership were being tried. Clubs of only younger people, or former Rotaractors, or Rotary alumni getting together, or e-clubs that were totally international were being tried out. “Rotarians and clubs are increasingly realising that the methods of today’s fellowship may happen even through ‘Facebook’ or ‘whatsapp.’ Having choice and options are the order of the day.” The Rotary Council of Legislation, a “comparatively staid and conservative body,” which met once in three years, was getting “increasingly sensitive to our organisation’s needs for change,” and the Board of Directors was helping the change process as well, permitting the exploration of new options on a trial basis, he said.

Positive growth in Japan

A positive development was Japan showing this year a positive growth in Zones 1, 2 and 3. “Some months back I met a 27-year-old Japanese Rotarian — something unusual — a member of an e-club and thoroughly enjoying his Rotary membership, as he had made a lot of friends. So there is a huge change in that wonderful Rotary-loving nation.” In Russia, Denmark and Sweden, former Rotaractors were forming a number of clubs.

India and South Asia continued its membership surge primarily because of the community-changing projects they had executed. But clubs in Western Europe and South America were plagued with growth problems. One reason could be that in Europe, “membership in a club is a matter of prestige and honour, and the candidate has to truly deserve it.” Connecting with potential younger members was also an issue in some countries. But the positive was membership patterns remaining steady because these clubs were “outstanding in retaining members, which is a problem in Asia and other high-growth countries.  I encourage you to ask your clubs to look at retention as an equally critical area in our quest to raise membership,” said Banerjee.

India adds 9,425 members

Urging Rotary leaders to take a fresh look at what was being done and whether this could be tweaked or changed a little, he said that from the figures shared by RI President Gary C K Huang, clubs in India had grown by 9,425 members in this year alone. Western Europe — Zones 15 and 16 — were the only zones to lose members. Other zones had grown, increasing by between 17–400 members. Against Canada and South America struggling a bit, US was showing a modest growth this year. While two districts were losing members, overall in the American zone “the thumbs are pointing upwards … kind of!” (See map.)

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Map depicting the membership growth trend.

Banerjee said that when as Governors they visit their districts the two most important issues they’ll need to address are membership and contributions to TRF, though the latter was less of a challenge.

He felt that several initiatives taken in the last few years, such as regional membership plans, focus on core values, etc, had succeeded in “arresting the steeper decline of the earlier years. But I believe we still have some way to go before we can acquire stability, and then hopefully chart a modest growth path.”

Different sets of challenges

The important thing to realise was that each country, zone and district had different challenges in increasing membership. “There can never be just one way, the one right way. The rules for membership may remain the same worldwide but the way you implement those rules can and indeed do vary. And while it is the job of every Rotarian to bring in new members, I think in North America, US and Canada, it is the club president who has the most vital role to play, and must be responsible to drive membership growth. He has to play the role of not a club manager but a strong leader, leading the club to a higher level.”

He/she must work on a plan; “if a president is good and caring, sacrificing and goal-oriented, he or she will convince the club members to work together.” New members could be brought in by talking about Rotary’s core values, its engagement in stopping polio, spreading literacy, providing  clean water and tackling diseases. “You do it your own way, highlighting your own priorities.”  For instance, one president in the US was trying to make his club a VIP club — where V stood for values, I for image and P for product.

The Rotary club  of Birmingham has 611 members and a waiting list half as long.

Banerjee urged the incoming Governors to be in touch with the media — print, radio, TV and Facebook too, if it worked for them. “Let us not forget wherever we are, the Rotary wheel is a great source for starting a conversation as Past President Frank Devlyn  has always told us. If you get values and image and product in place, you do get a VIP club. The Rotary Club of Birmingham, District 6860, has 611 members and believe it or not, a waiting list half as long.”

But it was not size that was all-important. “There are hardworking clubs with less than 10 members. It’s the image that you have, the work that you do in the community that ultimately gets new members to queue up to join you. So go ahead and try some of these thoughts after you go home,” he concluded.

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