Illustration by Dave Cutler
Eight years ago, our club’s president-elect, Arnold Klinsky, sat down with a group of us to plan his strategy for a successful year. He started by asking each of us why we’d joined the club.
Tim O’Neil, a member since 1999, said, “I joined for all the wrong reasons, and I stayed for the right reasons.” He explained that he’d become a member of the Rotary Club of Rochester, N.Y., USA, to get business contacts but had nearly quit after his first year. Then he became involved in the service aspects of the club, particularly our Sunshine Campus, which serves children with disabilities. By the time I met him, he was a club vice president.
At the time of our meeting with Arnold, I was the editor of a monthly business magazine. The Rotarian who’d brought me to my first meeting had told me that the editors, owners, or publishers of all the local media were members of the club and that I should consider joining too, “for the exposure.”
So I did – and ended up staying for very different reasons.
Over the years, I’ve served on membership and strategic planning committees. One fact that became clear in all these groups was that we were facing a critical problem with retaining members and attracting new, younger people.
During one strategic planning meeting, Peter Formicola, who has since passed away, remarked that a speaker he’d heard at the 2005 RI Convention in Chicago had talked about the business roots of Rotary. This prompted some lively discussions among us. Is there a place for business interests within an organization that prizes Service Above Self?
The predominant feeling among our members had always been that benefits to one’s business would accrue after years of fellowship and service. Was that compelling enough to attract the younger members of the professional community? Our informal research was saying no. These men and women were focused on their work, on their families, and on volunteering in areas important to them.
Still, we had a great calling card. As a large city club, we had community and business leaders among our members. Speakers from the government and private sectors addressed topics of great interest and sometimes critical importance, and were often covered by the press. But we couldn’t deny the demographics and surveys. If our club was to move forward, we’d have to find a way to bring in new and younger members.
None of us liked the idea of people “working the room,” handing out business cards and using Rotary as a mere platform to do business. Was there an ethical way to integrate the business lives of our members without taking away from the mission of Rotary?
The Rochester club, founded in 1912, prides itself on community service. We support a camp that serves 2,200 people with disabilities every summer on a completely accessible campus. We have adopted the Roberto Clemente elementary school, and you can find Rochester Rotarians there, working with inner-city children, every school day.
We know the meaning of Service Above Self; we believe in it. So how could we reconcile altruism with business interests?
During his year as our club president in 2008-09, Sam Merlo created a task force, later named the business-to-business committee, that he charged with promoting the business and professional lives of our members. It was a small group of people, most of whom had been members for decades. One member, Jim Isaac, is a past president with a strong history of promoting service in the club. Now retired as head of his family business, he made it clear that this initiative had his full support; in fact, he felt it was a must if our club was to grow and prosper. After all, it’s hard to do good unless you do well.
We got off to a wobbly start, but after two years, our committee has defined itself. We have adopted the phrase, “It’s great to do business with a Rotarian!” and we’ve launched a variety of new programs:
Business directory. This registry is part of our website and is open to the public (unlike our membership directory, which is private and password protected). All members have a profile and can provide keywords to help others find their products and services. It allows for a dynamic search that picks up relevant words in the websites or enhanced listings for each member. Sponsors, who underwrite the technology costs, have banner ads that cycle with each click. The registry has proved to be an excellent way to find trusted resources and to promote our businesses.
Rotary connections. Every other week at our regular lunch meeting, our president introduces a member with the words, “It’s great to do business with a Rotarian.” This member has five minutes at the podium to talk about his or her company. Often, these members leave materials or promotional items from their businesses on the lunch tables. One member who sells office products, including coffee and tea, left samples. Another handed out computer memory sticks with her company name. Our weekly Spoke36 newsletter features a synopsis of each presentation with a photograph and contact information for the speaker.
Networking events. At these early evening get-togethers, members can have a drink, talk with other Rotarians, and learn about their companies. These are held at a Rotarian’s place of business, the club office, or a restaurant. There may be a presentation or panel discussion, but there is always time to simply network. We are also considering a speed-networking event as a fun way to mix things up.
“Ask the Expert.” This column, written by a Rotarian, appears periodically in Spoke. Each one features “five things you should know” about a Rotarian’s area of expertise. It helps our members showcase their skills and share useful information.
B2B Expo. In place of one of our regular lunch meetings, we held our second trade show at the Rochester convention center this spring. It was limited to Rotarians’ businesses, with registration capped at 25 companies to allow Rotarians and their guests time to visit all the booths. We served a “grazing-style” lunch so attendees could keep moving. One member donated an LCD TV to be raffled off.
Rotary After Hours. A Rotarian hosts a get-together at his or her place of business after work, offering a tour of the facility and refreshments. Members build fellowship and business relationships while learning more about a fellow Rotarian’s work.
To these successful initiatives, we hope to add a business mentorship program as well as a Craigslist-style website that would complement our business directory and LinkedIn group.
We encourage our members to bring guests to all our events to promote the Rotary Club of Rochester and to let people know that, along with our community service work, we are also helping members expand their businesses.
Many companies are facing economic challenges lately, which makes our promotion of mutual business opportunities especially important. Members whose businesses are thriving are in the best position to contribute to club projects.