It’s 11:45 a.m. and Walt, the prosperous owner of an insurance company, tells his secretary he’s off to lunch. “See you in a few hours, doll,” he says with a smile.
He climbs into his new Edsel and drives to a steakhouse, where he and his fellow Rotarians retreat to a private room. They settle in and order rib-eyes and martinis. The club president leads them in the Pledge of Allegiance, an invocation, and a rousing rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” After the meeting, bellies full and heads hazy, they return to work.
At 5 p.m., Walt leaves the office and heads home. His children are playing in the front yard. They drop their hula hoops and run to greet him. Inside, his wife pulls a roast out of the oven and calls the family to dinner.
If you’re a Rotarian today, this scene may seem as relevant to your daily routine as one from Shakespeare’s England. For most of us, a typical day looks more like this:
It’s 12:16 p.m. and Jennifer, vice president of a Web services firm, realizes she’s late for her Rotary club lunch. She sprints down the street to the restaurant, where servers are clearing the salad plates. A club member passes her a sign-up sheet for a weekend fundraiser, and she texts the babysitter: “can u watch kids 10-12 sat?”
She has trouble focusing on the program because she is reviewing balance sheets in her head and fretting about impending layoffs. She has already taken a pay cut and postponed the family vacation, but no amount of personal sacrifice will save the job of the recent college grad she hired last year.
At 6:30 p.m., she meets her husband and children at a pizza place and apologizes for having missed the kids’ soccer practice (again). “Something’s got to give,” her husband says, and she knows he is right. Later that night, she emails her club president. Subject line: “leave of absence.”
If the second scene seems more familiar, you’re in good company. The challenges of modern life have been reflected in Rotary’s recent membership numbers. After growing steadily from the 1940s through the mid-1990s, membership leveled off. And although thousands of people join Rotary clubs each year, even more Rotarians leave, resulting in an overall decline in North American members of 15,493 from 2010 to 2012.
The economy hasn’t helped. The loss of 8.4 million jobs in 2008 and 2009 represented “the most dramatic employment contraction (by far) of any recession since the Great Depression,” according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. The sluggish recovery has left many American workers feeling uncertain about their finances.
Another factor is the division of household labor. In 1950, the man of the house was the sole wage earner in 63 percent of households maintained by married couples. By 2011, that number had dropped to below 16 percent. Life seems to move faster in an era when most adults work outside the home.
Dual-worker families. Uncertain finances. Less free time. It’s no wonder many clubs have faced membership slumps in recent years. The trend has some Rotarians wondering whether the old membership model can survive. To Chuck Musgrave, past governor of District 5750 in Oklahoma, the answer is clear: Rotary’s approach to membership must change.
Several years ago, Musgrave became interested in some statistics that 2000-01 RI President Frank J. Devlyn compiled during his term. Devlyn had tracked membership and retention numbers in all U.S. clubs for five years.
Musgrave extended the data set through 2011. Between 1995 and 2000, 1,112 new members joined clubs in his district, but by 2006, only 223 of those Rotarians remained. By 2011, the figure was down to 124, an 89 percent loss. His district has seen a slight increase in membership since 2000, he says, noting gains by the Rotary Club of Oklahoma City and the addition of three successful new clubs.
“I began looking at districts to see what characteristics were common among those that gained or lost membership,” Musgrave says. “For the most part, no clubs were making significant gains in membership. In districts that had gained members, it was almost always because one or more new clubs were chartered, and the addition of these members was covering up the fact that existing clubs were losing membership.
“It was astonishing that all of the real growth in the districts was coming from the creation of new clubs, not increases of membership in existing clubs,” he says.
His theory: Members of established clubs tend to think of their club as operating in a certain way and being a certain size. “When a member comes in, he looks at the club, and if it’s a 40-person club, in his mind, that’s the size his club is. And so when it becomes a 37-person club, everybody gets excited and they have a couple of membership drives and then they get up to 43. What happens over a long period of time is that the 43 becomes 41, and they don’t panic until they reach 35. Their set point drifts on down.”
Musgrave also found that the members of new clubs were less likely to drop out, at least over the first five years, but in the long term, most clubs shrink in size. “I think Rotary needs to recognize that if we really want to grow, the practical way to do it is by starting new clubs.”
In his district, Musgrave points to the Rotary Club of Bricktown Oklahoma City as a prototype for modern clubs. Geared toward young professionals, it was chartered in 2003 and bills itself as “one of the original ‘happy hour’ clubs.” Meetings take place Mondays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at a brewery. Yearly dues are $700; of that, about $400 pays for appetizers and two drinks (no dinner), and $100 goes to The Rotary Foundation.
“We did away with singing, because young people think it’s silly. We did away with the sergeant-at-arms, because young people think that’s silly. We did away with many, many of the little quirks that take up time and interfere with the speaker, and so we set the model such that the speaker was more important than the busy work.”
Now nine years old, the Bricktown Oklahoma City club has 49 members. “I view that as a successful model,” Musgrave says.
One of the newest clubs is the Rotary Club of Edmond Boulevard, the brainchild of Musgrave and District Governor-nominee Michelle Schaefer. While serving as district membership chair in 2011-12, Schaefer asked district leaders if their clubs were “pale, male, and stale” and challenged them to survey their members on club traditions, costs, service projects, and views on involving younger members. Her findings helped shape the priorities of the club she helped launch back in May, with Hal Stevens, formerly of the Rotary Club of Edmond, as president.
Schaefer and Musgrave secured a room at a martini bar where the manager was happy to have the business on Mondays, a slow night. Stevens promoted the club on LinkedIn and Facebook. Schaefer gave a presentation about Rotary at the first meeting, which 18 potential members attended. They had their first service project two weeks later.
Six weeks after their initial meeting, they submitted a charter application. The membership is a mix of tech-savvy men and women whose ages range from the mid-20s to the mid-60s. With the exception of the cofounders, none of the charter members had previous Rotary experience.
That includes president-elect Jermaine Harrison. “I’d visited a Rotary club years ago,” he says. “It was a very established club, and I didn’t see myself joining.” Harrison, who works in IT, was impressed with the Edmond Boulevard club’s use of social media and other technology. “Those tools intrigued me, and I put my time and my heart into it,” he says. “I needed the club that we have now.”