Learning from the masters
A video made for the Rotary Club of Seattle aimed at recruiting younger members
A friend invited Dan Nicholson to a local Rotary club meeting early last year. The owner of a Seattle accounting firm and an avid professional networker, Nicholson was looking for more meaningful ties to his community. But he was skeptical.
“My perspective on Rotary was that it was a group of older folks, and I thought maybe I’d have trouble connecting with them,” Nicholson, 31, recalls. But the friend assured him that the club wanted younger people to join, so he went to the meeting. Now he’s a member.
Score one for the Rotary Club of Seattle. About 10 years ago, the club – known as Seattle #4 because it’s Rotary’s fourth-oldest – set out to lower the average age of its membership as a way of planning for the future.
It faced the same conundrum that plagues many Rotary clubs: A generation of accomplished leaders had reached an age at which leadership succession was a looming concern. The club was thriving, with a variety of service activities, solid finances, and a speakers program that rivaled those of elite business summits. But some members looked at their aging peers and wondered who would be left to run the club in the future.
There would be no simple formula for recruiting a new generation to the Seattle club – the largest Rotary club in the world, with more than 600 members today. As one of the most powerful professional clubs in the Puget Sound area, Seattle #4 was as well known for its membership exclusivity as it was for its civic contributions. But to ensure its survival, the club concluded that it needed to open its doors to younger achievers. Since late 2003, Seattle #4 has welcomed 56 new members under age 40. The story of how this landmark club is cultivating its next generation of leaders provides some useful lessons.
The key thinker behind the effort to recruit younger members was Ralph Munro, who joined the club in 1977 and served as Washington’s secretary of state for 21 years. “I said, look around this city. All you have to do is wander around the cemetery and see what’s on the tombstones. The big clubs in Seattle used to be the Moose club and the Elks club, and they’ve mostly gone,” he explains. “Our club was vibrant. In 2001, we had about 700 members. But I looked at their average age.”
Munro, who served as club president in 2002-03, concluded that although the membership roster was prestigious, a more significant issue was who it was missing. A younger generation had become a driving force in Seattle but was barely represented in the club.
“Back in the 1950s and ̓60s, only 15 or 20 families in the state had a million dollars or more,” Munro says. “Now in Seattle there are hundreds and hundreds of millionaires who are under 40. They started new companies and succeeded. Microsoft has spun off companies. We had to look around the room and ask, are these people in this club?”
The answer was no – the club usually admitted only CEOs and business owners over age 40. “That doesn’t work now,” Munro says. “You can’t wait until they are presidents of their own corporations. They are too busy, and if they have no previous association with Rotary, they have little reason to get involved at that point.”
With a few allies, he campaigned to change the club’s approach to member recruitment, seeking to reach younger, aspiring leaders. “We got into a pretty good fight about it,” Munro recalls, noting that most club members had not seen the discouraging membership statistics and didn’t realize where the future was headed.
Some feared that the push for younger members would compromise standards. Would younger people have the financial resources to join? Between family and work obligations, would they have time? Would they be capable of making a serious commitment?
But aging demographics spoke louder than fears. The first big step was starting a program called Tomorrow’s Leaders, which began while Munro was president. It went beyond recruiting by addressing obstacles to membership for younger people. The club created a new five-year membership status that offered lower dues to those ages 35 and younger. Instead of limiting membership to current business leaders and only one individual per firm, the club would evaluate candidates for this status based on their leadership potential. After five years, the club expected that the younger members would meet its usual criteria for membership.
Slowly, younger people came to Seattle #4 and, according to Munro, resistance from within the club dissipated when they started taking on active roles. The earliest recruit was Jean Seidler Thompson, an attorney who missed the community involvement she had experienced in law school at Notre Dame. Thompson became a member nine years ago, at age 30, after sampling a few other Seattle business groups. Rotary’s commitment to the common good was the deciding factor for her. “Young people now are interested in international service because we are a global community,” Thompson says, suggesting that Rotary is an ideal choice for principled young professionals.
She recalls seeing a lot of white hair at meetings when she first joined, and wanting younger members to have a stronger presence. Later she would find a collaborator in engineering and energizing the nascent young leaders program: Virginia Kirn, a professional recruiter who joined Rotary in 2007. Kirn, then 32, had just completed a master’s in organizational development and was eager to apply her knowledge.
Her first question was, “Where are all my peers?” She expected the older members to ignore her concerns, but instead they connected her with Thompson. Club leaders helped the duo by forming a Young Rotary Leaders committee. It became the force that would unite younger members and help them learn together how to become Rotarians.
The women invited all the club members who were under 40 to join the committee, which began meeting for happy hours after work – until committee leaders heard from a sympathetic older member that some Rotarians were dismissing them as “the drinking committee.” The last thing the new group needed was an image problem, Kirn says, so it switched its meeting site to boardrooms, postponing drinks until afterward – an idea suggested by Nicole Nazzaro, a Seattle author who joined the club in 2007. The committee also came up with a mission statement: “to positively impact the vitality and longevity of Seattle #4 by promoting the recruitment, retention and relevancy of young Rotarians.”
“We stressed service,” Nazzaro says. “We concentrated on making our service projects more visible, and we made sure to speak about them during the announcements at each meeting. We gained a bit of a following within the club.”
That fit with another Young Rotary Leaders priority: integrating with the more established club members. The committee started a tradition of holding regular potluck events, which allow experienced Rotarians to talk with the younger members and introduce them to important Rotary activities. Presentations on international projects, leadership opportunities, and district-level events, among other topics, help build connections and spark the younger members’ interest. Or the group may go for a cruise on a senior member’s sailboat, building intergenerational solidarity. Munro recently hosted a group of 30 at his home for grilled salmon and a tutorial on the PolioPlus project he leads. The result? Some of the younger members signed up for his next trip to East Africa.
Tom Betts, the club’s membership vice president, was asked to speak at a Young Rotary Leaders committee meeting and has been a champion of the group ever since. Betts became interested in the young Rotarians when he chaired the classification committee, which considers every proposed new member.
“I have been a Rotarian for 38 years, and I have never seen a group so motivated to go out and do something,” Betts says. He points to a new recruitment effort that involves hosting winners of a local business publication’s annual “40 Under 40” award. The group has also participated in a number of projects that have an active, youthful spirit, including the Mercer Island half-marathon, a cancer fundraiser.
One advantage of the intergenerational comingling has been that club members of different ages have come to know and trust one another, leading to more young people on committees. Several have become committee chairs with help from Betts, and some young members have even served on the club’s board.
Experience has been a good teacher for the club, which has discovered a variety of strategies for bringing in younger members and fostering connections among all Rotarians. Tips include recruiting multiple new members at the same time so they can learn the ropes together, and resisting any temptation to relegate younger members to the “kids’ table.” The Seattle club shows younger Rotarians that they are valued by engaging them in important activities; for instance, of the 10 people on the club’s five-year strategic planning committee, 2 are younger members. Also, Kirn recommends, keep Rotary leaders informed of young members’ innovations and seek advice from them. And, above all, keep it simple.
Seattle #4 isn’t the only club devoted to attracting and retaining younger members. New youth-oriented Rotary clubs in other parts of the country are pursuing the same goal. The Foothill Communities Rotary club in Upland, Calif., and the Rotary Club of South Metro Minneapolis Evenings, Minn., were founded by young Rotarians and have been described as a bridge between Rotaract and Rotary. Like the Seattle club, they adjust the cost of membership to suit the financial needs of younger members while harnessing their commitment to the community.
Munro, Betts, and the other experienced Seattle Rotarians who are embracing the movement to recruit younger members see it as the road to a secure future for Rotary.
“This is not going to be my father’s Rotary club. My dad thinks Rotary should be the way it was 50 years ago, but it can’t do that and survive,” Betts says. He notes that, despite the Seattle club’s progress, institutional change is needed, as it still expects full members to be proprietors, partners, or top corporate officers. “At a certain age, our young members have to meet the full requirements. What if they don’t make it? We have to find a way to keep them.”
In Seattle #4, the generations are united in their belief that the Young Rotary Leaders committee is and will be a crucial factor in the club’s survival. “I can look around and see the future of our club,” says Thompson, who turns 40 in January.