For more than a decade, Rotary's membership has lingered around 1.2 million. That means that for every person who joined during that period, another person left. Last year, membership hit a 10-year low, at 1,185,000, though we've since rebounded, raising the figure this year to 1,207,102.
For RI President Gary C.K. Huang, that's not good enough. He hopes to increase membership to 1.3 million by the end of his term.
"It's simple: The more members we have, the more people we can help," Huang says. "A stronger membership base will result in strong communities."
How can we reach his goal? And how can we keep the members we already have? Here's a look at regions and countries that have increased membership, as well as an overview of ways that Rotary leaders are working to grow our membership.
Where is Rotary growing and why?
Germany gained more 11,000 members from 2003 to 2013, an increase of 27 percent. "German clubs put an emphasis on personal connections between members and their families and try to develop programs and events in which many play an active role," says Rotary coordinator Peter Iblher. "We try not to overwhelm our members with financial requests and purely financial goals. We try to create an impression of club life as being rewarding and valuable for members and their families."
RI Director Per Høyen, credits some of the membership growth in his zone, particularly in Lithuania (which doubled its number of Rotary members between 2003 and 2013), to favorable media coverage and positive government relations. "Lithuanian Rotarians get the media interested in the projects they are doing all over the country. This 'free' PR creates a lot of interest among people and makes it easier to get new members, because people know what Rotary is doing," he says.
"The average age of Rotarians in Africa is younger than in the United States or Europe. Clubs are relevant and vibrant, and support the belief that it is an honor and a big deal to become a Rotarian," says Thomas Branum, past chair of the Reach Out to Africa Committee and past RI director. Since 2004, Africa has gained more than 6,000 members.
In India, where membership grew by 38 percent between 2003 and 2013, three districts are collecting data to develop a plan for starting new Rotary clubs for the sons and daughters of members. Other strategies include recognizing those who recruit new members at appropriate events, and inviting prospective members to half-day seminars to learn about Rotary. "We target former Rotaractors and encourage them to form new Rotary clubs," says Ulhas Kolhatkar, a Rotary coordinator and past district governor. "We also encourage participation from second-generation Rotarians."
"One way we've been successful in Taiwan is focusing on alumni — people who were in Group Study Exchange and former Rotaractors. We keep track of these people," says Huang. From 2003 to 2013, Taiwan gained more than 7,500 members, an increase of 49 percent.
Countries and areas with largest membership declines, 2003-13
• United States -58,481 members (-15%)
• Japan -23,248 (-21%)
• England -7,743 (-16%)
• Australia -5,260 (-14%)
• Canada -4,167 (-14%)
Countries and areas with biggest membership gains, 2003-13
• India +34,068 members (+38%)
• Korea +12,671 (+26%)
• Germany +11,114 (+27%)
• Taiwan +7,567 (+49%)
• Brazil +4,045 (+8%)
The $3 million plan to rebuild Rotary
The RI Board of Directors allocated $3 million to create regional membership plans, recognizing that local strategies guided by member feedback would be more effective than a uniform global approach. The plans outline goals for 16 regions and the steps for achieving them. "The world is different now," says Allan Jagger, chair of the Membership Development and Retention Committee and a past RI director. Jagger was involved in creating the plan for clubs in Great Britain and Ireland. "We have to look at where we've come from, what's working, and change what isn't," he says.
In Great Britain and Ireland, an analysis of the data found that bringing in new members isn't the problem — it's keeping them. Jagger says the team looked into the reason and discovered that the way Rotary was sold to prospective members didn't fit the reality of joining a club. So the membership plan for Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland recommends a club "visioning" process to help clubs become more attractive to members, both new and existing.
In Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, regional leaders focused on what they already do well. "There will always be weaknesses," says Jessie Harman, a Rotary coordinator from Australia. "This is about identifying strengths and giving Rotarians and clubs examples of best practices and other tools they can use to strengthen Rotary." One asset in this region is member diversity. To remain strong, leaders set a goal of increasing the number of female members by 6 percent, young members by 5 percent, and culturally diverse members by 3 percent. As part of its effort to meet the goal, the Rotary Club of Christchurch South initiated an effort to recruit past Rotary Youth Leadership Awards participants as members.
From scholars to members
Members in Japan are recruiting recipients of the Yoneyama Scholarship, which is sponsored by Rotary members. The effort already has produced two new clubs: the Rotary Club of Tokyo Yoneyama Yuai (with 32 members, all former scholars now living in Japan but originally from 10 countries), and the Rotary E-Club of District 2750 Tokyo Yoneyama (with 27 members who meet through the club's website and live chat, but who also get together in person for club activities).
One strategy for member retention in District 5790 (Texas, USA) is a "buddy system" in which teams of four members stay in touch and support one another. Members are paired with one close buddy, and the membership chair assigns a minimum of two more buddies to make a team. One person is appointed the team leader and coordinates occasional get-togethers and activities.
If you're not sure why your club is shrinking, ask these questions:
1. Is my club's meeting time, format, and location convenient for members with families or young professionals still building their careers?
2. How well does my club reflect the age, gender, and professional diversity of my community?
3. Whose interests are reflected in my club's programs?
4. Do ceremonial activities take time away from speakers, club business, project planning, and networking?
5. Does my club have a plan in place to contact guests after they visit?
This article was adapted from Global Outlook in the May issue of The Rotarian.