Rebels with a cause
Rotary Club of Evening Downtown Boston, Massachusetts
On the night the Rotary Club of Evening Downtown Boston was chartered in 2010, co-founder Scott Lush called it a “100-year-old startup.” He and two co-founders had respectfully broken off from another club because, he says, “we felt the existing model did not have mass appeal.” They wanted their new club to be a test model for Rotary — a place where they could experiment with the club experience while retaining Rotary’s commitment to fellowship and service. They envisioned a vibrant club that showcased stimulating speakers, focused on members’ needs, and welcomed everyone, no matter who they were or why they had come.
Fast-forward nine years to a cold winter evening in a private room at a popular Boston pub. Every seat is taken and there are visitors at all the tables: friends, strangers, Rotaractors, a Rotarian from Brazil, the assistant governor of the district. Nearly half of the 40 people present are not members of Rotary.
The room buzzes as everyone socializes over sliders and drinks. People come in, fill out name tags, give hugs, and join conversations. There is an informal rule for club meetings: No one should be standing alone. With so many visitors, members’ socializing exclusively with other members is gently frowned upon — that’s what the club’s members-only events are for. The monthly meetings are a way to introduce the club to, and a chance for members to meet, new people.
In the beginning, the club tinkered with just about all the aspects of the Rotary experience. In addition to the monthly evening meetings, it holds members-only social events once a month — recent ones have included hiking, bowling, trivia nights, and ski trips — as well as volunteer events once or twice a month. Those have included serving meals at food kitchens and tutoring adults for their high school equivalency test.
The board members continue to come up with innovative approaches. But they don’t only try new things; sometimes they go back to tradition. The co-founders had promised, for instance, that they would never do happy bucks at meetings, but they eventually reversed course because new members liked the idea (with a twist: They accept electronic payment via the Venmo app).
The board members also use technology to help make decisions. Based on click-through metrics, they discovered that they get the best bang for their marketing dollars from Facebook. On their website, they offer a $10 off coupon for the first meeting (visitors usually pay $20). They also promote their meetings on Eventbrite and use an email marketing platform, Mailchimp, to manage member communications. They even test different versions of their welcome email for new members to see which subject lines prompt a higher “open rate.” The constant influx of new members helps keep that innovation going.
Members also do some old-fashioned marketing by “outing” themselves as Rotarians and talking openly about Rotary at work and with friends. A few years ago, the club gave out Rotary mugs and encouraged members to use them at work, hoping to create opportunities to talk up the club.
Many of the club’s 40 members have walked in the door with a connection to Rotary through a family member, boss, or friend. President Jennifer Smith is a transfer from a Connecticut club. Membership Chair Jim Hogan’s parents are Rotarians in Vermont. Past President Hélène Vincent’s grandfather and father are Rotarians, in France and Rhode Island, respectively. “My dad was shocked when I told him I joined Rotary. I think he thought it wasn’t cool, but I always thought my dad was cool,” Vincent says.
Samantha Drivas was in Interact and participated in Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. Her grandfather, like Vincent’s, was a Rotarian, and she remembers helping him sell Christmas trees as a club fundraiser. “I wanted to be a Rotarian from age five,” she remembers.
Club leaders know that to compete for members’ attention in a city that has an abundance of cultural activities, they need to offer a consistently positive and uplifting experience. Meetings are casual but efficient, and the emphasis is still on excellent speakers, who have included former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and Doug Rauch, the former president of Trader Joe’s and now co-CEO of Conscious Capitalism.
Smith opens meetings with a short welcome that she practices at home. “I always try to tell a story or make people laugh,” she says. “I want it to be fun and I want people to walk away with something interesting.” This effort is not lost on those who attend. “You leave with a good feeling,” says David Hart, assistant governor of District 7930 (parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire) and a member of the Rotary Club of Malden, Massachusetts. Then he leans in and lowers his voice: “When I recruit people, I love to send them to this club.”
Lush says the club is “the opposite of Facebook. On Facebook, you can have a million shallow friends. Here you have to show up and work together. We are the antidote to digital life. We are helping people get back what Facebook took away, and helping Rotary find a new formula.”
— Susie Ma
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