Virtual visit: Filling a need to serve
Brian Goerdt is pretty good at figuring out how things work. A computer consultant, he's built his business on managing complex projects and streamlining business needs. So when he was 2021-22 president-elect of the Rotary Club of Bettendorf, Iowa, he wanted to analyze what factors helped the club succeed.
He calls what he found the "secret sauce" of membership growth. It has, he says, three ingredients:
Invite people to join.
Connect with them.
And engage them in projects that serve the community.
That secret sauce must be making Rotary membership in Bettendorf a tasty proposition. The club increased in size by 29 members in 2021-22, leading District 6000 in membership growth while expanding the number of women and younger members in its ranks. At one meeting where six members were inducted, the new Rotarians each gave brief comments about why they joined. "The way that people articulated it, it was almost like we were filling this need they had," says club member Ann Kappeler. "They wanted somewhere they could do something and make a difference, and they saw Rotary as that opportunity."
The club capitalized on the hunger of many people, stoked by the pandemic, to volunteer in their communities. “They want to get active,” says 2021-22 Club President Larry Thein. “They want to be a part of something.” Thein launched several initiatives aimed at drawing in these new members, including holding a competition to challenge members to invite people and having people celebrate their birthdays by bringing in a new member. And a satellite club is in formation, meeting twice a month. “We’re a club that does serious things, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We have a lot of fun,” Thein says. “We’re a dynamic group of people. When people get a touch of that, it draws them in.”
The key to continuity
The Rotary Club of Bettendorf has a five-year succession plan for the role of club president. "It's the way we move our club forward and keep our tenacity," says Larry Thein, 2021-22 president. A future president sits on the club's board "learning the ropes," Thein says. "Then every year you get a little more responsibility." After three years as a board member, the fourth year is the year as president-elect, and the fifth year is the year as club president. The person spends one more year on the board as past president to ensure continuity.
Brian Goerdt, the current club president, cites several advantages of the long timeline. For one, if a club leader moves away, the club doesn't have to scramble to fill the position because other people are already on a leadership track. And being on the board for that long helps club leaders better understand what's been done in the past and what that means for the future. "You know the club, you've been part of the discussion," he says. "You get to see how it all works, and through that, you learn the values of the club."
But the efforts don't stop there. The club makes a point to ensure new members don't just sit in the back. Mentors contact new members to help them figure out how they can get involved. And, once people join, they are encouraged to invite their friends. It has a snowball effect. "The best time to invite somebody is when you're excited about joining," Goerdt says.
Bettendorf is one of the Quad Cities, a group of communities (five, in fact, despite the name) that straddle the Illinois-Iowa border. The location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock rivers has long made the area a vibrant cultural and commercial center. For generations, it was home to thousands of members of the Meskwaki and Sauk tribes. Riverboat traffic brought urban growth, as boats would have to pull ashore before navigating rapids in the area. The region's biggest employer, tractor manufacturer John Deere, was set up in Moline, Illinois, another of the Quad Cities, to take advantage of river access.
Today, driving through Bettendorf's tidy neighborhoods, one might not realize there are unmet needs in the city. That's what Thein thought before he joined the club in 2015. But about six months later, he volunteered to deliver holiday food baskets. At one delivery to a home in a particularly swanky neighborhood, he saw cardboard on the windows and no soliciting signs in the yard as he arrived. When he and his son carried the turkey to the door, the parents and children began crying, and he heard one of them say, "We get to eat today." "It changed my life," he says. "I really decided to see what Rotary was about."
The club backs the community in other ways, such as giving dictionaries to fourth graders, awarding scholarships, and supporting the public library. It holds an annual Lobsterfest that last year netted $100,000 to bolster its efforts. In a meeting in 2021 to come up with a big project, club member Joe Campion threw out an unusual idea to try to help the area's homeless people: an acre of warmth. The club figured an acre of blankets would be about 800 of them. "If you spend 365 days a year outside, you can imagine how many blankets one person will go through," Thein says. In Iowa's rain, mud, and slush, blankets won't last very long.
The project went viral, says Kappeler. For its second year, the club partnered with a local television station and ran newspaper ads to get the word out. It created a QR code that people could scan to donate $8 toward a new blanket. The effort in 2021 was such a success that the club was aiming for 3,000 blankets in 2022. "It's brought a lot of energy to our club," Kappeler says.
Having recruited so many new members last year, the club's focus is on keeping that momentum going — and making sure the new members find enough value in Rotary membership to stay. As president, Goerdt is looking to further develop the satellite club, increase member involvement in club committees, and create additional regular social activities, such as the 5:01 club, an after-work gathering.
Having identified the secret sauce to membership growth, Goerdt set to work on pinpointing the formula for membership retention. He says new members stay if they are part of a community, find meaning, and make an impact. "If we can't get them engaged," he says, "everyone has a limited amount of time."
This story originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.