Apple co-founder Steve Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that creativity is the result of spontaneous meetings and random discussions. "You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."
Rotary club meetings tend to be structured for efficiency. A certain amount of casual dialogue happens as members trickle in, but it often ends when the official meeting begins. With a bit of effort, though, we can create opportunities for the sort of interactions that may inspire the next great idea.
In your meetings
Your club's physical meeting place can make a big difference, as can the arrangement of furniture. The Rotary Club of Newcastle Enterprise, Australia, had traditionally arranged the dinner tables in a large "U" formation, which helped club members see the guest speaker but limited dinner conversations. "Some members always chose to sit next to a particular friend, meaning they only spoke to one other person," says club president Julia Brougham. The club boosted discussion by adding smaller round tables where members can chat with six people at once.
It also helps to find a space that feels like a clubhouse: comfy and private. The Rotary Club of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, USA, has its own room at a local park. "Our meetings are typically boisterous, even rowdy," says club historian Bill Phillips. "I think we would be more reserved in a public setting, and we would lose much of the character of our club."
Though it may seem counterintuitive, communicating by email or social media between meetings can increase interactions among members. "What we gain is a more continuous connection," says Caroline Haythornthwaite, director of the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. "We're more able to stay in constant contact."
The Rotary E-Club One of District 5450, Colorado, USA, has more than 70 members on five continents. Because they interact almost entirely online, club leaders work to make conversations lively. Every Wednesday the club secretary posts a member-suggested topic on the Fellowship Forum, and members have a week to weigh in. They attend the weekly meeting by commenting on the thread.
In your community
Misha Garafalo, president of the Rotary Club of Shorewood, Illinois, USA, surveyed members and learned that they wanted more opportunities to connect with the community. So she took Rotary on the road with field trips to local government agencies. The trips brought members together with service-minded individuals outside their usual circle.
Other clubs have experimented with once-a-month, agenda-free, after-work meetings where members can enjoy an evening of unstructured conversation.
In my own club in San Luis Obispo, California, USA, some of the most involved members are those who gather each week at a cigar shop. The city has a lively farmers market every Thursday evening that brings locals downtown to enjoy barbecue and live music. Without fail, certain Rotarians wander from the market to the cigar shop, owned by one of our founding members. They chat until closing time, with the informal get-together sparking more service project ideas than I can count.
This humidor-as-incubator phenomenon was not engineered by collaboration experts or corporate thought leaders. It's an organic gathering of civic-minded friends — a lot like the original Rotary meetings that took place in Chicago more than a century ago, when Paul Harris and his friends got together to think up ways to improve their community.
Adapted from a story in the December 2013 issue of The Rotarian.