A talk with former Rotary Club president Dr. Darren Williams
Like any other professional organization, a successful club culture in a service organization doesn’t come without conscious effort. It takes several elements to maintain the vital connection between the members and the organization. Ideally, members prioritize club goals amongst their many other community obligations and fully engage during mandatory get-togethers but even within service organizations, club culture can go awry as attendance begins to drop, dues get paid later, and fewer service events take place. Speaking on his involvement with the Rotary Club of Huntsville, Texas, Dr. Darren Williams of Sam Houston State University says shifting club culture has a lot to do with recruiting done right, emphasis on fundraising, and finding the balance between flexibility and club policies.
Membership goals play an even bigger role when the club doesn’t have open admission. It’s a daunting task to engage and keep current members while outreaching/screening/recruiting potential new ones. When does the club need new members? Who should become a part of the organization? When does a current member need to be let go? These weighty questions don’t always get addressed when thrown in with other administrative needs like paying biannual dues on time or hosting the club’s annual fall event.
When does the club need new members?
When the group mindset hasn’t changed in a while, it might just mean new goals need to be set. However, culture stagnation can be a bigger issue than goal-setting if the community is being narrowly represented by individuals with similar backgrounds and careers. Great minds think alike, especially within the same field and this often results in a club reaching its peak performance until new perspectives are thrown in the mix. In these situations, it’s time to start growing the organization and reaching out to a wider variety of service-minded leaders in the community.
Who should become a part of the organization?
Every industry has its leaders; superintendents, principals, lawyers, investors, insurance workers, retired teachers, university professors/deans/chairs, heads of the boys and girls club, heads of churches, doctors, sales reps, real estate, business owners, local politicians, regional officers of corporations. Look at your club and ask, “what are we missing?” while keeping in mind fair representation of females and minorities. Diversity is key. Rotary in particular was designed for leaders in management positions who have the influence to mobilize their organizations. They are the ones with the most flexibility to make things happen and not only this, their schedules can be made to accommodate mandatory meetings. “However,” noted Williams, “You don’t want to end up with a sense of elitism.” Picking top professionals out of the pool of community service-minded individuals isn’t to discount non-managerial employees who are often the ones directly moving projects or initiatives along. Rotary as an organization welcomes non-managerial service leaders who still have the agenda flexibility to participate where attendance is required and who have the network to influence change in their community.
How should the club handle recruitment?
When a recruiting officer finds a professional that meets the previous description and also has a personal community mission, they’ve hit the jackpot. “You need spark plugs,” Williams says, “People who make the engine go.” These people are easily identified by an abundance of already existing obligations, are powerhouses during brainstorm sessions, and have a voluntary nature even toward club projects that aren’t their brain child. Theirs are the hands that go up first. New members are more likely to hit the ground running if you bring them on and say, “Will you be this person for the club?” It gives them a sense of belonging and purpose from the beginning and the way Williams puts it, “There will be times they ask themselves if they should attend today. When the engaged ones ask themselves, they will say, ‘Yes, because I won’t see this person or this won’t get done.’ They need to be plugged in.” A high rate of new members don’t come back after eight or so months if they aren’t connected to where their membership money is going. They don’t see the difference their dues are making, and they certainly don’t see the difference they’re making.
Not every member is going to be involved in every club movement, however. Go big and get as many people into the club as possible. Some will be the dynamic spark plugs, others will just eat at the luncheons and go. Certainly, the goal is to develop a “critical mass of doers”. Just bring in as many community leaders as possible and the doers will set themselves apart.
Money is a big deal (of course). For clubs in lower-income cities, fundraising is even more difficult and therefore a year-round effort but there are pockets of fundraising potential in every community that just need to be identified and tapped into. Funds come both from the members themselves and through the community. For the members, it’s important to get them excited about the heart of the organization and its causes. If they aren’t tied to the club family or the club’s goals, membership dues, as mentioned before, get paid later and later. If they understand where their dues are going and what results come of it, due money will be more forthcoming. First, they must be informed of the club missions. Then, they must be reminded. With community fundraising, individuals must be made to understand the club mission too but also to trust that your club will spend the money right. Is there proof that you’ve enacted change through previous fundraisers? Are there club members to relate to in the organization? How much of their money is going straight to the problem, instead of administrative efforts?
Regarding the overall culture of the organization, Williams says the real issue is getting people involved between meetings. That way, members have stoked the "fire" since the last meeting instead of coming back to have it relit weekly. This means having a number of projects going on with the club at all times. “Get a few projects going, then maintain them,” Williams says. The hardest part is the initial launch, definitely a smoother process when the club is more populated. It gets easier after that and offers choices of involvement for members. When members are directly invested in a project, it’s no longer seen as an extra job or busy work but a hobby that members identify and engage with.
Attendance shouldn’t be taken lightly. Missed meetings need to be made up one way or another. Community leaders are busy people—understood—but this calls for a variety of ways that meetings can be made up, rather than sweeping multiple absences under the rug. Make-up methods can include attending a meeting of another chapter, attending college or high school branches of the organization, community involvement, or even online meetings. It helps to designate a timeframe within which the make-up must occur to prevent the piling up of intentions to redeem several missed meetings. Because there are individuals who will not utilize any of these make-up methods, create a required attendance rate to resort to if needed. These attendance policies should be made clear when a member joins the organization. If a member still fails to meet these policies, take into consideration their club involvement outside of meetings. Are they active in running club projects on the side? Do they still attend the organization’s fundraisers? If they are still contributing elsewhere in the organization, it might be worth the time to sit down with them and figure out how to better balance their attendance with their other pursuits in the club.
A successful club culture is the product of consistent membership efforts, enforcement of policies, and raising the funds to act on ideas. Separately, each of these is quite the job so it should never be solely up to the president to uphold them. Having officer positions aids greatly in maintaining the ideal club culture. Some important points to take away; a club should always be growing and evolving, the club mission should be emphasized as the heart of the organization, fundraising keeps the ball rolling, and attendance drop-off is the first sign of lost commitment. Choose board members who will uphold these priorities and you already have a team working with you to keep the culture dynamic.