Is it a how-do-you-do or an interrogation?

Yesterday afternoon I received an email from a good friend and member of the Rotary Club of Plainfield, Indiana. In a few weeks I get to attend a board meeting and present some thoughts about what a redo of plainfieldrotary.org might look like.

Except there won’t be much for me to present. There never is when I meet new clients. Instead I take what time I have and ask as many questions as I can, then I just sit and listen.

Here are some of the questions I’ve worked out based on their current site:

  • Your District Rotary link is dead. Is the district no longer around?
  • How and why are newsletters made? (Current ones are your standard PDF template derivatives, which may or may not produce much value for a wide audience).
  • How do people join? Why is it always a long homework assignment, or a vague “contact us”?
  • Why do you meet a senior center? Is it because of the location? The audience? Because it’s free?
  • Why do you meet in the middle of the day?
  • Why not give scholarships to active members?
  • What, if any, are the financial commitments?
  • Is this religiously affiliated?
  • Who in this room uses Facebook?

These may sound like some oddball questions, but I’m kinda playing hardball. I don’t know how, but I feel like every time I meet a potential new client or group I have to walk a line between being impressed or excited and looking like a harassing chump sent to make you feel bad about yourself.

I’ve skated on the sides of Rotary for a long time. My hometown of Salem had a club, along with the Lions and Masons. I thought about joining then, and then in college, and then went to a meeting at the Indianapolis chapter Downtown one day for lunch. Every time I researched it a little I came to the same conclusion: this is a group of older men and women who are looking for something to do, or, have some money to spend.

And that’s not a bad thing. The one notable exception is the Downtown Indy chapter has a large membership of office professionals, but the dues were so large it drove me away.

These clubs are all somewhat interchangeable in the minds of the public, and they all face the same problem. I know what the priority will be at the table when I meet with them in December: we have no money, and we need new, young, members.

This is what I was asked to figure out when I was approached by the Wanamaker Lion’s Club, the Salem Rotary, and now the Plainfield Rotary (I imagine).

Perhaps it’s a little youth-worship and a bit of worry at the dwindling number of butts in chairs at meetings that drive that. But it’s not hard to see why service groups are struggling:

  • They meet in the middle of the day
  • They meet at locations where people are expected to come to them, which works only if you’re a floor-stomping good time
  • The dues are almost cost-prohibitive for anyone who has student loans, a car, or a kid
  • Some groups, like Kiwanis, are more religiously-affiliated. Estimates put 1/3 of millennials as “non religious, atheist, or agnostic”. I suspect that number is really closer to 40-50%.
  • There are four Rotary groups in Hendricks County alone, and they may not coordinate much or at all. (Maybe they do, I’ll have to find out.)
  • The events scheduled for fun are usually things like golf outings, which probably strike most young people like they do me — expensive, slow, and maybe a little racist and sexist given the history of country clubs.
  • You usually need an invite from someone already in the club to get in.

I’m not convinced that what these service groups need is a infusion of “young blood” or even more members. I’m not sure I have an answer to that yet. But as time goes on and if we move forward, I suspect I’ll have to give a lot more thought to that.

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Justin Harter

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