Not My Grandfather’s Rotary Club

That’s not my grandfather’s Rotary Club! The strongest Rotary Clubs today have dedicated members. Members with many consistent years of service keep a club strong. The change is the new members are starting to look different. And, it’s working. Here’s what happened.

BR Sohn with Shauna Kinney at Rotary of Seoul

We have more in common than we thought. Fellow Rotarian Sohn and I went to the same university. We went to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles “a few years apart.”

Rotary Used to Be Exclusive

What was my grandfather’s Rotary Club like? In my grandfather’s day — Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, and other service groups were exclusive. The clubs were exclusively men’s clubs. And, the clubs were exclusively expensive.

I graduated from high school in 1989. In 1989, Rotary removed the “male only” requirement for membership. (See Most of the service clubs remained mostly men for decades. But why? And, what changed within recent decades?

How Bi-Laws Shaped Membership

Many Rotary Clubs remained all male. The reason was in the bi-laws. In most clubs, a new member:

  • Could only join by invitation
  • Had to be approved by all members
  • Paid the same high annual dues (often hundreds of dollars)
  • Was required to attend a strictly specified number of hours every week
  • Had to be able to attend meetings during business hours

The old-guard Rotary was worried that lowering the requirements for membership would result in an ineffective club. Instead, clubs began to have a broader reach into the community. Women brought new compassion to club activities.

Take a look at the Rotary Club of Escondido (San Diego, California). This is not my grandfather’s Rotary Club. The Rotary Club of Escondido is a diverse mix representing the local community.

Rotary Fits My Schedule

The strong Rotary Clubs fit their club events to their ideal member’s schedule.The best clubs are NOT growing membership – they are building active membership. The flexibility has allowed more working age people. Activities are scheduled so younger members, and more women can be active in Rotary.

Seoul Young Leaders Club not my grandfather's Rotary Club

Feeling a Connected

The Rotary of Seoul Young Leaders Club (SYLC) satellite club is a great example. The satellite club is chartered for 18-35-year-olds. The focus on the benefits of professional networking in a smaller age range. Narrowing the age range improves the social connections among members.

Activities are held on weekends and evenings. The activities rotate around Seoul. The club is primarily English speaking. The mix motivated new Rotarians. Around 70% of the members are foreigners working or studying in Seoul. The remaining members are bilingual Koreans who work or study alongside English speakers.

Not my grandfather's Rotary Club at a cello performance

The satellite club isn’t separate from the main club. The two pieces of the club come together often to attend dinners, performances, and tours. Membership in the SYLC has opened up the door to connecting with more activities in the community. Foreigners are introduced to local events that they might not have found on their own.

Bringing It All Together

Members from different clubs often get together. Those inter-club gatherings are just plain fun. The older generations are energized by the young members. The young members gain leadership skills from the main club members. 

English Speaking Club across many Rotary Clubs

My Grandfather’s Rotary Club is Closing

In the last 10 years, many Rotary Clubs have closed due to low membership. Many of the original men retired (about the same time they became grandfathers). Though these men continued their club meetings, they were less likely to invite new members. They met fewer people after leaving work.

My grandfather’s clubs became less active. Events were usually in the middle of the day. As my grandfather and his friends grew older, they were less interested in long hours of standing, or late night events. They wanted to relax to an easy meal with friends.

The boom of service groups was on the decline, globally. Potential members were discouraged by the:

  • Lack of professional networking
  • Time of day of the events
  • Low-level of activity in the remaining clubs

The Rotarian Economist does a thorough job of summing up the outcomes:

Reasons Senior Members Stay Active

The influx of new members has been a fountain of youth for Rotary Clubs. The long-term members of the club thrive on sharing their experiences. Senior members of the club are more likely to renew. The need to be needed keeps all members active.

Rotary Multi-club Dinner Seoul 2017

When Your Down, the Only Way is Up

The good news is when your membership numbers are down, the only way is up. The real opportunity is the rebirth of clubs. The rebirth is not an attempt to recreate my grandfather’s Rotary Club. Existing clubs can look at how to transition to fit their local community.

The key to bringing the active membership up is to survey the current Rotarians and the potential new members. In Seoul, the “global-portability” of Rotary attracts new foreign members. New members are attracted to busy events among charismatic Rotarians. The foreign members enjoy how the Korean members introduce them to local activities.

The answers can be collected in casual conversations or formalized surveys. The book Energize Your Rotary Club explains how to avoid sabotaging the results. There are examples of what questions work. Author Bill Wittich, explains how the “method of discovery” influences the quality of the answers. He sums up how to use the answers to improve your Rotary Club.

Participation is Most Important

Getting the old and the new members frequently participating in Rotary activities is the most important. A small club with a high ratio of active members is much more effective than a large club with few active members.

Rotary Mulit-Club Dinner Seoul 2017

I personally join a club (Rotary or other community clubs) to give my skills to help the club’s projects. I accept that my fellow club members have different reasons for joining. My reasons for leaving clubs are usually when I can no longer give service. On one occasion, I left a club because I felt uncomfortable with that year’s leadership.

Options When You Run Out of Time

This fiscal year (July 2017-June 2018), I am taking a leave of absence from Rotary. Why? I have the good fortune of being able to do several months of traveling in Asia before I return to Perth, Australia in December. I won’t be available to give service hours. I will be out of town during most of the meetings in my remaining 6-months here.

I believe in community service clubs. I believe in rewarding good members who return each year. This fiscal year, I know I have run out of time. So, I turned my vision of a healthy club into helping several young members continue their membership this year.

Rotary hikes Namsan in spring 2017

My leave of absence doesn’t mean I won’t be keeping in touch with my Rotary friends. It means I will do Rotary’s social events when I am in town. I’ll shop for a Rotary Club full of energetic, active members when I return to Perth.

What is Your Future Club?

How would you summarize:

  1. Why would you join a club?
  2. When are you available to participate in club activities?
  3. What types of members do you want to be among?
  4. What do you need to get from the club (professional connections, a better connection to the community)?
  5. What services can you give to the club to match your answers to the questions above?

Send me an email ( if you would like to post a follow-on to my article on this blog.