by John Borst, Communications Officer, District 5550

Rotary is trying valiantly to solve the membership dilemma. Efforts, to mount modern public media campaigns, the use of social media, PR grants to Districts and clubs and even studies on rebranding itself are all considerable initiatives to get the message out, a practice Rotary has not had to do in the past.

But little seems to be working.  Our membership total has stagnated for well over a decade. Had it not been for the recent introduction of women and retired persons to Rotary the membership would have declined by approximately 100,000 since the turn of this Century.

As the communications officer for District 5550, I am beginning to think that the problem goes much deeper than just being seen as a rich, old man’s club.

Some of the reason does have to do with how Rotary has evolved to this point in both what it is or has become and how it is managed. But that is not the focus of this commentary. The bigger problem, I suspect, is that society itself has changed in a way which may not be compatible with the very fundamental nature of Rotary.

At its heart Rotary is still an early 20th Century American phenomena to join people of like mind into associations for reasons of altruism and friendship.  Society then as today, was going through period of communications and technological change, undergirded by unrestrained capitalism.

One of the centres of that revolution was America’s fastest growing city, Chicago, the new home of Paul Harris. Harris pined for the peace, quiet and moral foundation of the small towns he had known in his youth.  His answer was the association we know today as Rotary International, with its face to face leisurely meetings of like minded professionals, with a mind to enhancing the common good through civic works at the local level while building a set of ethics which became the Four Way Test.

If Harris thought his world was noisy and chaotic while undergoing a communications and technological revolution under a regime of mindless capitalism he would likely be appalled at the world within which his “Baby” must now negotiate.

Erosion of Empathy

Nowhere is this more telling than in the erosion of empathy within post-modern society. Sometime over the past fifty years we became immune to the picture of a starving child. Mass starvation, refugee camps, plagues, and natural disasters have become a dime-a-dozen. Each is accompanied by NGO, after NGO seeking our monetary assistance, sometimes repeatedly. We see each event as just one more shock in a series of daily jolts served up as news on our television screens. Each becomes virtually indistinguishable from the barrage of infomercials vying for our attention.

Add to this the constant ping notifying us of another e-mail or flashing message of another text-message, or Facebook update, to say nothing of the washer or drying telling us the load is done, or any number of other appliances vying for our attention. Who knows how all of these visual and auditory stimuli are altering our neural passage-ways?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize this society is the antithesis of the society Paul Harris was trying to recreate. It didn’t exist in his day either but big city life was then sufficiently like small town America that urbanites could relate to what they could recall. Today’s youth have nothing to recall. Wind, rain, insects, and animal sounds are either commercialized as eco-tourism or treated as jolts to fear in the latest weather forecast.

In a world where even genocide, torture and wars are seen as small nasty local events or worse still as acceptable in an age of “terrorism”, how can the elimination of Polio or the lack of clean drinking water or the education needs of 700,000,000 illiterate adults compete for our attention? How can they even compete with the immediate needs of our own community?

Rotary thrived during a time when our elected officials were on the whole respected, bureaucracy was viewed as there to help our society function and some regulation of our capitalistic system was seen as necessary to ward off its propensity for excess. None of these characteristics appear to be the norm in most Nations today.

So, is it any wonder that an organization that values, truth, justice, equality and the peaceful resolution of difference in a slow and deliberate manner finds it difficult to be relevant to young people whose senses have been numbed by a barrage of powerful noisy images trying to convinced them to spend or donate money, feed them the bad news as if it were a crisis, convince them of some political creed, or just wickedly entertain. Think of how many “jolts” are present in one typical music video or video game.

Compare that kind of experience to an ad promoting Rotary or one of its causes. Are we even in the same ball park?


This dilemma raises many questions. I will suggest only three.

  • How far should Rotary go to accommodate this new society?
  • Should Rotary not compete and live with a smaller more dedicated cohort committed to its principles and lifestyle?
  • Should Rotary rebrand and reorganize itself to play in this new “sandbox”?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Each is fraught with risk, significant risk.

At this time Rotary’s leadership is cautiously moving forward on questions 1 and 3 and does not appear ready to accept the implications of question two.

One of many Rotarian’s favourite quotes from Paul Harris is “This is a changing world; we must be prepared to change with it.” In our search for new members  are we also faced with the dilemma that the gap between the nature of the world of Rotary and the nature of 21st Century society may actually be insurmountable without destroying Rotary’s soul?