by John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden

When is Rotary going to learn that the concept of “Retention” is just old school? Today the buzz word is “Engagement”.

And mark my word this is not just a matter of semantics or of time and place.

Rotary in its PR tries to encourage us to be very aware of why Rotarians decide to leave. They further encourage to get new members “involved.” A typical document is 801D_retention_assessment_en.pdf Improving Your Member Retention. The document divides Rotarians into groups by their length of time in Rotary and asks clubs to conduct an assessment and act on the results to determine when and why members leave a club and to generate strategies to keep them engaged and involved so they stay.

Another typical document of marginal value adapted from The Rotarian is How Rotary can keep and recruit members in which brief case studies of where Rotary is growing and why are outlined.

This is a far cry from what is happening in the world of social media and business. There the only word that matters is ENGAGEMENT!

In the realm of social media FaceBook, Twitter, or LinkedIN engagement is tracked by such actions as Like, Comment, Click, to open picture, Click on link, Share, Retweet, Mention, Tag, Pin, Repin, or Favorite etc.

In the realm of business, “engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.”

In a Forbes article, Kevin Kruse writes “This emotional commitment means engaged employees actually care about their work and their company. They don’t work just for a paycheck, or just for the next promotion, but work on behalf of the organization’s goals.” It’s not about “happiness”, “hard work”, or “satisfaction” but about more about using your discretionary effort such as staying late to see the result of your study without being asked or a sales clerk picking up that discarded paper on the floor in a dress shop just because its there and you care.

Doug Conant, former Campbell’s Soup CEO, once said, “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” Employee engagement is the key to activating a high performing workforce.

Interestingly, of the 18 major industries survey by Quantum Workplace employees of Non-profits ranked 3rd among the LEAST engaged workers in 2015.

Rotary Clubs and Rotarians are not social media platforms or employees they are first and foremost volunteers so one has to address the issue of volunteer engagement. If we rephrased the business definition to read “engagement is the emotional commitment the volunteer has to the organization and its goals” would that make sense? Of course, it does, however, there is one huge difference because in a service organization like Rotary everything one does involves “discretionary effort” even going to the lunch meeting.

So how does engagement within service organizations stack up according to the research? has released a report titled Strategic Volunteer Engagement: A Guide for Nonprofit and Public Sector Leaders in which they state:

“Despite the idiosyncratic role of volunteer involvement within the nonprofit and public sectors, remarkably few organizations possess the knowledge to strategically maximize this advantage. Equally few decision-makers understand the basic constructs of volunteer engagement. Many in top leadership positions do not know what they might expect from an engaged volunteer workforce, nor are they aware of the critical importance of an infrastructure designed to facilitate and support community engagement.” (Page 2)

As an aside, one must wonder why Rotary in the USA is declining by 15% when “Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) indicate volunteering today is at a 30-year high (CNCS, 2006)”. Could it be that we do not understand what it means to engage our members in what we do, first locally and in time nationally or internationally? Can we learn from business and social media?

Social media does one thing well, non-stop, it measures engagement. Rotary used to have a simple measure of engagement …attendance at meetings; that has rightly gone the way of the Dodo Bird, but it has yet to be replaced with anything.

A few years ago, District 5550’s DG Ed Thompson created a replacement called the “District Vibrant Clubs Award”.  With points for growth in members, fundraising, attending meetings at other clubs, participating in their own and other club’s projects or activities and an award of $4000.00 for a project of the winning club a comprehensive set of about two dozen measurements was developed. For those who took part, it spurred engagement more akin to the type found on social media while demonstrating club members emotional commitment to Rotary and their community. Ed was onto something but like so many things in Rotary the next DG did not build on it and the opportunity was lost.

It should be possible to create an “engagement index” which like attendance, a member can self-track. So far Rotary Central points in this direction but it also points to the gap which exists between RI staff concerns and the real world of the Rotary volunteer in its design.

Retention then is not the key issue. There are many legitimate reasons for members to leave. No one wants to question a member’s reasons for leaving nor does one want a person to stay against their will or out of guilt. Retention also smacks too much as a numbers game.

Engagement is what we really want. Volunteer’s come with a built-in “emotional” quotient. Building on that advantage is the challenge of all members.