By Jeris Gaston, Rotaract Club of Birmingham, Alabama, USA
At the recent Rotary International Convention in São Paulo, Brazil, there were several breakout sessions geared toward the next generation of Rotarians. The one that stood out the most for me was “thirtysomething: How Clubs/Districts Can Provide Rotary Experiences for Young Professionals,” moderated by John Smola, a past president of my club, and Christa Papavasiliou, of the Rotaract Club of Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
A panel discussed the challenges and opportunities of allowing younger Rotarians into clubs worldwide. Throughout the question-and-answer segment that followed, there was quite a discussion about how to engage young professionals. Many great ideas were suggested, such as creating community-based Rotaract clubs or local satellite e-clubs to recruit members, as well as not being afraid to let younger members bring new ideas and energy to the club. Throughout this discussion, I couldn’t help but think of a program my own club started five years ago that allowed us to partner with our sponsor club, the Rotary Club of Birmingham, and bridge the gap between the young professionals in our club and Rotary.
My club has the privilege of being one of the largest community-based Rotaract clubs in the world. With almost 300 members, we have our own challenges but also amazing opportunities to lead our members to one day become Rotarians. The program we started in partnership with our sponsor club is called “Professional Partners.” It began purely as a membership development initiative, allowing our members to make connections with Rotarians who are also established leaders in our city. What has evolved is a program that not only establishes a direct personal connection between our members and Rotarians, but also develops leaders and fosters a strong sense of what it means to be a Rotarian.
The program starts each fall and lasts nine months. Each member of our Rotaract club who applies and is selected for the program is paired with a Rotarian from our sponsor club. There are minimum meeting requirements, but each pair is allowed to cater these meetings to their schedules and convenience. While flexible, the program is built around our club’s motto of Learn-Socialize-Serve, with events focused on each of these areas.
We typically try to pair unrelated industries, so that lawyers, accountants, and business-minded individuals are meeting with someone not in their field to further discussions. Also, each mentor and mentee is encouraged to bring the other to their respective meetings. At the end of the term, we have an informal gathering of all the participants to share ideas and network further. Each year, without fail, we get positive feedback from both sides, but overwhelmingly the Rotarians mention that they gained far more from the program than they had expected.
It doesn’t take a 300-member club to start a program like Professional Partners, and it seems to me this could be duplicated in clubs all around the globe. In many districts, the number of Rotaractors who become Rotarians remains small. While clubs encourage Rotaractors to join through their words, they may not encourage them through their actions. With all of that untapped potential, it is crucial, I believe, for clubs to follow the Rotary Club of Birmingham’s lead and embrace programs like Professional Partners. What if every Rotary club developed twenty Rotaractors each year through a similar program? It might not be the ultimate solution, but it is one way to strengthen connections with thirtysomethings in the community and invest in the future of your club.
August is Membership and New Club Development Month. Throughout the month, we will be running a series of blog posts on membership. We are also collecting stories from members about why they joined — and are proud to stay in — Rotary. Tell us your story on Facebook.