By Katie Coard
This summer in Berkeley, California, I joined a group of Rotary young professionals and district leaders from the western United States and Canada at a summit to discuss the future of Rotary. Reflecting one of Rotary’s strengths, this event brought together many diverse perspectives to focus on what younger Rotarians are looking for in Rotary.
I’ve been a part of the Rotary family since joining Rotaract in 2010, and it has changed my life in many ways. I am a founder and co-president of a provisional Rotary club in my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Rotary taught me how to lead, engage, and manage groups of people, projects, and events. These are skills I use in my daily work.
When I talk to people about why they need to be part of Rotary, I emphasize how all-encompassing it is. Where else can you make lifelong friendships, network with professionals, learn life skills, volunteer, and make a difference in communities all over the world?
Every Rotary conference tries to think out of the box, but this was one of the best I’ve experienced. Organizers had designed a dynamic, interactive, and engaging program. Workshops led by the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley had us discussing, writing down, and illustrating our ideas and then presenting them to the larger group. Several themes emerged:
- We recognized that certain age stereotypes exist that can hold Rotary back. To put it simply, there is a stereotype, at least in a large part of North America, that Rotarians are “male, pale, and stale” and, unfortunately, this stereotype persists regardless of actual demographics. The district leaders were open to change, and we agreed that our perceptions of change will affect how Rotary will grow in the coming years.
- Young professionals don’t always see the benefit of paying for meals at every meeting or singing the national anthem. Respecting tradition is important, but clubs have to think hard about what signals their meeting format is sending to potential members.
- Engagement is key. Young professionals want to be heard and make an impact. Clubs must reach out and understand what these members want in order for their membership to be rewarding.
- Young professionals want to network. And offering networking opportunities benefits a club as well. Some Rotarians feel that networking at meetings is taboo, but this is holding back Rotary’s potential.
- Young professionals need flexibility. Rotary should fit into members’ lives, not force members to change their lives to fit Rotary. This is especially true for those with young children.
I especially liked how the format allowed young professionals to share ideas with the district leaders. The opportunity to work with district leaders can be limited, and younger Rotarians can feel that their voice is not heard. This summit provided a microphone for that voice, and I can tell you, district leaders listened. All the district leaders in attendance walked away with an action plan to make their clubs more attractive to young professionals.
Perhaps the best thing about the summit was getting to meet Rotarians from all over the west coast of the United States and Canada. Forging friendships is truly one of the great things about Rotary. And these people, my friends, are taking action. I feel positive about the future of Rotary. Rotary will grow in relevance if, and only if, Rotarians of all ages are listening to one another and working together. Innovation and tradition go hand in hand because, ultimately, we are all Rotary.
- Watch a video of a Young Professional Summit held by Rotary in Chicago in 2014
- Read a post from a participant in that summit, “What young professionals are looking for in Rotary”
About the author: Katie Coard is a co-president of the Rotary Club of Downtown Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and a former member of the Rotaract Club of Victoria. She works as a project manager, Web content developer, and online content consultant focusing on helping nonprofits and small businesses build their brand. She posts weekly on her Rethink Rotary blog and tweets daily from @rethinkrotary about changes that Rotary clubs can make in order to broaden their appeal.