How do we innovate at Rotary?

By John Hewko, Rotary International General Secretary

Innovation and flexibility. Those are two words you hear a lot today when we think about any organization adapting to a rapidly changing environment.  But what do those two words mean for Rotary?

In short, they will define Rotary’s future, because they are fundamental pillars of our strategic plan for enhanced impact, reach, engagement and adaptability.

If we are really serious about growing Rotary and attracting new members from all demographics, we must innovate.

That innovation will need to take various forms.

It begins, first, with making the idea of innovation in Rotary a mindset. It begins with developing a culture of positive change and adapting to the needs of our new realities and challenges.

Second, innovation is also about transformative technologies. We can call this sustaining innovation – that is, constantly developing our suite of products to serve our existing members.

We have implemented this concept of sustaining innovation through three channels of new technology: Rotary’s Learning CenterRotary Club Central, and an enhanced online membership leads program. Now, all these tools are at your disposal, and many new ones are in the process of being developed. Their consistent use should be a key foundation of our future growth strategy.

The third kind of innovation that we must aspire to generate at Rotary is called disruptive innovation.

In the world of business, it refers to a product or service, often very simple in its first design. This product or service takes root at the bottom of a market, and then relentlessly grows in popularity, until it displaces established competitors.

Think of how the traditional taxi cab business has been changed forever by ride sharing platforms such as Uber, which connects consumers who need rides with drivers willing to provide them.

With a growing group of individuals looking for connection, friendship, and an opportunity to get involved in the world around them, Rotary is well positioned to be a disruptive innovator.

“If we are really serious about growing Rotary and attracting new members from all demographics, we must innovate.”

Imagine for a moment what Rotary clubs could look like in the future.  Clubs that could change their meeting schedule and format, can relax attendance requirements, and offer multiple membership types.

Think of a club where you can invite Rotaractors to be members of your club while they are still in Rotaract.

A club of the future, where measuring adherence to the rules is replaced with measuring progress against goals to improve the community and to grow the club.

Well, you don’t have to imagine very far, because these clubs already exist.

Next Rotary Generation Invercargill is a family-friendly club in New Zealand with fluid meeting times and venues.  While attendance is encouraged, it is not compulsory.

The Rotary Club of Aruba systematically engages with its local Rotaract and Interact Clubs to ensure a smooth and natural transition into the Rotary club. As a result, half of the club members are former Rotaractors.

Then there are the so-called Passport clubs. Three years ago District 5180 in California began thinking about a club model that would be attractive to younger members who were not interested in attending weekly meetings or paying dues they could not afford.

The district chartered what they called a Passport club with 20 members in Sacramento, California. The club meets only six times a year with an optional social event in the month between meetings.  In addition to attending the six required meetings, every year passport members must either contribute $1,000 to the Rotary Foundation OR do at least 40 hours of community service with Rotary clubs or other non-profits in the district.

This club has more than tripled its membership in three years.

A long-term sustainable growth strategy just doesn’t appear out of thin air. It requires a commitment to club innovation and flexibility; a commitment to best serving the specific needs of our communities as they evolve, and to incorporate Rotaractors into Rotary.

I challenge all of us to think out of the box, and to grow Rotary through new innovative club models and to try new approaches.

I’m confident that we will embrace the opportunities ahead of us through innovation, flexibility and thoughtful change.

14 thoughts on “How do we innovate at Rotary?

  1. Really good read!!
    I am past President of NRG Invercargill. We have had other NRG clubs pop up around New Zealand which is awesome to see. We run with the basis that as long as you make an effort to be a member (defined in our constitution), we are happy with that. That has been our biggest change and is working really well. If you have any questions about NRG clubs or you want to look at setting up your own club feel free to flick us a facebook message!


  2. Rotary is essential on an international and local community level because its services affect them (those communities) so much – for the better. So we need to attract members of all ages from those two categories. Unless we have a plan or plans in place to do this, some creative thinkers and doers, good leadership and a willingness to use technology and valued personal time to make it happen, we (Rotary) will always be one step behind. Cannot let that happen, for the sake of the younger generation of Rotarians who will follow in the footsteps of the our older Rotarians.
    Fraser Mackenzie.


  3. We must embrace all ages with different value propositions bringing with us our longer serving members as we transform…this means honouring them and treating them with dignity and making sure we never change the things that matter most in that they reflect who we are…our values, objects and 4 way test.


  4. Being a Rotarian is a privilege. Rotarians need to covey the many good achievements & stories that we all pride ourselves on, to the rest of the world. Every Rotarian needs to take on the responsibility of conveying the Rotary message. Branding Rotary stories are essential to continuing the great experiences of Rotary. I proudly wear my Rotary identification almost daily . Almost daily someone asks about Rotary. They call me Mr. Rotary in my club. My car has a Rotary sticker on my bumper. We need to flood the world with the messages of being a Rotarian is a priviliege..


  5. Innovation and flexibility, yes indeed these are the key words we come across very often. While I agree for both for the sustainability of Rotary, I wish to draw your kind attention towards a single most important and fundamental reason for the start and survival of Rotary, i.e. Paul Harris’s need to connect and build friendship in 1905 and the same by Rotarians across the globe over the years.
    While the technology has enabled world to come closer, individual’s need to connect physically has increased in many folds. Through internet we can reach faster, respond quickly (as I am doing with you John now), the fellowship and service on ground can be achieved better way when people meet.
    The internet isolates. So while we should adopt new ways to build Rotary’s membership, we must equally emphasize due importance of having physical meeting, ideally once in a week for the healthy growth of Rotary.
    My experience of last 19 plus years as an active Rotarian clearly tells me that attending Rotary meeting 3 or 4 times a month was and is not the reason members leave or new members do not join. It is the connect and participation in Rotary activities that ensures member not leaving Rotary. Let us innovate the ways we can make the new members involved, acknowledge and showcase the Clubs that has good practices in this regards.

    Let’s come up with new and flexible ways without ignoring and reducing our emphasis on our current formats.

    Last but not the least, let us also introspect on our rush to get the new members instead of emphasising enough on retention of existing members.

    Long live Rotary



    • I completely agree…technology has enabled the transfer of information while building walls between us. Studies show that young people crave the human connection much more than prior generations. Rotary can fill that need better than most organizations…it is our foundation.


  6. Our new Rotary eClub | WOKE has Zoom meetings 2x month, but our core is our Slack channel. Fellowship, staying aware of what the Club is doing, planning fundraisers and service projects- a formal meeting isn’t required. This makes Rotary 24/7.


  7. One of the innovations we are trying is “issue responsive” clubs. A Rotary Club that has a specific service focus that all members are passionate about and can have the greatest impact. An example might be an Eco Rotary Club or a WASH Rotary Club. The idea is to FOCUS RESOURCES for maximum impact.


    • Rotary International has 26 RAGs (Rotary Action Groups)- which are not advertised sufficiently to existing members, let alone potential new members. i have long held the view that we compete against “single issue charities” or, as Winton says, “issue responsive” organisations for our new members. Potential new members will look into Rotary and may find the ‘Club’ structure too cumbersome. Many engaged, generous people may be more attracted to a RAG rather than a ‘Club’. Disruptive? – sure! But we MUST accelerate our thinking and actions to attract. We are now at least running along the railway station platform – but we need to sprint to catch the train!


  8. Another innovative idea implanted by Rotary Dist.3211 is a global e club with non resident Indians as members. They meet both on e platform and physically in UAE. This is an excellent idea to ensure participation of high net worth non Residents settles abroad




    • Rotary is an organization for all… we value diversity in age, gender, identity, vocation and national identity. And there is unlimited opportunity in Rotary…if you can dream it you can do it. However, many people do not know what Rotary does and our image (and brand) has been as a closed organization. Rotary has worked very hard to change that and it has cost us some members… If we want a Rotary for the future we must engage the next generation without waiting for them to come to us…


  10. Splendid! I love trying new approaches to achieve membership growth and retention. Thanks for the information and ideas shared here.


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