The subject of this blog is Rotary and diversity – or to put it another way – is Rotary just for old, white guys?  Rotary is present to varying degrees in most countries throughout the world, making it diverse in terms of nationalities represented.   Let’s look closer to home though.  Are Rotary Clubs in the United States diverse in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity?  Some are and some are not.   Having a diverse membership, and an environment that appreciates and respects differences, helps Rotary Clubs be relevant in and connected to their communities.  In the United States, Rotary Clubs whose membership looks like the country at large are going to do well while those that do not have a real problem.

The first meeting of a Rotary Club was held in Chicago on February 23, 1905.  The participants were Paul P. Harris, Gustavus Loehr, Hiram Shorey and Silvester Schiele.  These four friends ranged from 34-42 years of age.  Given where the country was at that point, and how far the country had to go in embracing diversity, there were neither women nor non-white members in that first meeting or many thereafter.

Rotary without women? It’s hard for me to imagine. The first President of our club was a woman, the next was a Bangladeshi male, then another woman, then myself (I blew the streak), and the next two presidents are going to be women.  If not for women, my club would neither exist nor would it have accomplished as much as it has so far.  Our female members are leaders and go-getters.  Until 1989, the Constitution and Bylaws of Rotary International stated that membership was for men only.  That was a self-inflicted wound.  Much has changed since then and the number of female Rotarians has grown.  Rotary is better for it.

Rotary without blacks and Latinos?  Sure there are very strong Rotary Clubs all throughout Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean but here in the United States we are not yet where we need to be.  Despite being in Washington DC, my club has more Americans born in Africa than African-Americans.  We and most other clubs need to improve our outreach – partnering with traditionally black universities, reaching out to and working with a range of community groups, having social events and fundraisers in a broader range of establishments and so on.   

Rotary without younger people?  Also hard for me to imagine.  Of course, Rotary has Interact Clubs (ages 12-18) and Rotaract Clubs (ages 18-30) but they typically don’t have as much visibility as Rotary Clubs.  At present, only 11% of Rotarians are under age 40 – this despite surveys such as the Millennial Impact Research Report indicating 74% of millennials had volunteered at least once in the previous year and 84% had made at least one charitable contribution. Rotary is getting serious about increasing membership among younger individuals, but many clubs are struggling to figure out how.  I attribute that to some Rotary Clubs not having many younger people and thus being unsure what they want while others have a sense but are unwilling to put in place any changes that would create a more welcoming environment.

A colleague and fellow Rotarian has been working very hard to help Rotary Districts in the United States become more attractive to younger people.   She notes that resistance to change can be an unintentional barrier to entry.   Some Rotary Clubs (including one I used to belong to) open with the pledge of allegiance.  This can be uncomfortable for members of the club who are not American.  Other Rotary Clubs start with a prayer – which may be uncomfortable for people who practice other faiths or who practice none.  Some old-fashioned Rotary Clubs sing a song before their meeting – and we’re not talking Top 40, we’re talking folks songs like “This Land is Your Land”.  That can alienate younger people.  At a minimum, it is hard on the ears.

My colleague also noted that some clubs had, over the years, developed an “executives only” attitude, drawing heavily from leaders in the private sector – as opposed to civil society, the government, etc.  The private sector has its own issues with diversity but this way of thinking may have contributed to Rotary being late to the game. Newer clubs are not encumbered with historic or cultural baggage.  Her recommendation to new clubs is to reflect their communities simply by being welcoming to everyone – invites go a long way.  For clubs with an older membership, she advised grooming young people, women, and minorities for leadership positions.  Developing leadership skills is an important reason why people join and stay involved with Rotary.  Cultivating young leaders is not something that is just nice to do – it is essential for long-term growth.

There are other barriers. Some Rotary Clubs have quarterly dues that are very high which complicates membership for college students, graduate students, people establishing themselves in their careers, recent parents, and/or individuals living in very expensive cities – of which Washington DC is rapidly becoming one.  By keeping our dues quite low by rotary standards ($115/quarter) we have been able to attract a younger demographic.  It just means that we have snacks instead of a lavish buffet and that when we want to support a domestic or international project, we need to hold fundraisers.  This is not an issue as fundraisers can be entertaining and raise both awareness and visibility.

I am also concerned about symbolic barriers.  Rotary International Presidents tend to be older men of varying complexions.  While the Presidents thus far have had strong character and impressive accomplishments, we are waiting for leaders who are female and/or younger.  As with any organization, that change will come when members demand it. 

I’m proud of Rotary International, proud of my club, and proud of what we’ve done and are doing, and excited about what we can become in the future.   We should not be afraid to change. The more diverse Rotary becomes, the better positioned it will be to promote peace and progress both in own communities and around the world. 

So what can your Rotary Club do to encourage diversity?

1) Keep it affordable:  Dues should be as low as possible.  Don’t pay for food from the membership dues.  Let members buy their own drinks and meals.  If your venue is very expensive, you may want to consider alternative locations.

2) Make it accessible:  Mornings and lunch meetings may be the only time that many people with families are able to meet.  However, morning meetings are going to be a deal breaker for many younger people as it entails getting up early, rushing to the meeting, and rushing to work afterwards.  Plus, it is much more difficult to convince someone to visit your club at 7:00 AM then it is to invite them for a drink after work.   

3) Be Inclusive: This is a difficult one for many older Rotarians in the United States to swallow – but drop the pledge of allegiance.  There are better ways to show patriotism.  Don’t have a prayer – instead have someone offer an “inspiration” which is more inclusive.

4) Show flexibility: Some clubs are strict about members attending a set percentage of meetings.  Many younger people I talk to are turned away by this idea – they are busy, travel, and/or study.  Think about a person’s engagement instead. Is the member benefitting from Rotary and Rotary from the member?  That’s what’s important.

5) Cultivate Young Leaders:  Give younger members a chance to get involved in projects very early.  Encourage them to become leaders.  Let them manage fundraisers, service events, and hold leadership positions.  They are the future of your club. 

If you are a young person interested in Rotary, I hope you can find a club that meets your needs.  If not, consider starting your own!  If you are interested in doing so, please feel free to contact me for more information.