How has an organization founded by a man under 40 lost its relevancy among young people in the same country in which it began? I adore participating in Rotary, but as I ventured outside of my district I noticed something jarring—in America and around the world, very few millennials are involved in Rotary. People aged 18-35 just don't come. In session after session, training after training, I heard that Rotary is shrinking in the US. Members are dying off and are not being replaced by younger blood, and something needs to change…stat.
In these sessions, I sat back quietly as people rattled off potential solutions to this giant problem: lower dues and attendance requirements, flexible meetings, more socials, membership drives, and the list goes on. But one thing irked me. More often than not, no one thought to ask the millennial in the room.
Though I’ve always been considered an old soul, I’m 27. I'm a millennial, I'm an entrepreneur, and I became a member of Rotary when I was 23 years old. In the early stages of working from home, I struggled to build relationships with like-minded people because my job kept me fairly isolated. After shopping around and seeing other service clubs, I settled on Rotary because it felt like home. Fast-forward four years and now I serve as my club’s President Elect, Secretary and Public Image Chair. Rotary changed my life, so I chose to write this article in an effort to see Rotary not just survive but thrive.
My home club, the Rotary Club of Lynchburg-Morning, VA, has been affectionately referred to as “the club on steroids.” This summer, current President Aaron Van Allen (a fellow millennial) and I laid down an ambitious strategic plan for our club after PETS. We wanted to see people get excited about Rotary again—and since July, our club has been on fire. Packed out service projects, phenomenal attendance, increased giving to The Rotary Foundation, five new members, and it’s only been a few months. To put it simply, life in Lynchburg-Morning is good.
But Lynchburg-Morning wasn't always a picture of vibrancy. When I joined the club in 2014, we had around 45 members. Now we have 65 members, 48% of our membership is 49 or younger. We’ve also grown from just 3 women in 1987 to 15. What's our secret?
Millennials are attracted by the same things that attract retirees, Boomers at their apex, and Gen Xers with children. People, no matter the age want to feel a sense of purpose. They want to know they belong. They want to see they are making a difference.
Some suggest lowering the bar to attract more millennials. Lowering dues might help add more members, but you’ll struggle to retain them if low cost was the primary focus. Plus, by offering lower dues only to millennials, you alienate retired members on fixed incomes and middle-aged members with children. Members of any age may encounter financial hardships that make it difficult to pay dues. As for me? I don’t have a company paying my dues. I choose to pay to be in Rotary because it is valuable to me. It’s not about lowering the cost; it’s about increasing the value.
Instead, our clubs should reflect the communities in which we serve. If you live in a multicultural community, your club should be multi-cultural. If you live in a community with a diverse age range, your club should include members in all stages of life. Younger members may add vibrancy. The 20+ year members may add wisdom, insight and financial backing that the millennials simply can’t deliver yet.
Creating a family atmosphere will help celebrate the differences within your club. Serve alongside each other, then go grab a meal. Talk to each other outside of meetings, and learn more than names and occupations. When Rotary began, Paul Harris simply wanted friends and fellowship. Service was a byproduct of their focus on relationships. Millennials crave connectedness—so build meaningful service and meaningful relationships together.
Celebrate wins in your club. Children who graduate with honors. Job promotions. Wedding anniversaries, you name it! Invite other Rotarians to your home for a World’s Greatest Meal. At the end of the day, build a community of people with a strong belief in putting the needs of others above yourself. People will see that from the outside and beg to be included. You won’t have to twist their arms. When a millennial (or anyone else) feels like a part of a family, you’ve got a Rotarian for life.