Marketing Rotary

Pale, Male and Stale?

Sometimes, lessons come when you least expect them.

A noted business speaker came here last year and did a great job talking about things that a community needs to do in order to attract young people to work, play and stay in their community.

This morning, I went through my mail pile from the last 4-5 days and noted that the speaker was quoted as saying something along the lines of “Look at your company. Is it ‘pale, male and stale?’ When a Gen X or (etc) applicant walks in, do they see anyone else their age?” The article went on to talk about employment and strategies to make your business more interesting to the new, young prospective employee.

That reminded me of how I spent my weekend.

As I noted a few days ago, I traveled to Seattle (Tacoma, actually) to a training seminar for those who are president-elect (“PE’s” as we are called) of a service club I belong to, the Rotary Club. PEs take over the reins on July 1 and serve for one year. Imagine BEFORE taking on a volunteer position and a fixed end date. A tad unusual. And yes, I know I’ll hear “PE” jokes from somewhere.

I’m guessing 99% of my readers couldn’t tell me what the Rotary Club does, much less what they are best known for, other than being a place to find a high concentration of ‘pale, male and stale’. My impression was roughly the same, even though my dad was a Jaycee eons ago. Anyhow, I had the same concerns about the um, joy, of hanging out with a bunch of guys 30-40 years older than me, but I was willing to check it out because of a few Rotarian friends in other towns.

Turns out that there are 1.2MM members in 32000+ Clubs in over 200 countries all over the globe, including such faraway places as Nairobi. Not too pale, at least not as a whole. I met many members and heard about several clubs, including one from what some might consider a sleepy little town of 900 in Montana whose membership was 50-65% women. Note that until 1985, women couldn’t even join Rotary. I have no doubt that there’s still a battle going on there in some communities. Our club is about 40% women.

Rotary International is the organization that took on the mission in 1985 to eradicate polio from the planet. RI and its members have raised and donated $600 million with ZERO overhead coming from that – dedicated to vaccinating children all over the globe. More on that process (and progress) toward battling polio.

Rotary is also “big” on both a local and global scale, working on projects involving literacy, providing safe water and making life changing improvements to families and communities all over the globe. As you would hope, they also perform projects in their community and elsewhere, in fact, the byline on their site is “A global network of community volunteers”. I’m guessing that like myself, you’ve not heard of most, or any, of this. A short Jay-Leno-style interview series of people on the street in Seattle revealed no one who really knew what the org does.

There lies marketing lesson #1. TELL YOUR STORY.

No one else will (or almost no one), and one possible alternative is that it might get told by someone who you don’t want being the primary source of information about your organization (such as the ACLU telling Scouting’s story, or talk radio telling Gore’s, for a couple obvious examples).

Lesson #2 – Sell benefits, not features.

If I told you that the average age of a Club member is 55, would you expect a 27 or 33 yr old to be interested in joining, assuming they knew nothing else? Not likely.

On the other hand, if I told you that one of the guys I know has been on Rotary trips (on his dime) to Africa 8 times, plus multiple trips to Russia, South and Central America and India, is putting an Indian girl through college here in the States, does the same for several kids in Kenya, helps put wells and well pumps in all over Africa and South America, and spends time inoculating kids in each of those countries, would you expect to find someone in the Peace Corps or a 60ish Rotary guy? Yes, it’s the latter, and he’s pretty typical of most of them who have been there for a while. I met several women who told equally compelling stories.

For example, a woman from Seattle told me that she took her 17 year old daughter to Ethiopia on a polio inoculation trip last summer. Like it did for my oldest son during last year’s school trip to Morocco, what she saw opened her eyes to what she now views as one of her responsibilities in life: helping people who are so far down the food chain that they’ve never experienced hot running water from a faucet, much less cold running water. Or what we in the US and Canada would consider marginally clean water perhaps fit for our pets.

Let’s get back to pale, male and stale…cuz there are some observations to make.

First of all, it’s cool to watch an 80+ year old guy who can barely make it up the steps to the stage turn into a hilarious, energy-filled guy when a microphone and 900 people are in front of him. I had never heard of this guy, but after 20-30 minutes of his speech, I wondered what rock I’d been under. Former Rotary International President Cliff Dochterman has the energy of a 30 year old, as long as steps aren’t involved. When I caught him alone (not an easy trick) and talk to him about fighting polio, he spoke with passion of a new college graduate. He’s the guy who got all the polio work started in Rotary. The only reason why polio isnt already gone is because of a religious conflict in Nigeria (a religious authority wouldnt allow the vaccinations). That fear resulted in a new epidemic that reinfected SIXTEEN African nations. Despite that, over 100 developing countries are free of polio because he thought big, wouldn’t quit, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Do you think big?

I keep running into people who can seemingly do ANYTHING. Former Rotary International President Rick King appears to be one of those people. Successful attorney and about 100 other things, he’s easily in the top 10 speakers I’ve ever seen (not an easy chore) and he’s got a singing voice worthy of Vegas. I was fortunate enough to share lunch with Rick and 5-6 other people this past weekend and was pleased to get to know a down to earth guy who still helps the Scouts when needed, and is as passionate as Cliff D. In his case, the passion is about providing clean water in countries where moms have to leave their kids at home and walk all day to and from a remote water source for their family – the only source nearby. That’s how they get their household water. Rick’s story about the little brass cup at the center of his trophy case is one you have to hear on your own. I wont spoil it and you shouldn’t miss it. You can tell that this little cup is his most prized possession. When’s the last time you saw a lawyer tear up when he talked about someone else’s kid 7000 miles away?

When I say the word “ukulele”, I can just guess the images that pop into your head – and one of them is almost surely some lame old Elvis movie.

When I saw the last program on the last day included a ukulele band, I thought the same thing you’re probably thinking. OH MY WHAT A BORE.

Instead, I was treated to a group of 20 or so 12-to-20 year old young men and women playing ukuleles and singing along (but mostly playing). They were led by a balding guy about my age who must have had the Energizer Bunny in his pocket, cuz he was rarely ever still. One of the guys, a 17 yr old, had an electric ukulele that had a strat head on it. No matter who your favorite guitarist is, you would have enjoyed this guy ripping up that electric uke like he was Eddie VanHalen – whether he was playing Glenn Miller, the Beach Boys, Brahms, Trepak (the blazingly fast Russian dance song from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”) or just improvising. These guys spend weeks in Hawaii playing for tourists every year, and tour year round. This is not your father’s high school band. The cool thing about it for me was that my grandmother and grandfather played in a Hawaiian ukulele and steel guitar band back in the 30-50’s. I never heard them play, so this was the first live uke I’d ever heard. Cool stuff. Like Rick, kids can accomplish almost anything.

While the PEs were being trained how to do their job, much of the conversation at the “muckity muck level” was about lagging membership. Like the Boy Scouts, who face the same problem, I think they’re selling the wrong things at the “corporate” level.

The BSA needs to be selling fire, adventure and knives, not “Timeless Values” (the previous marketing motto). Timeless values may work on the parents and the donors, but without kids 6 to 20, they dont matter. Look around a board meeting or a leaders meeting and there’s a lot of gray hair (yeah, a little bit of it is mine). 12-18 year olds need young adults 25 to 40 to lead them. Kids may join because dad and/or grandpa was an Eagle Scout, but they stay because they’re having fun with their friends.

Likewise, the Rotary needs to sell the excitement and reward that their service programs offer. The people I talked to were fiercely passionate about eliminating polio, providing safe drinking water, teaching people to read, and helping their local communities pull off projects that no one else could, or would, tackle. These are things that you could easily get young adults charged up about.

Things you cant get them charged up about: The perception of sitting in a boring meeting listening to some old dude (yeah, even me) going on and on about this and that. You only get one chance. The high school girl who went to Ethiopia with her mom said that “young people want to do this stuff with people their own age”. Well, of course. When asked what Rotary could do to make itself more attractive to young people, she told her mother, “shorter meetings and less droning on and on”.

Who wouldn’t vote yes on that? In fact, I’ll bet the Scouts would agree as well. With that, Ive droned on long enough:)

11 replies on “Pale, Male and Stale?”

Outstanding…there is hope for us in the future with PE’s like this! Having been around Rotary since 1954, it encourages me greatly to have young Rotarians have some toys, tools and whistles to connect with others! Hope to meet you all in SLC. Regards, PDG, Steve Laine

Mark Thabks for your great thoughts We are in District #5340 I hope that all get to read this atricle I will serve as Zone Chair of Public Relations in2007 -08 You are right on!
Marty Peters

As a Past District Governor from District 5320 your article hits the nail on the head. Clubs need to sell what they and Rotary does, sell the sizzle. The rest will take care of itself. Once an individual does a hands on project and helps another, then they become a Rotarian.

Great article Mark–

Of course I agree with your comments. I believe that younger members are always needed for the future of Rotary, but the members that you described are the members that make Rotary what it is. The 45 and up Rotarian typically has the time, the money, the business experience, and the connections that make Rotary GO!

I’ll be in Salt Lake City for the 2007 RI Convention from June 15th to June 19th–Including attending the Zones 23 & 24 Reception on Saturday evening (5 to7 pm). I’m assuming that your club is in Zone 23, so you just might already plan to attend the event–Its really fun–great Rotary friends get together.

If you attend, ask for me , lots of people there know me

Rod Eide, PDG—2001/2002—District 5320

Loved your article. I am listing it in our bulletin as a tease with just “Rotary–Pale, Male and Stale? and the web address.
I hope each member of our Rotary club will read it.

[…] Mark Riffey Pale, Male and Stale […]

Hi Mark,

Thanks so much for directing me to this post. Very interesting and eye opening. I have to admit that I have my stereotypes about Rotary Club. You’ve helped open my eyes a bit. (They should hire you!)

I agree with you that Rotary should sell the benefits of membership and share the stories of what they do in the world. I think it would also be interesting for many more people to learn that they are a more diverse organization, at least in terms of gender. This might in fact help them to attract more members.

Thanks again for reaching out to me!


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