Make Rotarians the Prime Focus of Our Service Projects

It is service work such as this that can inspire the hearts of our existing Members, and the new recruit as well. If we are seen by our communities as a team of professionals taking on the hard stuff, we begin to have a story that not only deserves to be told, but will rally others to join. We need to challenge our Members to fully engage their minds and hearts, and not just rack up volunteer hours in warm body projects.

I don’t know how many Rotarians make New Year resolutions on July First to make Rotary better in some fashion. But as we start a new calendar year, I’d like to suggest a resolution for now. Although all Rotarians should make it, I ask leaders in Clubs and beyond to particularly take this to heart:

I resolve to work to make Rotarians the focus of our service projects.

Before cries of blasphemy start, give me a minute or two to explain. Of course, recipients are a most important focus, and for many of us, that is why we do our good works in Rotary. Nothing I am suggesting diminishes this outward motivation. But, particularly in leadership, realize that while many have some service in their hearts, it is a muscle that has to be exercised to become truly strong. The process of becoming a real Rotarian, someone who lives with Service in their heart in every aspect of their life, takes time, effort and a little luck. The lucky part is that magical moment when something flips that switch and a regular Member goes AHA! with understanding and truly embraces what the Rotary Movement is all about.

Yes, we are about doing good in the world. And to maximize that good, we just don’t design more sustainable projects in communities. We design Rotary to make the Rotarian heart more sustainable. If this is not the first goal of what we do, we will ultimately fail as an organization. It is our hearts as Rotarians that make every other benefit flow.

A few of us have written that too many of our projects require a warm body level of engagement. And while activities like ringing Salvation Army bells, distributing dictionaries, or handing out water at sports events have a positive impact on Members, they do not really involve a higher level of service. But that superior engagement is where we need to go more frequently if people will ultimately encounter their AHA! or Rotary Moment, which is the most important Rotary thing that can happen in a Rotarian’s life.

Rotary Moments were a meme awhile back, and you still see them on Rotary Voices and other places. Did you ever hear one that involved a warm body project? They all involve a person doing something remarkable that unexpectedly touched them, and they realized that it was because of Rotary Membership that their lives were so enhanced and transformed. And they want more of it!

Spend a few minutes scrolling Rotary Showcase with the filters United States, 17-18 year, community. I got 549 projects, the vast majority of which involved organization, fundraising and warm body volunteering. I am not in any way trying to diminish the value of all these good works. But how many of these projects couldn’t be done by any other service Club? Even done by Rotaract and Interact Clubs? While some are based in Rotary themes, like PolioPlus or Peace or planting trees, the highest skill level engaged is non-professional organizational talent. And while many of the community needs addressed are important, it is difficult to find a project that really takes on a societal issue that we are facing in today’s American culture, like single-parent households, homelessness, the moral decline, poor work ethic, failed education system, etc.

With this in mind, RotaryUS leadership should think about how to devise projects that will feed the souls of their Members, not just do something to do something. I know this isn’t easy, but I believe the lack of meaningful service engagement for Rotarians is a significant part of the inability of the Anglo world to retain new recruits. Clean water and better sanitation in Africa are so much easier than finding ways to fight drug addiction and the myriad effects of it on our communities. Projects like that, or other real issues in their communities, should be what RotaryUS begins to focus on.

Engage Club Members to do a community assessment of what is needed in their community. Then talk about what you find and come to a consensus of a problem the Club wants to explore. As a group, brainstorm what is possible for your Club to do. Then roll up your sleeves and start doing it! Sure, not every Member will engage with every project, but I think you’ll find that you will start to build your Club’s number of real Rotarians. And that will lead to more accomplishments in the future.

And ditto for Districts, Zones and RotaryUS as a whole. District leadership should do an assessment of their District, and find those issues common to most Clubs, then work to create projects that can service these needs. Zone leaders need to think more deeply about what makes for a lifetime Rotarian in the US, and what kind of work meets their personal needs for meaningful involvement and accomplishment.

To you leaders above Club level, realize that this is hard for individual Clubs to do all by themselves. These projects require more insight and direction. They need assistance, not only in the steps of a community assessment which are available, but how to address what they find. Districts and Zones should have a Director of Rotarian Involvement, whose responsibility is to look at the real problems we all face in America and come up with ways various Rotary Clubs can tackle them.

We also need to hear about what other RotaryUS Clubs are doing with their best projects that are thoughtfully engaging Rotarians in their local communities. Districts and Zones need to do a better job of delivering this sort of information to all RotaryUS Clubs and Members. Bigger Districts, and the Zones, need to create committees that are devoted to finding and designing these kinds of projects, and providing these recipes for Clubs to follow, and then get all this in front of the rest of us to act upon. A RotaryUS website would be awesome, as would regular newsletters!

Raising funds for PolioPlus is extremely important, arguably one of the most critical challenges facing the Rotary World today. We simply can’t fail at total eradication, not only because of the result on the world’s children, but also because such a failure would end Rotary. But for most Americans, eradicating polio is an abstraction, as opposed to something that for African and Indian Rotarians is evident every day in their communities. And while intellectual constructs can be a strong motivator, American culture has become more prone to immediate, local, and tactile gratification. RotaryUS needs to find ways to have direct, meaningful experiences in our own communities. We need to find consequential projects that solve real problems while engaging a Rotarian’s mind and soul.

Among RotaryUS, we have people who can think in these ways, and we need the Zones and Districts to begin to organize them into work groups that can start the discussion of what we should and can do as Rotarians here to make a real difference in our communities. In my community in Huntington, West Virginia, drugs have become an incredible scourge across all community lines. But no one in my Club is positioned to begin to find a way for us to do something. Other Clubs in other similarly affected communities should have a means to communicate and join forces in coming up with things we can do as individual or linked Clubs. We need such avenues to be created and communicated. It is truly difficult to come up with workable solutions at Club level. We need help to do so.

It is service work such as this that can inspire the hearts of our existing Members, and the new recruit as well. If we are seen by our communities as a team of professionals taking on the hard stuff, we begin to have a story that not only deserves to be told, but will rally others to join. We need to challenge our Members to fully engage their minds and hearts, and not just rack up volunteer hours in warm body projects. This is the type of service that is at the core of the Rotary Movement: we accomplish the near impossible because we have strong hearts of service that rise above our selves.

[Hat Tip to Dennis Thompson whose comment to my previous post inspired this piece. Thanks again, Dennis!]

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