A Meditation on RIPE Rassin’s Vision Statement

With all respect for Mr. Hewko, his leadership experience may not be what we need now from the Secretariat. I would look to someone from the business world of international franchises, with experience in franchisee support. The talents we need to revitalize the dynamic between RI and Clubs have less to do with delivering foreign assistance, more with managing and supporting a herd of cats

“I believe now is the time to understand who and what we are and where we should be going. Rotary International is a formidable and complex organization that is at a crossroads and needs to broadly consult the Rotary world for guidance and rebuild relationships with the clubs.

The current three Presidents will positively adjust our culture and I would like to continue that process. I feel strongly that we must focus on strengthening clubs, including with efficient digital tools, as there is a disconnect between Rotary International and Rotary Clubs.” — Vision Statement, Barry Rassin, RI President-Elect 2018-2019, 1 Sept 2017

This quote is from what I assume is a formal requirement in the process of becoming a RI President-Elect. (The full statement is available at various locations on the web.) I also assume it is supposed to provide a short overview of how this person views the relationship between RI and the Clubs which form it, and RI and the world it supports. A vision statement is usually a concise narrative bringing together the purpose, scope and product of an organization. In the Rotary World, it is rather a declaration of a future president’s aspirations for the upcoming year.

A vision requires some meditation, or a parsing of the thoughts expressed. It is in that spirit that the following is written.

First, let me clarify that I myself view RI as the organization formed to support Rotary Clubs in their formation and purpose and to champion the Rotary Movement. It is not the originator or arbitor of this Movement, nor is it more significant or important than the Clubs it was created to sustain. Given the diversity and number of Rotary Clubs, and their real and ultimate independence of function, RI’s role is to accentuate what is common among them all and attempt to provide some guidance on how the less successful Clubs can emulate the more successful ones.

The admission that there is a misunderstanding on the part of RI of “who we are” is a welcomed one from someone at the top. This declaration of RIPE Rassin can be interpreted in a couple of ways, but I believe that the Rotary Movement, the Clubs and the Rotarians who form them, do understand who they are, so that leaves RI as the subject of his sentence. There are many of us who have become increasingly aware of this disparity, particularly since the implementation of Future Vision. The rise in prominence and focus on The Rotary Foundation by RI, and an accompanying decline in effective support in certain key aspects of the Movement, makes this recognition as welcomed as it is overdue.

Despite 25 or so years of membership decline in important parts of the Rotary world, no effective or cohesive strategy has been developed by RI. Since we are an organization made up of professionals, it should not be a surprise that this would not be tolerated in our own business lives. As we have slowly come to realize, the problem is not recruitment but retention. RI has been focused on attracting new Members for years, a mistake in judgment that would have resulted in heads rolling in any other hundred million-dollar+ corporation. Given that the core purpose of Rotary is membership and the formation of quality Rotarians, this is no slight oversight, but rather a glaring case of mismanagement and misdirection. This is prima facie evidence of a leadership who doesn’t understand their real purpose and function. So a call for introspection and repurposing on the corporate level is long overdue.

We need to further realize that the term RI is made up of two distinct elements. First is our official leadership made up of a small number of rotating volunteers with many years of involvement in the Rotary Movement. Then there is the Secretariat based in Evanston. This second group forms the bureaucracy that has been created to manage the daily affairs of the organization and to support the directions of the Presidents and the Boards. Given the relatively constant turnover of our appointed leaders and their volunteer status, the role of the Secretariat in providing a properly focused support structure for both leadership and Clubs is an absolute necessity.

A large part of the blame for the failure in understanding belongs to the Secretariat. They are paid to do what can’t be easily done by the Rotarian part of leadership, that is the practical support of Clubs based on a fundamental understanding of their function and needs. They should be the experts that leadership can depend upon to keep the operation not only functioning but thriving. In a large multinational corporation, the board room depends upon specialists in sales and Customer service to understand the markets served and keep the revenues flowing. In our case, that should mean effective support of Clubs and an increasing number of Members.

Perhaps the biggest common issue to most if not all Rotary Clubs is fundraising. This is a significantly different concern in rural West Virginia than it is in rural Ghana. It is not an irrational expectation that the Secretariat would be knowledgeable about both and have developed readily available resources that can aid Clubs in both locations who need support. Where do I go to find such assistance on My Rotary? How do I know who to contact in Evanston who can help my Club with this matter?

In Ghana, a larger concern would be how to receive a grant for a project, something that does have a reasonable amount of support online, if one has the patience to navigate the website. Here in WV, it would be how to effectively raise the funds needed to support projects, something that has almost no space anywhere on My Rotary that I have seen. Given the crucial nature of donor-nation Clubs to both sides of this process, it is amazing that close to zero resources are readily available that provide detailed advice on all the various methods Clubs use to raise money. A fast food franchise does a much better job serving its Customers, the franchisees, than RI does its, the Clubs.

RIPE Barry does note the need for “efficient digital tools.” Using my fundraising example, I hope that this would mean a robust web resource for both sides of the fundraising equation that is easily accessed and navigated, that answers the logical questions Clubs would have, and would provide contact information for the resident specialist in the corporate office. Fundraising is a profession which some specialize in, while many others avoid and remain clueless. I would love to see a list of proven fundraisers by type and amount, for urban and rural Clubs, with the details of how to make it happen, sort of a better organized, more accessible Rotary Showcase of ways to make money.

One only has to look at the ubiquitous presence of material on The Rotary Foundation to see an example of something well-supported by leadership and the Secretariat. Fundraising of a certain kind gets a lot of ink—err, digits. An outsider viewing My Rotary would think that TRF is the point of Rotary, with Clubs being organized mostly to support it. I can’t think of a better example of the disconnect noted by RIPE Rassin. (As is obligatory here, I am in no way criticizing support for TRF, only the near exclusivity of effort in doing so.) Time for Evanston to expand their playbook.

Barry’s call for a rebuilding of relationships with Clubs is the single most important appeal from a RI President I have heard in years. Given the nature of Clubs, which almost universally have no paid staff, and are made up of volunteers of diverse interests and talents, and exists in assorted environments, a tuned-in Secretariat is an absolute necessity. Before this can happen, it has to be made absolutely clear by our Rotarian leadership that the Secretariat must have a change of culture, and a new primary duty at the top of the agenda.

With all respect for Mr. Hewko, his leadership experience may not be what we need now from the Secretariat. I would look to someone from the business world of international franchises, with experience in franchisee support. The talents we need to revitalize the dynamic between RI and Clubs have less to do with delivering foreign assistance, more with managing and supporting a herd of cats. We need someone who can understand the full complexity of our business, not just one or two aspects of it, and realign the paid staff to be both proactive and effective in the real support of Clubs worldwide.

I continue to have my expectations raised by Barry Rassin with each new statement from him I find. I wish they was more readily available. He wants to broadly consult with the Rotary world. How about a blog, or an interactive personal website? Write a weekly column for the LinkedIn RI Group. Even start a discussion group on My Rotary (though you will have to publicize it so people will find out). Please don’t just hire consultants to talk to some conveniently picked Rotarians. Talk to US, the Club Level Rotarians! Ask us directly what we want from RI.

I do not expect leadership from the Secretariat. That should come from our leadership team of Rotarians, and RIPE Barry has had an admirable start with his introduction to his theme, Be the Inspiration. The Secretariat should be the resource that truly understands Clubs and their needs and works to provide guidance and resources on how any particular Club can become better. The one-size-fits-all standard must be trashed and replaced with various typical situations from around the world addressed and with the ability to have Clubs connect with the in-house specialist for whatever additional needs they have. Such a structure would revitalize Rotary and lay the groundwork for the next hundred years.

3 thoughts on “A Meditation on RIPE Rassin’s Vision Statement”

  1. A very thoughtful article, Ken. Perhaps you’ll allow me to address just the issue of retention.
    A large but well-functioning organization, which I’ve had the fortune to work within at points in my career, knows the importance of retention. Failure to retain employees is expensive, so expensive that it’s often worth the extra effort to bring a less-than-stellar employee up to par than it is to just fire them.
    What’s the cost of turnover? Studies vary widely. The Society for Human Resource Management suggests that replacing a $100K CEO might cost a business $200K, while replacing the average middle manager would cost about 20% of annual salary. But dollars don’t tell the whole story.
    Yes, there’s a financial aspect: when a Rotarian quits a club: their dues and contributions are lost. But the dollars lost are but the tip of the iceberg and for a Rotary club: the real cost is the invisible bit below the water line.
    There’s the obvious cost in time and effort to bring on new members; advertising, interviewing, screening, “Rotarizing,” mentoring. Then there’s lost productivity until the new member gets up to speed and is ready to fully engage in projects and start assuming some club-goal ownership.
    But let’s not forget the effect on other members. When members see high turnover, they tend to disengage, participating less in projects and fellowship. When someone leaves, others take the time to ask why, and if it’s because of internal club conflict, the club’s culture takes a hit. Also, for many smaller clubs, club morale tanks when there’s the constant nagging to bring in new members and the worry that the club is shrinking to a non-functional level.
    Good businesses benchmark employee retention/turnover rates, use proven retention strategies, not guesswork, and conduct exit interviews.
    Ken’s likening Rotary Clubs as franchisees is right on target. Well-run franchise companies know how to help a struggling franchisee. Does RI recognize that clubs that repeatedly turn off members are damaging the brand?
    Rotary Districts are in an excellent position to track retention/turnover and to rapidly step in to help clubs identified as having a problem. RI ought to be providing districts with the tools to track and the training to step in to remediate.

  2. Two Points.

    (1) Rotary International certainly needs to focus on supporting clubs, not the clubs supporting RI. I have too often seen district governors go thru training and end up making the rounds of clubs during their tenure primarily promoting donations to TRF as their message.

    (2) Rotary International certainly needs to shift emphasis back to local communities of the first world who face the same poverty of income, education, health care, understanding, acceptance and respect as third world countries face.

  3. I lack the elegance of speech of Ken and the two responders. However I would like to add my feeling. I have dedicated 33 years to Rotary and usually felt my back was well covered by a large organization. The past few year I have felt like a puppet detached from a large organization that had me collecting money for them. The newer members do not feel the affinity for Rotary we old timers do. That is a shame and not just the times. We must return the focus to the club to rebuild the strength. Do not get me wrong:. Seventy-five years ago I had a virus with a temperature so high my parents were told I may not live and my walking was seriously effected for almost a year. I am all for defeating Polio. Will that target out of Evanston drive my club in little Walhalla, SC, USA??

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