From the November 2015 issue of The Rotarian
When Anna Harry relocated to Evergreen, Colo., she knew no one. But her father, George Harry, a member of the Rotary Club of Cary-Page, N.C., had a plan. While he was in town to help her move, he took her along to a make-up meeting at the Rotary Club of Evergreen. Three weeks later, she was a member.
But after her father had gone back home to North Carolina, Harry was nervous about attending a meeting on her own. Would people talk to her? Would she be able to make friends and get involved? What she didn’t know was that the Evergreen club has had an almost fanatical commitment to new member engagement for more than 18 years. It was ready for her.
“I felt a little lost,” she remembers of that meeting in November 2013, shortly after her 31st birthday. “But they swooped in and made me feel like an asset to the club right away.” She had already been assigned a mentor, who introduced her to members and sat with her at meetings. Other people in the 105-member club talked to her about upcoming opportunities – Salvation Army bell ringing, holiday parties, and more. “Immediately, I had dinner plans at the club’s weekend ‘dine around.’ The socializing – bringing me in and feeding me – was the most wonderful thing.”
Kimra Perkins, a past president of the Evergreen club, has been an enthusiastic supporter of “intentional friendship building,” as these Rotarians call it. “We’ve seen over and over that members who work and play together become friends and stay in the club. The first year in Rotary will color the whole experience,” she explains. “We try to match the mentor with the new member’s interests so we can engage them in a project quickly. And now people in our club consider it an honor to be invited to become a mentor.”
The mentors guide each new member through the club’s Red Badge program, a checklist many clubs employ to help new members learn about Rotary and tackle experiences outside their comfort zone. The list includes volunteering for a project, serving on a committee, and attending a dine-around – a weekend gathering, usually held in a member’s home, intended to provide some warm conviviality during the cold Colorado winter.
This year, Harry is chair of the club services committee, which oversees the Red Badge program. She is committed to engaging members newer than herself, as well as old-timers. “I think everyone should have a Red Badge refresher,” she says. “It brings out the commitment in people.”
A key to successful mentoring programs seems to be having a “spark plug” – a club member who champions mentorship and encourages new members to get involved. For the Rotary Club of Carrollton-Dawn Breakers, Ga., that person was founding member John T. Lewis, previously of the Rotary Club of Carrollton. He started informally mentoring new members once the Carrollton-Dawn Breakers club was chartered in 1996. But the mentoring is not only for new Rotarians.
“We strive for continuing education because you never know what will spark the interest of a member,” says Alicia Michael, 2014-15 governor of District 6900 and a member of the Carrollton-Dawn Breakers club. New members, she says, benefit from participating with their mentors in Fajitas and Margaritas, where information about Rotary is passed along in a casual setting. The club also has started paying the fees of any member who wants to attend district activities. That, Michael says, “gets them even more involved in Rotary.”
At the Rotary Club of Barrington, Ill., the spark plug was 2014-15 president Larry Barnett, who put a mentorship program on his action list. “Larry helped us understand that it is not enough to attract new members,” says Frank McGovern, who was in charge of the program in its first year. “You must make them lifetime Rotarians.” The Barrington club does this by encouraging mentors to find creative and personalized ways to stay in touch with new members and get them involved. The mentor can be the person who sponsored the new member, or an active member who is a strong role model.
The club, under Barnett, also started recruiting community leaders to be honorary members; one of them has already become a mentor to a new member. The idea is to get both honorary and new members to commit to attending meetings regularly. So far, McGovern says, it is working.
Mentoring roles also can bolster current Rotarians’ dedication to Rotary. That’s what Nick Spates, of the Rotary Club of Buckhead (Atlanta), Ga., discovered when he decided to reinvigorate a Rotaract club at Oglethorpe University that had been “limping along.” The mentorship program, which aims to provide professional development opportunities for the Rotaractors and engage current Rotarians, launched at the beginning of this year. Since then, the Rotaract club has doubled in size, and its immediate past president has become a member of the Buckhead Rotary club. Mentors were carefully matched with Rotaractors according to their interests and career goals, Spates says, and some of the Rotarians were asked to give skill-building workshops in areas such as interviewing, social media strategies, and networking. The program also set up networking appointments between Rotary members and students, which resulted in three internships and a job offer in the spring semester.
Spates sees a great future for the clubs. “This is a way for Rotaractors to bond and connect with Rotary and develop a commitment to giving back,” he notes. Buckhead Rotarians are benefiting from the mentoring too: “The more that Rotarians get active in the community, the more solid the esprit de corps.”
Whatever form mentorship takes, to ensure the long-term success of Rotary, it is vital in every club, says Rudy Westervelt, governor of District 5330 in Southern California. His goal is for all clubs in his district to have a mentorship program by the end of this Rotary year – and to achieve a 90 percent retention rate districtwide.
That means Westervelt expects every club in his district to have a mentorship and training chair; to that end, his membership team has held mentorship training sessions for interested Rotarians across the district. He hopes to encourage members to make meetings welcoming and celebratory and to treat one another like family. Westervelt also wants each new member to take a role in a club project – a leadership role, if possible.
“We’ve had a revolving door for members for some time, around the world,” he says. “But to be effective in our communities, we need to have good, solid people interested in service – who stay with our clubs.”
How does your club get new members involved? Share your stories by writing to email@example.com, or in the Membership Best Practices discussion group at Rotary.org.
Nancy Shepherdson is a Chicago-based freelancer and a member of the Rotary Club of Barrington.