New style clubs for a new Rotary future

Attracting a record 383 new members in 365 days to its 58 Rotary clubs, forming five new Rotary clubs and positively growing 31 existing clubs, District 9640 was a star performer in 2020-21. We spoke with Immediate Past District Governor Andy Rajapakse about how he and his team did it.

Last Rotary year was like no other. The 545 district governors who took office in July 2020 were challenged to lead volunteers during a global pandemic. They innovated new styles of leadership to open opportunities. Some worked, some failed. Only 138 districts in the world recorded membership growth in 2020-21. Zone 8 had five districts with growth.

District 9640 came in top of the ladder for Zone 8 and 49th in the world, with 14.6 per cent growth of net 173 members. In addition, 100 per cent of the district’s clubs gave US$333,000 to The Rotary Foundation, making it the sixth largest contributor in Zone 8.

What did they do differently? IPDG Andy Rajapakse, the architect of this exponential growth says, “It is the result of four years’ teamwork by D9640 governors, brave leadership, smart strategy, one focus, innovative goal setting, a positive attitude and trust”. Andy shares just how they did it and how other districts can grow too.

PICTURED: Meetings at the Gold Coast Corporate Rotary Club work on a rotational basis whereby each of the 14 companies within their corporate building host a monthly cocktail and presentation, meaning there is no meeting cost to members.

Don’t let culture eat strategy for dinner!

By IPDG Andy Rajapakse
Assistant Rotary Coordinator Zone 8
– New-styled club champion

Our district, like many, had a steep decline of members since 2010. The turnaround came in 2016-17, when then Governor Professor Michael Irving asked what was wrong in our clubs and challenged us to find innovative solutions for growth.

We found many clubs’ universes revolved around weekly meetings, not members nor members’ passions. Our club systems were 20th century models. Today, when a passport, a Blue Card or a border pass can be obtained within 24 hours, some clubs were taking four to six weeks to admit a new member. It was too slow for the current lifestyle of speed, choice and flexibility, and a new cause-based, Uber Eats, Smart Phone generation.

Stretching from the Gold Coast through the Scenic Rim to the Granite Belt in Queensland, and from Grafton to Lismore, Tenterfield, east to Byron Bay and Tweed Heads in Northern NSW, our district had experienced a population growth of 25 per cent in the past 10 years, but many of our clubs had declined 25 per cent a year in membership. They neither attracted new members, nor positively engaged existing members.

Having identified our problems, we took a marketing approach to innovate new, flexible, lifestyle club models that would appeal to a new demographic. A new product.

We noticed women and under 40s were under-represented in our clubs. We looked for suburbs where the majority of this demographic lived and/or worked and focused our energy on starting new clubs to attract them.

Our first experiment, in 2018, was the fast-growing Gold Coast suburb of IT savvy residents, Varsity Lakes. As district membership chairman, I met with a young successful lawyer friend, Matteo Salerno, and asked, “Why is it that only your town on the Gold Coast does not have a Rotary club?” He said, “Let’s start one.”

With him as my community champion, together with Facebook marketing and support from community leaders, we attracted 20 residents in six months to start the Rotary Club of Varsity Lakes. It was the first cocktail club in our district and attracted more women and young professionals.

Having seen the success of this experiment, our governors team decided to support new Rotary clubs with a start-up grant of $5000, new satellite clubs with $2500, and waived district dues for partners of Rotarians. This was an investment strategy for the future of our district.

PICTURED: IPDG Andy Rajapakse with members of the Gold Coast Passport Rotary Club and friends supporting the District 9640 Rotary Says No To Domestic Violence campaign.

With these incentives and the confidence of forming a new styled club, we experimented with another new style club to attract under 40s.

In January 2019, as governor nominee, I attended a Gold Coast Junior Chamber networking cocktail event and asked my younger entrepreneur friends how they would like to have a passport to network in 36,000 cities around the world? Candice Olivier, a smart young entrepreneur I met for the first time, said yes, and became my community champion.
With strategic Facebook and Instagram marketing, we attracted 23 under 40s within 120 days to charter the Gold Coast Passport Rotary Club as a monthly wine and cheese networking club.

This flexible and vibrant club meets at a co-working space. Their meeting cost is $10, with Rotary dues of $30 paid monthly. Now, with 31 members – 18 women and 24 under 40 – utilising WhatsApp and Trello as club communication platforms, it is a global benchmark for passport Rotary clubs.

Last year, we chartered five Rotary clubs, two Rotary satellite clubs, three Rotaract clubs, one Interact club and a Rotex club (YEP alumni). Of the 383 new members who joined our clubs, 63 per cent were women and 24 per cent were under 40. Today, 38 per cent (512) of our membership are women, 161 are partners of Rotarians and 10 per cent (135) are under 40. Sixty-eight are under 30 and eight are dual-member Rotaractors.

We also elevated Rotaract from one club to four and Rotaractors by 300 per cent from 26 to 80 to become the largest growing Rotaract district in Zone 8.

“Our strategies worked because we took risks to innovate and supported them with smart public image campaigns and incentives to offer a new product to a new demographic.”

Our new Rotary and Rotaract club models attracted a new demographic that would never have joined our traditional clubs.

In June, with backing from incoming Governor Jeff Egan and the finance committee, our governor team approved my strategy to waive district dues from July 2021 for under 30s to attract more ‘Gen Zers’ to Rotary. Today, 18 of our clubs have under 30s members.

Our strategies worked because we took risks to innovate and supported them with smart public image campaigns and incentives to offer a new product to a new demographic. We set new benchmarks that gave traditional clubs the confidence to experiment.

Together, we moved forward over the past four years to change the mindset of our club leaders to look at club development differently and accept starting new clubs as a primary form of accelerating membership growth. Starting new Rotary clubs became a habit for our district.

The Gold Coast Corporate Rotary Club is our best innovation and one that can be emulated anywhere. As the main catalyst of growth, last May I walked into a corporate building and asked a famous law firm partner friend if he knew all the people in his 17-storey building. He said no, but that he would like to. Together, in 100 days, we chartered a corporate networking Rotary club with 27 members from 14 multinational and national companies.

Each company hosts a monthly cocktail in their boardroom and gives a short presentation of what they do, meaning there is no meeting cost to members.

A key strategy for club growth was my 10 assistant governors motivating 100 per cent of clubs to set membership goals at PETS. This inspired me to lead an amazing team with one goal, one focus and one vision – to create a world champion district of innovative club builders. Don’t let culture eat your new strategies for dinner!

If you would like more information on starting new style clubs, contact Andy via