Birstall Luddites Rotary is one the latest club in the Rotary International District 1040 to try out one of Rotary’s several flexible membership related approaches - Friends of Rotary.
“There are a lot of people who are willing to do their bit for charity or the local community as a one-off event but don't want to become a member of an organisation to be able to facilitate this,” says Steve Gooder, Birstall Luddites’ president in the 2022-23 year and the lead-organiser of Friends of Birstall Luddites.
Friends of Rotary offers people a way to be involved in Rotary, but offers a more light-touch, low-key approach. When a member of Birstall Luddites Rotary was unable to carry-on with full membership, the club thought that offering an option to stay involved as a Friend would be beneficial for everyone–an offer which was gladly accepted. In 2023, they officially launched the Friends of Birstall Luddites Rotary.
In neighbouring North Yorkshire, Friends of York Rotary was set up in 2018. Brian Joscelyne, leader of York Rotary’s external relations team and lead-organiser of Friends of York Rotary, was at the forefront of the initiative.
For Friends, the appeal is the ability to volunteer flexibly alongside a Rotary club. They can participate in as much or as little Rotary activities (projects, social events, fundraisers, etc.) that they want without needing to feel like they have to fully commit. For both York and Birstall Luddites, having a Friends group is a valuable resource in which the clubs can call on for support. With so many activities going on in any one club, it’s helpful to have a network of people to support regularly, or on an ad-hoc basis, in events and activities. Friends also offers an opportunity for people to meet and network with folks from different backgrounds. It’s also a way for people to learn more about Rotary’s work in communities and is an avenue to joining the club.
Students from Fairfield School visit the beach for the first time. Birstall Luddites Rotary funded the trip to Bridlington, with a few members there to support and enjoy the day. This is one of many examples of events that Friends could be involved in. Photo credit: Birstall Luddites Rotary Facebook page
Friends of Rotary presents an opportunity for flexible volunteering
Friends of Rotary clubs not only exist in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. A quick online search shows their presence around the UK and the world.
According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), the umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in England, volunteering has declined since 2019. The pandemic played a role in this, but surveys show that with so many demands in daily life, many people are hesitant to commit fully to volunteer groups or take on additional memberships.
In addition to the financial impact of volunteering, other common barriers to volunteering identified were thinking it involved more time than they could commit; opportunities not being flexible enough; and opportunities not matching skills, interest, or experience. However, the survey also shows that people are still interested in volunteering with the top motivation focused on wanting to improve things or help people.
In a time when volunteering in the UK is declining, the NCVO report shows that experiences of flexible volunteering are largely positive with 82% of those who volunteer reporting their organisation is flexible with the time given.
Rotary clubs are embracing this move to flexible membership and volunteering, making changes within clubs so people can participate in different ways that suit their lifestyles. Creating a Friends of Rotary group is an extension of this shift, offering a way for people in the community to be involved in the work that Rotary does locally and beyond.
In the current cost-of-living crisis, having a Friends group allows people to “become officially recognised as a Friend of the club and become a member without all that is required of a fully paid-up member,” says Steve. “Especially not having the financial commitment that full membership brings.
Members of York Rotary and Friends groups help out with baggage handling at a local running event. Members collect bags, store them and return them to runners–a great opportunity to spend time together and raise money. Donations from organisers go to York Rotary’s charity to be used on local causes. Photo credit: York Rotary website
Finding the right kind of friend
When researching who would make a good Friend of Rotary, the clubs looked at people with existing links to their clubs through past participation in projects, social events, fundraisers, speakers, as well as friends and family.
The clubs sent out letters and emails to people on their lists explaining the motivations for having a Friends of Rotary group and benefits it brought to them as individuals or as representatives of organisations.
“We said that holding this type of membership would not require any commitments at all except that we would expect some involvement at least one event per year as there would be no point in joining otherwise,” says Steve about prospective Birstall Luddites Friends. They were also told that they would be welcome to attend any events.
In March 2023, Birstall Luddites invited prospective Friends to a Rotary meeting to experience the club first hand. Amongst the guests were two Rotary Peace scholars from the Philippines and Ukraine that gave engaging talks about their work and lives.
“I explained the purpose of the club's invitation to them to become Friends of Rotary and what benefits they could derive at no cost and with no ongoing commitment on their part,” says Steve. By the end of the evening, 15 new Friends of Rotary joined the club.
In May 2018, York Rotary held an informational meeting for potential Friends. The meeting was designed to gauge interest and gather ideas about what people might want out of Friends of York Rotary. By the end of the evening over 50 people of the 100 on the original list signed up as members of Friends of York Rotary. At its peak, there were 71 members.
Having Friends can be a challenge
Brian and the external relations team quickly launched a quarterly Friends of York Rotary newsletter, organised events that members expressed interest in, particularly around networking amongst charities and professional workshops. In July 2018, just a few months after the launch of the group, there were 12 volunteers helping with the York Dragon Boat Challenge, the club’s flagship fundraising event.
Having been active from 2018-2020, the pandemic brought the initiative to a temporary halt, and it’s been slow to restart. However, there were some signs of waning interest already starting to show before the pandemic.
“We may have had 70 members, but it was clear that only a third were actually interested,” says Brian.
Brian believes that the decline in participation and interest is partially due to having over half of Friends joining as representatives of the charities they work for. As a charity representative, Friends is an added event related to their work–a further strain on their time. As they move on from their roles, they don’t necessarily see themselves as still a member and some lose contact.
In addition to this, maintaining a group of volunteers can be a difficult task, especially when the organiser is also a volunteer. Keeping members informed often means creating additional communication tailored to Friends groups. Newsletters, emails and social media accounts (for example, Facebook groups) are some ways in which clubs keep in touch with Friends of the club.
Looking to the future
This year, York Rotary will be reviewing their Friends initiative. Though the pandemic affected membership and volunteering across the charity sector, York Rotary believes that this review is necessary to assess what is best for the club and for Friends.
For members of Birstall Luddites, the group is already experiencing benefits with a few new Friends joining a Rotary meeting as well as a social event on a barge in Skipton. They also launched their newest newsletter with their programme of events and fundraisers.
“Longer term we hope to recruit even more Friends and would like to think that this could lead to one or two new full members,” says Steve. “Let's wait and see.”
Find out more about York Rotary and Birstall Luddites Rotary
Anyone interested in learning more about or joining Friends of York Rotary can go to this page and fill out the form. For information about or to join Friends of Birstall Luddites, contact Steve Gooder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca A Mendoza is a freelance writer and member of York Rotary. You can learn more about her work at www.rebeccaamendoza.com