· 3 min read · Features

Make A Difference: Rotary

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Rotary International's new CEO, Annemarie Harte, is excited by the explosion of corporate interest in volunteering but admits her organisation needs updating. Peter Crush reports.

Ask HR directors which they think is the world's largest network of volunteers, and Annemarie Harte, UK CEO of Rotary International (RI) - the world's largest network of volunteers - confesses not many are likely to name her organisation. "We haven't done a good job at marketing the 'product' of volunteering," she says candidly, as she begins one of her first major interviews since taking over in May. "We're known at a local level - we were the first on the scene during some of the recent floods - but although, nationally, some may have heard our name they often have no idea of what we do."

Rotary International, formed in Chicago by travelling businessman Paul Harris in 1905, now has 1.2 million members belonging to 32,000 town/district clubs. There are 1,845 clubs dotted around the UK, comprising more than 58,000 members. Many are in full-time employment, juggling local fundraising/voluntary work with a busy career, but the image of the non-religious, non-discriminatory organisation needs a modern makeover. The network, which has steadily been losing members and has stated it needs to grow 10% this year to survive, has recognised this, choosing the young businesswoman Harte (only 33) as its first female CEO and the first non-Rotarian to lead it. Coming from business, (she is a former Chamber of Commerce head), she is keen to engage businesses and their staff to sign up to the Rotary way.

"Things can't stay the same," she says stolidly. "In the past 10 years we've had a slow decline in membership, not because people are leaving, but because they are dying. The average age of members is 60. That doesn't help with the perception people have of us." She adds: "At the same time, we are seeing an explosion of interest in companies wanting to get involved in community activity. We haven't been exploiting this, but getting back to basics is exactly what we're about. We see working with businesses as a real opportunity to enable firms to do the work they and their staff want to get involved in."

Harte says she is acutely aware RI is working in a far more competitive environment. Volunteering is big business now, and she says she is "competing" with the likes of Business in the Community and others. "Companies can sometimes fear the time commitment. For Rotarians it's a meeting a week and then as much as people want after that. Most companies that are serious about CSR work should be allowing this level of time off anyway, so it shouldn't be seen as a clash."

While there is a 10% growth target, and local clubs are being encouraged to meet with local businesses, Harte confides she is also aware that giving clubs 'targets' to meet and recruit 'new business' would not entirely suit the ethos of Rotary. Her preferred route is to go via umbrella organisations - she specifically mentions the Institute of Directors - and by having a more visible presence at trade shows and conferences. "When you talk to business, you can't mess them about. You only have one chance to get it right," she says.

The business case for joining RI

Her business case for companies joining Rotary is, as one would expect, slick. "At a fundamental level, our projects give employees the ability to work with different people, enable them to know what makes them tick to get jobs done, and achieve projects that make them and their businesses feel part of the local community. There is also a high level of mentoring from older members. These are things I know HR admires. A lot of what we do would easily fit into any company's personal training and development, although this time they are doing it for real."

Harte is already shaking up local clubs, promising that those that are not working or are not viable in the long term will be closed or merged. She also wants new clubs to be launched.

One concern is that by adding corporate staff to RI these new members will not be the true Rotarians the network is used to - that they will be transitory, leaving after corporate interest transfers to another cause. "I'm aware of this," admits Harte. "We'd like to see more of a commitment to a Rotary club than just the CSR project a company is doing. We definitely want commitment. I'd like companies to think their CSR goals through. I wouldn't want them to see Rotary as something they can dip in and out of."

So will she manage it? "I think so," she says confidently, "and I think Rotarians can also contribute to businesses." Part of her planned rebrand is to revitalise the Rotary website so businesses can key in their postcode and CSR interests and see which club is nearest to them. Harte is also interested in making much better use of data collected on members and offering it to other Rotarians.

"We already ask people what their profession is when they join," she explains. "I envisage a database of the entire skills-base of all Rotarians, so that any company doing community work that needs, say, a marketer in Aberdeen to help them could search and probably find one, and link with volunteers in other companies. If a company's staff have joined for the right reasons, and their bosses support their volunteering, many should be pleased to help someone else out. This would be a fantastic way of linking employees from lots of different businesses together."