This quote is from ex-Rotarian, Bobby A., who was famous for listening to the details of some new and exciting service project, and then rolling his eyes and saying, “just tell me where to write the check.” Bobby always got a laugh when he delivered this line, but now that I think of it, I guess its no surprise that Bobby is now an “ex” Rotarian. The picture above is not of Bobby A. It is Bill Murray as Phil in the movie, Groundhog Day. Further explanation to follow.
Not that there is anything wrong with writing checks, mind you. Last evening I bumped into an old friend of mine who worked with the broker dealer I dealt with back in the day. He is now running his own non-profit and wanted to set up a lunch with me to pitch why Rotary should fund his non-profit. I told him he could buy me lunch but what I was really looking for was a service project for Rotarians where they personally connect with people in need. I didn’t want to engage Rotarians in just another exercise in writing a check. He looked at me in horror. His organization desperately needs the money. It reminded me that non-profits in our communities depend on our generosity and the checks we write have real meaning to the organizations we fund.
I thought, in light of the holiday season, I would share this clip of Scrooge uttering some of the most contemptible but memorable lines ever written about turning down an opportunity to write a check to help others. …. “Tell me spirit – are these the shadows of things that must be, or the shadow of things that MIGHT be?” They can remake this all they want to…the 1951 version is the best. Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge? Priceless.
Still, I am beginning to think that one of the real problems we face in Rotary is that our members do not have a culture of service, even though we claim we do. As important as fund raising can be, writing checks just doesn’t do it. Stuffing backpacks, stocking pantry shelves, and other similar activities don’t really do it either. They are activities that don’t involve writing checks, but they don’t involve being face to face with the people you serve, either. What’s needed are those service projects where you can personally connect with people who need our help. I’m becoming convinced that those encounters are the most fulfilling, the most engaging, and the most likely to help recruit new Rotarians, and the most likely to help retain current Rotarians.
Time out for a clip from one of my all-time favorite movies, Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray relives Groundhog Day over and over and eventually is redeemed by embracing service and becoming a great guy. He also finds love with the beautiful Andie MacDowell, as Rita. Note to Rotarians: Please do not expect to find love with Andie MacDowell by embracing community service.
Interestingly, one of the most popular service projects in our District is the dictionary project. The dictionary project is an effort to give every third grader in a local school system a dictionary where club members go to the schools, distribute the dictionaries at a school assembly, and get to explain a little about Rotary to the kids. Why is the dictionary project so popular? I suspect that it’s not because third graders need a dictionary, even though a surprising number don’t have access to dictionary.com and the dictionary itself is a valuable educational tool. Nope, I suspect the project is so popular because it puts our members directly in touch with a bunch of third graders who are happy to learn about Rotary and whose excitement about receiving our dictionaries is contagious. Anyone who has had the experience of talking with the kids is touched by it. It matters to them. Anyone still talking about selling their fourth fundraiser ticket?
Check writing clubs tend to describe their club service in the context of the club’s fundraising activities. In may cases, clubs with signature events raise the majority of their funds at one event, held in one day or one evening. For some clubs this is an “all hands on deck” event where every club member is involved and the planning takes weeks or months. But for many other clubs, far fewer members are actually engaged in doing the work. And even though big money is raised for charity, the question becomes what do club members do the rest of the year? When a club member says their favorite day of the Rotary year is the day they give out the checks to charities, my antenna goes up and I immediately wonder what other service projects the club is doing? Can planning and executing a fund raiser and giving out the funds ever come close to the feeling you get when someone you’ve helped thanks you for caring about them? I’m beginning to wonder.
What if every club became expert at developing and organizing creative “hands on” projects that get Rotarians face to face with real people? Feed the hungry at a local homeless shelter and then actually take the time to talk to them and learn their stories. Visit sick people at the hospital or at a facility for the elderly. Start a mentoring program in your club. Ask every non-profit you fund if there is an opportunity for your members to volunteer in a way that allows them to develop a relationship with those they are serving. If you are looking for some good ideas, check with your local Interact or Rotaract Club. They typically don’t have any money to start with so they are amazingly creative with their projects. Learn from them…or partner with them.
I suspect that the “culture of service” we develop in our Rotary clubs is one of the most important boxes to check for a successful, happy, energized, growing, and relevant club that means something important to our community. Not that writing the checks isn’t important, because it’s critical for the charities we support. But why not take another look at what kind of service projects your club does? If they don’t involve getting to know the people you serve, even if its just for a little while, then maybe it’s time to gather the wagons and come up with a few new idea.
What are some of your club’s best “hands on” AND “face to face” service projects? Let us know.
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