Rotary clubs dwindle as they vie for people's time New strategies broached to draw members

Westminster attorney Geoffrey S. Black is the kind of person Rotary clubs would love to have as a member.

Heavily involved in the community, he is a former town council member in Manchester and past president of the local Lions Club. The reason he hasn't joined helps explain why many Maryland Rotary clubs are struggling to keep going.


"The number of evenings that you have available is a finite number," said Mr. Black, who juggles his law practice with helping ferry his three children to ballet, gymnastics and Girl Scouts. "There's only so many hours."

Rotary International, a service organization founded in 1905 for professional men -- and latterly, women -- is flourishing nationally, with 458,000 members in the the United States, Canada and Bermuda. That's up from 419,394 in 1988.


But in many Maryland communities, Rotary clubs are having trouble competing with the pressures and distractions that eat up Americans' waking hours.

Longer workdays, two-earner families, lengthy commutes and frequent moves have altered the landscape of volunteerism and dented recruitment for the Rotary.

Lean economic times have also taken a toll. Potential Rotarians are reluctant to take on the expense of joining, which can reach $1,500 a year.

"It's the older people who do it, and once they're gone, it's going to stop," said J. Carroll Slade, 77, a charter member of the Rotary Club of Parkton, which dwindled from 25 members to 10 in five years.

The Baltimore Rotary Club had 350 members in the early 1980s. Now it has about 160.

Membership of the Towson Rotary dropped from 105 to 85 in 11 years, said President Richard Lopez.

The Hampstead club is "doing today with 20 members what we did with 30 members five or six years ago," said President Thomas E. Newkirk.

The Rotary club in the Owings Mills-Reisterstown area is "gone," and its seven remaining members are being urged to join other chapters, said Morris Gevinson, governor of the Rotary district that includes 62 clubs in Central Maryland and the District of Columbia.


The Central Maryland District's membership also has dipped -- but only barely -- falling to 3,009 this year from 3,021 in 1988.

The problems faced by some Rotary clubs threaten a rich tradition of service projects large and small -- from sponsoring the annual Hampstead Day festival to the global effort to stamp out polio by the year 2000.

Time seems to be the key factor.

"People's lives are busier than they used to be," said Helen Utz, president of the Westminster Rotary. "With both parents working, evenings need to be for the children."

Rotarians are expected to attend a meeting every week, so clubs may have more trouble recruiting new blood than organizations that meet monthly or twice a month.

Hampstead Mayor Clint Becker said that the local Rotary "has been after me for years," but he has not joined because "I just can't commit to once-a-week meetings."


If a Rotarian misses a meeting, he or she is expected to make it up by attending a meeting of another club. Makeup meetings are even held on cruise ships. Some chapters fine members as much as $100 for missing a meeting.

Many Rotarians boast perfect attendance. Harold K. Starner, 80, hasn't missed a week since he joined the Hampstead club in 1937.

Two economic recessions have also taken a toll, said Nancy McDade, executive secretary of the Baltimore Rotary.

Some Rotarians have had to leave established companies to create their own businesses, she said, and may be unable to afford the investment of time and money Rotary demands.

Steven R. Silberman, a director of the Hampstead club, says that membership can cost $1,500 a year. That includes dues -- $80 a year in Hampstead -- plus a meal every week. Some clubs ask members to donate to projects.

Middle managers, the "bread and butter" of Rotary, "are scuttling around trying to make sure they'll keep their jobs," Mr. Newkirk said.


Also, Ms. McDade said, some companies that used to pay employees' Rotary expenses no longer will.

Many Rotarians who remain seem devoted to the organization.

Mr. Gevinson said that people belong to Rotary for the satisfaction of helping others and for fellowship in family-oriented activities.

"Rotary is our family," he said. "Rotary is our life."

Mr. Newkirk said, "I can walk into a Rotary Club in Bermuda and be on a first-name basis."

He also said Rotarians develop excellent business contacts. For example, he said, Rotary members in North Carolina helped him put together a real estate purchase there.


Rotary clubs are developing a variety of strategies to cope with shrinking membership.

Jerry Bukovsky, past president of the Dundalk club, said it may merge with another one.

Some clubs now meet for lunch or breakfast to attract young people who are busy in the evenings.

Mr. Newkirk said that the Hampstead club is trying to recruit five new members within a year. Members are supposed to invite potential members to meetings, and the club is actively recruiting women, Mr. Newkirk said.

"The replacement of that core group is real, real slow," said Mr. Newkirk, adding that younger members tend to stay for only a few years.

The Central Maryland District of Rotary International is also conducting a membership drive, with the goal of a 30 percent increase this fiscal year, said Abraham "Babe" Helfand, past district governor and member of the Kingsville Rotary.


He said a club will decline if its meetings are boring, or if members don't work hard enough to recruit and involve new members.

Speakers should be relevant to Rotary's service goals -- not merely a businessman plugging his own firm or product, he said.

Ms. McDade said that the Baltimore chapter was able to stabilize its numbers this year, partly because speakers such as Orioles announcer Rex Barney hold members' interest.

Ms. Utz said that the Westminster Rotary held the line by a concerted effort to bring in younger members.

The Dundalk club, by aggressively pursuing new members, was able to add six to the existing 25, Mr. Bukovsky said.

"If you have a good program and a good membership drive, you'll still be attractive," he said. "It just takes some doing, that's all."