What Comes after COVID

We certainly had no idea in early 2020 that the coronavirus, which first struck China, would have a worldwide impact. As country after country literally shut down, Rotary clubs around the world reacted by transitioning to online meetings, regular meetings with social distancing, outdoor meetings, and in some cases, calling a halt to in-person meetings and wondering about the future. Now, as countries around the world recover from this incredible health crisis, leaders of Rotary and other service clubs are beginning to transition to a new way of doing things and wondering what lies ahead. We believe, based on anecdotal and applied research, that clubs throughout the world have the opportunity to rebound and renew the time-tested basics of service organizations for a brighter future.

Flashback to February 1905 when Rotary’s Founder, Paul Harris, invited three friends to a meeting in downtown Chicago. They discussed Harris’s idea that business leaders should meet periodically to enjoy camaraderie and to enlarge their circle of acquaintances — both personally and professionally. This idea was in response to Harris’s longing for fellowship that was reminiscent of the small town where he was raised — a place where others new your name and friendly conversation ensued.

Rotary has become so much more than making acquaintances — it’s about being part of something bigger than yourself. When people gather from all walks of life, each and every individual has something valuable to contribute. The common thread that brings us together is the opportunity to give back to our community and to lend a helping hand to joint initiatives on a grand scale.

Humans need and want connection with one another. We’re social beings who benefit from relationships. Charles Vogl, in his book The Art of Community, points out “We know that social relationships have profound positive effects on our physical and mental health, longevity, and happiness. Loneliness kills and the quality of our relationships matter.”(1) When we asked Rotarians what they missed during the pandemic, the number one response was that they missed catching up with people they met through Rotary. Put another way, they missed the social relationships with others in their clubs. As a member of a club, you have a sense of belonging, and as one respondent to our survey pointed out, “The sense of belonging is easier felt in person.” This suggests that Rotary and other civic and social clubs have the opportunity to refresh and renew their meetings to give people opportunities to interact in person.

Rotary clubs around the world, including our own Rotary 14 in Lincoln, Nebraska, switched from in-person meetings to online meetings in March 2020 and many have managed to keep their members connected. Now that in-person meetings are becoming possible again, we asked Rotarians what they looked forward to. They told us they were looking forward to reconnecting with people they don’t see very often. In other words, they’ve made friends with others in the club and they miss the personal connection. And, nearly two-thirds of them said they looked forward to meeting new people as they join the club. Many told us they missed the visiting time — such as a conversation over breakfast or lunch, the programs, and even the singing when they met in person.

The benefits of in-person contacts — friendships, if you will — isn’t unique to Rotary and other similar organizations. In a study by Harvard University, looking at the health of student in 1938 and following them throughout life, one of the key findings was that people with good relationships are happier.(2) Furthermore, the study found that those with meaningful relationships had less stress and sharper memories. Robert Waldinger, director of the study and a professor at Harvard Medical School, pointed out that “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives.”

While it’s clear that people need and want in-person connections and meetings, what we’ve discovered is that for those clubs which switched to online meetings there are some aspects members want to continue. When we asked Rotarians about things their club did during the pandemic that should continue, nearly 80% mentioned the benefit of having guest speakers from outside their geographic area who addressed their clubs virtually, suggesting that this is something that should be continued. Nearly 70% mentioned the benefit of having international guests participate in virtual meetings. International guests afford Rotarians the opportunity for a rare glimpse into another culture — whether that’s sharing how their country is responding to the pandemic, immersing us in cultural traditions, or simply informing us of a service project they’re working on — we can all learn so much by interacting with each other. Some Rotarians have expressed interest in continuing a virtual aspect for club meetings so people who were ill, those who didn’t have the time to travel to an in-person meeting, and people who might desire a connection to a geographic area even though they live in another city could attend.

In our limited survey of Rotary clubs in our area,(3) what we found most interesting were the suggestions of how they felt Rotary should change as a result of the pandemic. Our survey didn’t offer any suggestions, just requested written comments. Nearly every respondent positively mentioned the value of integrating international Rotarians in the online meetings which were conducted during 2020, and they went on to suggest that this practice continue. Similar findings in the worlds of business and education are beginning to surface. So much of what we’ve historically done in person has moved online for health reasons and people are finding it to be a great way to connect outside of their geographic areas. Our club, Rotary 14 in Lincoln, Nebraska, had guests from around the world at more than half of our online meetings. This suggests that taking advantage of the broadband connections available to most people will be a great way for Rotary clubs around the world to foster connections and joint projects. Trip Snyder, a member of Rotary 14 put it this way, “I think we should continue to have a Zoom/hybrid meeting once in-person meetings can resume. Bringing in international guests is pretty amazing.”

Another point suggested by a significant number of those responding was to continue offering an online component for meetings once we’re back together in person. Christie Weston of Rotary 14 noted, “Even when we can meet in person, we should have an effective virtual component that allows us to engage non-local speakers and allow members who cannot come in person to join in.” Most clubs feature speakers who are nearby, so it’s easy for them to attend in-person meetings to offer a program. However, now that we are more comfortable with online connections — as witnessed by some of our club’s oldest members regularly attending online meetings — it’s easy to reach out even on a periodic basis to invite regional, national, and international speakers to offer a program making use of online systems.

True to Rotary’s moto “Service Above Self,” we had comments related to those opportunities as well. Some responded they were anxious to get back together in person so they could participate in service activities such as serving in soup kitchens, distributing dictionaries to elementary school children, or hosting picnics for international students at nearby colleges and universities. Eric Drumheller, Rotary 14’s President during much of the COVID quarantine noted, “I think our club members will be even more appreciative of one another. I also believe the pandemic has increased our awareness of how we can make a positive impact within our community and around the world.” And perhaps because many of us had more time to reflect during the quarantine, one respondent suggested, “Rotary needs to be cognizant of its members and their struggles. We often search outside our organization but there are times when we need to search inside.”

A clear example of how virtual meetings have afforded clubs the opportunity to host guests from afar is when Rotary International’s incoming president (2022–2023), Jennifer Jones, spoke to Nebraska’s Rotary Club of Omaha-Downtown in October 2020. During her presentation, she shared how clubs tend to see net membership growth after challenges that inhibit in-person gatherings — despite an initial dip coming out of the pandemic. This statistic was based off trends seen following the Spanish Flu pandemic in the early 1900s and other regional or more localized pandemics.

In light of COVID, Rotary Founder Paul Harris’s longing for human connection and camaraderie is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. Being a Rotarian is truly a life-enriching experience. Opportunities for club members and guests are evolving, and the future of club interactions is only beginning to take shape. It’s an exciting time to be a Rotarian and we look forward to what lies ahead.

Article and research by Jess Rustad and Randy Bretz, members of Rotary 14 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Works Cited

1. Vogl, Charles. The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging. Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2016.

2. Mineo, Liz. The Harvard Gazette. Harvard University Public Affairs and Communications, 11 April 2017.

3. Bretz, Randy, and Rustad, Jess. December 2020 Rotary District 5650 Survey (Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa, United States, and We Rotary online club).

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