PROPOSAL 17 – a Lucky Number for INNER WHEEL?

Speech held at the Nordic Rally in Sundsvall, Sweden

Friday the 13th of September 2013

by Sissel Høihjelle Michelsen

Past Council Chairman/National Representative Inner Wheel Norway

Good afternoon members of the Nordic Rally Committee, IIW President Gabriella, Inner Wheel and Rotary friends and distinguished guests,

First of all, thank you so much for the unexpected invitation to speak to you at this Nordic Rally in Sundsvall! Joy and challenge combined! I have met many of you before at rallies and conventions, the sheer joy of sisterhood in Inner Wheel.

Secondly, I want to quote myself from what I said at the opening of the Tampere Rally three years ago. Quote: « Last year at this time about twenty IW-friends and leaders from Istanbul to the Nordic countries were thrown together here in Tampere discussing challenges for our organisation in Europe. We had returned from the Convention in Kota Kinabalu quite distressed by the fact that so many of our fellow members did not meet the challenges that the proposals had invited us to do. What could we do about this paralysing feeling tempting us to give up any good intention of modernising our organisation? We discussed, agreed and came up with a report which was afterwards sent to HQ and the participating countries». End of quote.

And then to the present, four years after the Kota Kinabalu Convention and one year after the historic Istanbul Convention, where the Tulip Revolution took place, instead of the old War of the Roses, Proposal 17 was carried with a majority hardly heard of in the history of Inner Wheel. We stood up, applauded and went home with real hopes for the future!

I have therefore called my talk: PROPOSAL 17 – a Lucky Number for INNER WHEEL? With a question mark! And then yet another question: IS IT ENOUGH WITH A VICTORY ON PAPER ONLY?

In my speech I’ll take you through the past, the present and the future of recruiting in Inner Wheel – in a hopefully good mix.

Some of my listeners today may not be fully informed about what Proposal 17 contained, so I’ll explain very briefly the proposal and its background. Before this latest Convention our members were mainly recruited from Rotary and Inner Wheel and each club could invite 4 Honorary members from outside. Most clubs used this possibility of getting good new members for all it was worth and most of them have added something positive to our clubs through their involvement. In fact some clubs stretched the Honorary member group a bit long. Honorary members were not even recognised as full members. I’ll come back to this later.

At conventions the most radical proposals are voted over first, if carried, the others less radical, will fall. Number 17 was such a proposal concerning ACTIVE MEMBERSHIP, deleting five paragraphs, ending up with three, opening up IW to other women than those recruited from Rotary and Inner Wheel.

The proposal’s wording was, quote: Active membership may be retained or taken up by the following, provided that they are over 18 years:

Women related to Rotarians/former Rotarians

Women related to Inner Wheel members/former Inner Wheel members

Women who have been invited to join – provided that a majority of the Club members agree

End of quote.

We were quite a few speaking in favour of the proposal. The most heartwarming ones came from India and Germany. Both countries are not in need of this new addition to our constitution as they are recruiting members from Rotary all the time. I’ll tell you so much that their new attitude may be  due to intense teamwork done over the years, also called, tongue in cheek, adult learning, through conventions and our European meetings. In India the clubs had merely been told how to vote earlier. This we realised at the Convention in Kota Kinabalu.

If we are to draw the lucky number then, in addition to luck, we need enthusiasm and solidarity as well as a true feeling of what times we are living in – while performing a continuous recruitment!

There is something I want to stress in this connection, and that is how we behave in open discussions at Conventions and other meetings. There was a certain mood in the congress hall when debating No. 17, and we knew it was now or never for the opening up our organisation. Perhaps that was why so many members didn’t appreciate the Italian member’s opposite opinion and started booing. And the booing was catching, unfortunately. I was seated next to her during the debate, and I was scared when the booing started and her whole body responded trembling. It is a human right to speak one’s mind, also in IW. And if we are to to attract new members, they must feel their opinion is valued and that we have a real focus on friendship, not only on paper!

Let us therefore be aware of this gift given to us.

Until April last year we had experiensed this: When Inner Wheel started in 1924, it was out of a wish to show that women could do things for themselves and others and at the same time support their husbands in Rotary. Nearly one hundred years later we sort of went backwards. We asked Rotary for permission to stay alive: Have you got any spare women, please, to send our way? This we could ask Rotarians we knew, but what about the old Inner Wheel clubs that no longer had this connection because their Rotary husbands were dead? Some of the clubs that have disbanded in Norway in recent years have suffered from this «out of sight, out of mind-syndrom».

Some clubs had been seriously occupied with recruiting new members also outside Rotary. What else could they do when the Rotary source was drying out? I do not blame the dear Rotarians being present here in Sundsvall. I know they care, I merely blame quite a few Rotary clubs back home for pretending we don’t exist.

We didn’t want to be a well-hidden secret. We wanted to open up for new ideas, but with the ties to Rotary still intact. Rotary could ask anyone to become a member, why was this right denied us? The new members without Rotary or IW connection have become great assets to their clubs. I have repeatedly asked myself and others over the last four years:

«Who has given Rotary the monopoly of being married to all the lovely and able women we need in IW»? The factor of unfairness was high as women usually have a good many friends and acquaintances, if one or two of these shared our ideals, we could have asked them to join us years ago. And if they happened to have husbands who were interested in joining Rotary, this would have been a win-win situation. And do you know what? Now we can!

Before the Istanbul Convention, how did we approach these women without IW and Rotary connection for membership?  If we were to follow our constitution it would have sounded more or less like this: Hello Mary! My IW-club would very much like you to join us. As you probably know, we meet once a month. But I am sorry, we cannot offer you full membership at once, first we have to see if you fit in, and it will approximately take you two years to understand what it is all about! If your husband had been a Rotarian, it would have been another matter. This is not how we see it in our club, of course, but according to our constitution which has taken more time and effort than neccessary tayloring it to the needs of women of today.

We don’t invite people with a BUT, but with a YES! We only want first rate women in our organisation, not first rate women treated as if they were next to nothing. An honourary member was like a guest invited to dinner, but who had to leave before the dessert was served. To me having the full benefits of membership is the dessert of Inner Wheel life: to be able to join committees on various levels, share good days and bad days, meet other dedicated IW-members abroad and at home, to recognise and hug IW-members you have met before at Conventions, rallies and other meetings. That is one of the benefits our new constitution has provided us with.

If we are to attract new members based on our three categories, we have to be both enthusiastic as well as knowledgeable about our own organisation. I have heard fellow members describe us as if we are a part of Rotary. Then there is something vital missing in the internal communication. Rotary is our true father, and we are both grateful and happy for that, but you know how it can be with daughters in opposition to their fathers, especially if they want to carve out a future for themselves? We are more like a sister organisation to Rotary now, working on equal terms.

And then there are members who have left IW because of the outcome of P 17. Would they have left for other reasons, too? Was this their welcoming excuse for leaving? Are they a sincere loss for IW? How many members can you risk losing, before the whole club is disbanded?

A club can decide if it wants to live or die. The motivation for the proposal states this clearly: Quote: If clubs do not want new members without a Rotary or Inner Wheel connection, that will be their choice. End of quote.

If our identity is only connected with the man we are married to, we may be in trouble. And what about the unmarried women having worked for their own identity all their lives? There are many of them out there who would be superb members of IW.

Hopefully, most members are happy for this new recruitment possibility, whereas others have cherished the exclusiveness of Inner Wheel. This exclusiveness has in turn excluded us from the other open women organisations and left us unknown. All known voluntary organisations, either for males or females, are struggling these days. So what about us, the best kept secret of all, at least in the Nordic countries?

I don’t put the blame on Rotary’s inclusion of women for our reduction in membership, as many of our members do, but merely on our own previously restricted membership laws. We had started to diminish, at least in Norway, before Rotary accepted women members. Our decline may partly be due to the release of women from the kitchen sink as well as our realisation of the education that most of us had got before our marriages, more entertainment right into our homes through TV and videos, more grandmothering, more holiday homes in Spain, only staying at home when the IW-year was closed. And yet another thing, some women are not interested in organisation work at all. They feel inferior to other women, not realising that so many IW members have had an upwakening when attending the club committee and gained a belief in themselves never imagined before. There our friendship object has been the important factor for personal success. As a whole, we haven’t been willing as well as not allowed, to look beyond Rotary for members. Evidently, too many individual Rotarians have taken it for granted that their wives have not been interested, put invitations in their pockets and forgotten about them. When we are inviting possible members through Rotary now, we don’t have to say a word about being a Rotarian’s wife, but we are happy if she can come to a meeting and experience things for herself, because she is the one she is!  I remember when I was asked to join for the first time in 1986, I couldn’t possibly join something because of my husband’s membership in something else. In the end I gave up saying «no», came to a meeting, liked it and forgot why I had joined. A bad memory is sometimes useful!

I have just returned from Italy, Rallye Charlemagne and a visit to my IW-friend Anna in Brescia. Wonderful days of friendship, a result of being an IW-member. You may even happen to meet people you like! And as you are meeting nice people, you may also happen to be informed about Inner Wheel life in that country as I was in Brescia. The last evening during dinner I was told by one of the Brescian presidents that her club had declined from over 70 to under 50 members in three years time. At their next club meeting they were going to discuss using the outcome of P17. She expected severe opposition. What does this tell us?

One thing is certain: Some clubs in Italy are where we were more than 20 years ago in Norway. Italy’s oldest club turns 40 this IW year, so they are a young IW country compared to Norway’s oldest club of 78 years and unfortunately planning to disband. As long as I have been a member, our officers have urged us to recruit new members before it is too late. What have our clubs done? Some has worked hard, some has done hardly anything, some has done nothing and some has grown because they have been active and visible in their catchment areas and thus have become attractive to new members.

Another thing is also certain: We didn’t have this historical chance when our decline started. I therefore hope that also Italy and other countries experiencing the same, will use the results of P17 well.

A third thing is even more important: Not focusing on decline, but that we want just you as a new member, because you would be a positive asset to our club.

So what do we do to lift the victory from our little blue book into the real IW life?

Do we sit and wait until someone knocks at our door and says: Please, let me in?

One thing is also certain here, there will be no traffic jams outside our meeting rooms until we do something ourselves. Everything stands and falls with you and me. Every club member is responsible for the club’s inner life. We have to focus on what is actually best in our own clubs, and then we have to ask ourselves if we are in need modernisation, too – most possible a yes-answer here.

I do hope that we won’t hear this sentence: I’ll leave the club if……… We are too old for that, this is more frequently used among the girls I used to teach!

What would you focus on for new members to make recruitment a winner?

That we can be her network – for a newly arrived woman in our neighbourhood?

That we only meet once a month – for the one who is active with most things?

That we have many good speakers – for the one who is widely informed and interested in society?

That we focus on friendship – for one who has lost her partner or her best frriend?

That we are an international organisation – for the one who thinks we ought to share our riches?

That we work for international understanding – for the one who thinks that is a needed focus in our world?

That we work for a better life for most women – for the one who thinks solidarity and empathy are important values in life? That we are really – We, for women!

That we focus on children – for the one who is occupied with children’s rights?

Of course the list can be longer, only limited by the lack of imagination!

Today I’ve been talking about a lucky number, as I see it, on a day that is concidered the most unlucky of all, Friday the 13th. On a day like today we need optimism instead of pessimism. We have to use enthusiasm as a method for bringing new life to Inner Wheel!

Unused ideas will always make us wonder what had happened if we had used them.

It’s about time we open up our lottery tickets to see if No. 17 is written on them. Then we have a winner! Dear Inner Wheel friends, let’s go out and activate our victory!

Thank you and good luck!

Postscript: I haven’t used examples from other countries to be negative, but to show that we are facing the same problems and challenges sooner or later, and that we can learn from them.