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Rotarians in Our Twenties and Thirties

By David Sarasohn

It’s not hard to find Kristi Govertsen in the restaurant. She’s wearing a royal blue T-shirt reading RIOTT. It stands for Rotarians in Our Twenties and Thirties, but of course there’s more to it than that. “You should always,” Govertsen explains, “name yourself something that’s both a noun and a verb.”

Just as she puts a new twist on the rules of the English language, Govertsen bursts beyond the usual lines of Rotary – and she did it about 30 times last year, traveling to districts around the western United States and suggesting, among other things, that there’s a way for Rotary to bring in people who don’t look like the guy already sitting across the club lunch table.

In casual conversations with Rotarians, she often jokes about being the Mr. Rogers of Rotary: Instead of asking people if they’d be her neighbor, she asks if they’d like to have lunch next Thursday – not to join Rotary, just to have lunch, and maybe not even talk about joining. After all, she says, before marriage comes dating.

“People are starved for connection,” she says. “They want to get permission to be the nice, wonderful human beings they are inside.” If everyone lets that out, Govertsen says, people – and Rotary clubs – have a chance for all kinds of unexpected connections.

In Portland almost 10 years ago, a family friend invited her to a Rotary lunch, and she got caught up in the organization – especially during an outside planting effort on a wet Saturday. “We don’t vote the same, we don’t worship the same, we don’t believe the same things,” she recalls about the group. “But everybody’s here in the rain, shoveling and smiling. I fell in love.” She joined the Rotary Club of East Portland soon after.

Her secret identity – part Rotarian Wonder Woman, part youthful sidekick – came about by accident. Several years ago, the small group of younger members in her club playfully suggested banding together at the next meeting. A senior member dared them to do it, and pledged to donate $100 to The Rotary Foundation if they did. At the next meeting, they appeared in a group and seized control of the invocation – they read Dr. Seuss, a generational guru comparable to Mr. Rogers – and soon the RIOTT T-shirts were created. Word spread, and there was chatter about them at the 2008 RI Convention in Los Angeles.

These days, she notes with the rueful grin of a borderline 40-year-old, she barely qualifies for RIOTT. (She jokingly envisions membership in another group, RIF RAF, Rotarians in Their Forties and Fifties.) But she still sees generation X and generation Y as fertile soil for service organizations.

“Generation Y is about a globally connected world. There’s never been a time when members of this generation were not connected to people on the other side of the planet.” Still, she notes, they’re not naturally drawn to Rotary; only 11 percent of members worldwide are under 40. To increase the number, she thinks, clubs have to be willing to let younger members chart their own path – like the members of RIOTT.

“If you want young people in your club,” Govertsen says, “you have to do it as a group, have a place for younger people to get together. You might want younger members, but if you never let them be in a leadership position, that’s not good.”

Her presentation is a multimedia blast of figures, photos, and anecdotes, with pie charts showing what a small proportion of Rotarians typically invite guests or work to enlist new members. It features quotes she finds moving and stories that have stayed with her. “A statistic I got from a zone coordinator always produces gasps from the audience,” she says. “It’s that only 15 percent of Rotary members ever propose anyone else for membership.”

“She’s such a dynamic speaker. People appreciate the fact that she can take a topic like membership and make it fun and exciting. It is a revolutionary way to talk about membership that we’ve never had before.” And it has an impact. Membership in District 5030 had been sliding steadily over five years, he says. After Govertsen’s appearance at training workshops, the decline stopped, and numbers even rose slightly – including among members under 40.

Kristi Govertsen is all about empowering people, bringing out what’s inside them – and bringing them into Rotary. She’s passionate about how it can be done – by being nice, by listening to people, by reaching out to them. She brings lessons from Mr. Rogers, and from her own experiences.

She’s an explosion of energy. Enough to be both a noun and a verb.

Note: Originally published in the October 2013 issue of The Rotarian

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