A Millennial’s Experience as a Rotarian

by Brandon Smith, Partner Development Manager at Operation Warm

I had never heard of Rotary International before I started working for Operation Warm in 2016. With all the knowledge in the world at my fingertips, this sad, sad Millennial had not heard of the largest service organization in the world.

For those who do not know, Rotary International has over 1.2 million members in 200 countries, and each of its 33,000 clubs sustains projects in both local and international communities. Rotary’s current banner project is End Polio Now, which Bill Gates just pledged $450 million to help end (Yes, Bill Gates from Microsoft is a Rotarian).

I quickly came to learn how quintessential Rotary clubs are to the foundation and continued operation of Operation Warm. Clubs write grants to support us or to help provide their events with more coats. They create fundraisers of all shapes and sizes with the sole purpose of providing new coats to kids. But in my naiveté, I had yet to grasp what Rotary truly was.

Operation Warm was founded by Rotarian Dick Sanford from the Longwood Rotary Club. He encouraged me to learn more by attending one of the club’s meetings and talking to those who helped the organization get started.

To be honest, I dodged this request for as long as I could, since a meeting at 6:00 a.m. was quite unappealing. Months later, I caved. It was not what I had expected.

That humid, September morning, more than sixty folks (all older than me by at least 15 years) cheerily greeted one another as do old friends. The meeting was structured and filled with traditions like Happy Dollars and bell-ringing; they even said the Pledge of Allegiance, which I had not repeated since middle school.

Yet the whole affair remained casual and lighthearted. The speaker, president and sergeant-at-arms cracked jokes while they talked about projects supporting the community.

I heard about a half dozen projects the club supported and just as many fundraisers. Maybe I was caught off-guard, but the good feeling persisted long after. I was impressed with how much fun these guys were having while serving, and so I continued to learn more about Rotary.

Rotary International is incredibly well-structured. They have a foundation that clubs can write grant applications to for project funding; they have annual change in leadership with mandatory training; they have international projects. This 100-year-old organization is a Top 5 member on Charity Navigator and gives billions of dollars to communities every year. It is somewhat embarrassing that it took me this long to absorb how mature and significant this organization was.

What was just as impressive was how Rotary stayed on top of the tech game. Clubs have websites, Facebook pages, apps, blogs, and online calendars of events. Google even made Rotary International a Virtual Reality video tour that walks viewers through an End Polio Now event. As a Millennial, I certainly underestimated the ability of older generations who want to get stuff done and keep up with younger generations.

Soon, I began to network and present at with other clubs. Each time, I heard about the impact even the smallest of clubs had in their communities. They pick up litter along highways; they pay for the maintenance on a Library’s book-mobile; they provide college scholarships, and they install clean water wells in developing countries. The list goes on and on.

I wanted to be a part of this. I drank the Kool-Aid at this point and joined the Rotary Club of West Chester, PA. Two weeks later, I went to the Rotary International Convention in Atlanta, GA, where 43,000 people from around the world gathered to learn about and share their good deeds in the world.

However, I left Atlanta somewhat unfulfilled. After witnessing the wonders of Rotary, I was disappointed that I was one of the youngest people there, and I’m only 28. Rotaract and Interact clubs are focused on getting youth and young adults involved in community service, but Millennials had a minimal presence. Clubs across the world are struggling to appeal to younger members.

Millennials prefer to support companies that give back. We are civic-minded and volunteer on an increasing scale every year. In spite of this, it was upsetting to witness the struggles that Rotary International’s youth membership faces. Sure, we want to be able to trust who we give our money to, but I fail to see why such a revered organization like Rotary is suffering.

So I do something about it. I regularly share articles on LinkedIn and posts on Facebook about Rotary’s impact both locally and internationally.  Friends who are just clueless about Rotary as I once was message me to ask, “What is Rotary? What do they do?”

“What doesn’t Rotary do?” I reply every time before explaining myself.

Nowadays, I sport my blue-and-gold pin. I rehearse my Rotary elevator pitch. I talk about the many positive activities that my club and all of Rotary is doing in the world. It feels good to be a part of this organization and to give back. I hope that my fellow Millennials will recognize and contribute to Rotary’s good works. Join a club. Drink the Kool-Aid. Volunteer. It’s a blast.

Want to learn more about becoming part of a Rotary club? Email the author Brandon Smith at bsmith@operationwarm.org.

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