Interview: Annemarie Harte, Chief executive, Rotary International

Annemarie Harte Chief executive, Rotary International, wants to attract more women and younger members to the organisation.

Annemarie Harte, Chief executive, Rotary International
Annemarie Harte, Chief executive, Rotary International

Annemarie Harte, the new chief executive of Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland, was as surprised as anyone that she got the job.

The organisation has traditionally been dominated by older men, so choosing her as leader marked a significant change of direction.

Harte admits that, before applying for the position, she was as guilty as anyone of perceiving Rotary as a club for older men that was secretive and not inclusive. "I never thought I'd get the job," she says.

But despite her initial doubts, Harte now finds herself heading an organisation that boasts 1,845 clubs and 58,000 members.

Rotary, which encourages professionals to volunteer, does not have statistics on the make-up of its membership, but Harte estimates that only 5 per cent of members are women.

Attracting women to Rotary will be one of Harte's main objectives. "There are not as many as we'd like," she says. The organisation will also be trying to attract people in their 30s. It already offers Interact clubs for 14 to 18-year-olds and Rotaract social clubs for 18 to 30-year-olds.

Harte, who hails from Ireland, has previously worked in media sales and commercial development. But it was her role as chief executive of a local chamber of commerce in Dublin that gave her experience of being in regular contact with volunteers.

Harte says the plan to attract women and young people is still in its infancy but will involve a major revamp of the organisation's marketing arrangements. "We have to centralise the marketing," she says. "We will use different media, revamp the website and have an internet advert - we want to emphasise that Rotary is about fun and friendship."

Harte also wants to make other, smaller alterations to the organisation. "I will implement an environmental policy to tackle the paper mountains we create - we have no recycling bins," she says. "We will limit printing on paper and recycle paper."

Harte will also seek to make Rotary Clubs more flexible by instigating breakfast meetings to replace the organisation's traditional lunchtime gatherings.

Boosting the membership will be a key priority. Rotary has lost less than 1 per cent of its members over the past 10 years, but Harte admits that there has been a slow, long- term decline in membership. She says Rotary's fundraising capacity remains undiminished and cites the $100m (£54.5m) donation made by Bill Gates to the organisation's End Polio Now campaign last year as an example.

Harte says new recruits could get involved on either a local or a national scale. "It could be running the local Christmas fete or it could be involvement in End Polio Now," she says.

She says Rotary might be able to plug the gaps in young people's lives that can give rise to antisocial behaviour. "There are social problems - there is a vacuum for young people," she says.

However, Harte is well aware that the task of transforming Rotary into a more welcoming organisation for young people and women will not be easy. "Who likes change?" she asks. "It's not something that comes naturally."

She recently conducted a tour of local Rotary clubs, taking in cities including Belfast, Birmingham and Oxford, to tell members about the benefits of change. She says the response has been good: "If you come and see them and explain why, most people are accepting."

2005: Commercial development executive, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Chamber
of Commerce, Dublin; later appointed chief executive
1999: Various sales roles, Associated Newspapers
1997: Telesales executive, then new media executive, Telegraph Group.

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