Parker suits up for change at Kiwanis International: New CEO reaching out to younger generation, trying to reverse years of membership declines

May 14, 2007

To some of the leisure-suited old guard at Kiwanis International, it must have seemed as if a biker gang member had rolled into the executive suite and popped a wheelie.

One of the first things new CEO Rob Parker did was to trash an old lounge where managers reclined for a meeting every month or so. Out went the chairs-managers would now stand around the table during a "daily huddle." And if they didn't want varicose veins, they'd better keep the meeting to 10 minutes, max.

The only excuses for missing the meeting: vacation, being too sick to speak into a phone "or," he says, "if you're dead."

A visitor laughs; Parker doesn't.

The affable Parker is certainly no Albert "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap, the former CEO of Sunbeam Corp. known for tormenting workers. But neither is he the laid-back Kiwanis leader of old.

Why has Parker turned up the heat? Some say it's because he has a nearly impossible hill to climb. The Indianapolis-based service group, focused on helping communities and children, hired him last August as its first CEO, to accomplish its goal of reaching 1 million members by 2015.

The problem is, Kiwanis is barely a quarter of the way toward that goal. Duespaying adult membership today is at 260,000, down 20 percent from its peak of 324,727 in 1992. Statewide, the organization has 220 clubs with 8,600 members; 49 clubs with 2,100 members are in the Indianapolis area.

Membership declines are not unique to Kiwanis, said Kirsten Gronbjerg, an Indiana University professor who has extensively studied not-for-profits.

Gronbjerg noted that there are more opportunities to volunteer in the community than in years past. There are groups like Habitat for Humanity, which don't require membership, and any number of other service opportunities one can pick and choose from like the omelet offerings at IHOP.

The position of CEO at Kiwanis is new. Historically, the organization has been guided by an international president elected annually, conceivably steering the Kiwanis in a new direction every year. What the board wanted was someone to focus long term on building a bigger organization, "someone who was a change agent."

Parker has 20-some years of experience in service organizations. He held an executive management role at Boys and Girls Clubs of America. In 2004, he founded Atlanta-based IMPACT Group, an organizational consulting and executive coaching firm.

He was born in Columbus, Ind., 47 years ago, but lived in Indiana only until age 10. His family moved to Erie, Pa., where he grew up. His "Pittsburgh English" accent is still apparent.

Also distinguishing Parker is that he's probably the first Kiwanis executive who is a biker, sans the motorcycle gang. He once rode his motorcycle from Atlanta to Seattle. And to Alaska.

Also somewhat foreign to the Kiwanis executive suite is Parker's use of the word "product" when he describes the future of Kiwanis. For some in an organization that dedicates 19 million volunteer hours and more than $100 million annually to projects, the word is uncomfortably corporatesounding.

"We're trying to create a culture of greatness, not a culture of business," Parker says. "I will accept the criticism of being greedy ... in the context of being greedy for children."

And so that all 110 headquarters employees, including himself, constantly think of the million-member goal, Parker placed in his office a giant LED clock, which in red numbers counts down the year, day, hours and minutes until 2015. It looks ominously like something from NORAD headquarters.

"For me, I needed to create a sense of urgency."

When approached about the job, "I really wasn't interested, at first," Parker confesses. One thing that won him over was the potential impact Kiwanis could have internationally-it has groups in 97 countries. The headquarters' new auditorium, which faces Interstate 465, comes complete with language translation rooms and can broadcast worldwide via television and the Web.

One of the key ways to grow the membership ranks, Parker explains, is to reach the younger generation. It tends to be more technologically savvy, whether in use of the Internet or through incessant voice and text messaging over wireless phones. Parker has observed this trait in his two children-both in their 20s-who he says are much more socially connected than he ever was.

They'll communicate in short bursts, electronically, then "they will be meeting at Starbucks for 20 minutes to plan."

Look at the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean, he says, noting how the politician's youthful volunteers responded at the drop of a hat. Imagine, he says, if Kiwanis could get thousands of people to show up at a moment's notice for an urgent community project? That's the kind of leverage new technology and its adherents could bring.

Parker's team and consultants even envision a new sub-organization to capture this demographic, one that could go by a new name, such as "Kiwanis Next."

It's even possible that this new organization wouldn't require dues, although that will require Kiwanis to come up with some other way to generate revenue to help sustain the organization. Kiwanis reported 2006 revenue of $20.7 million-$11.3 million from dues, with merchandise sales No. 2 at $2.6 million. Kiwanis dues average $100 a year.

At the same time, Parker said, he doesn't want to alienate longtime Kiwanis members.

One thing that is clear is that Kiwanis needs to start thinking like a fast-growing organization, Parker preaches. The 10-minute huddles are meant to quickly convey the priorities down the chain. After the meeting, those managers then address their own departments. "By 9:30, everybody in the organization is aligned," Parker said.

Whether the organization as a whole is aligned will soon be put to the test. Over the July 4 weekend, in San Antonio, about 10,000 Kiwanis leaders will meet and will be presented about a dozen amendments to bylaws linked to the member growth initiative and a possible new "Kiwanis Next" type of model.

"We need to do in nine years what was not done in 90 years prior, so it's no small task," Parker said. "It requires a total shift in strategy."
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