Editor Dave King quizzed new Rotary GBI President Donna about her journey into Rotary and hopes for the year.
Tell me about your Rotary journey
I had gone to lunch. It was the Talisman pub in Brynmawr on a Tuesday where Rotary met, and a lady came down from the restaurant.
So I said: “What are you doing upstairs with all of those men?”
She went on to explain to me that Rotary wasn’t just men, it was dual gender – and she was a member.
I was a community-minded person and she suggested: “Why don’t you come along next week?” So I did. This was in 1997.
So what attracted you to Rotary?
I was 34. At the same time, I had been invited to join the Lions.
With my background, it would have been natural if I had joined the Lions because I come from a really challenged working class background.
But once I had been invited to join Rotary and I looked at the four-way test, what they stood for, and the ‘service above self’ motto got me, I thought I would go.
I was scared because, to me, they were posh people and I wasn’t. Whereas, in my head, the Lions were working class people.
Rotary wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. They were lovely people, and all of them have gone on to become great friends.
Breakfast interview with the incoming President of Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland, Donna Wallbank.
— Dave King (@Rotaryeditor) May 11, 2019
Do you think that the perception of Rotary still exists?
Yes, I still think those perceptions of Rotary exist because we don’t publicise ourselves and the good that we are doing. We still keep ourselves a secret which makes people suspicious of what we are. They don’t know what we are, so in their head we are not what we are.
So what does Rotary need to do to address this perception?
We have to be more outward-facing. One of Rotary’s big things is that we keep a secret what we have done.
I’m not saying that if we gave Mrs Jones £200 because she was on her heels that we should advertise that.
But I am saying if we have just presented a disabled boy a new trike and the parents are happy with that, then we should celebrate the event.
So people can see we are people of action, we are in the community and we are doing. I think the things we do, which are outward-facing, bring a massive change to the perception of who we are, what we are and how we are welcoming to people from diverse parts of our communities, including the hairdresser.
Who would have really believed that a hairdresser was going to lead the association?
You’re not a typical Rotarian, are you?
I like to think I am, but I suppose you are right, because of my vocation, it is not typical.
It was written on social media “It is incredible a hairdresser is going to be leading our association”.
I have used that in my speeches to say the word ‘incredible’ could be positive or it could be regarded as negative.
I took it as a downer to start with. I thought it was incredible that a Rotarian would even say it, write it, or think it. It did upset me, but I have used that to show that we have to watch what we say, write and do, because the general public, who are our customers and future members, could read that and be put off by it.
Social media can cause a lot of damage.
It can, because the people who want to partner with us are the people who are looking to join us.
If they had seen that post, and seen some of the arguments which are played out on Facebook internally, that is not good for us as an association or as a membership organisation.
We have to be careful what we say, particularly as we are looking to gain members.
We have to be respectful, we have to be kind and, even if we disagree, we should shake hands afterwards and say ‘do you know what, we’re still friends, we’re still working together, it is just we are not going to agree on that’. There is a way to disagree.
What is there now in Rotary which would have attracted a 34-year-old Donna Wallbank into the organisation?
We have to concentrate on networking opportunities, because young professionals, who are new to business, sole traders, or home workers – and there are lots of those – are all looking for ways to network.
Networking, for a period of time, seemed to be lost. If we could show the benefits of being in Rotary, where you can be corporately socially responsible – we all want to do something good to benefit our businesses – but also the benefit of sitting round a table with people who you would not otherwise sit with, this is huge.
So, for example, in my club when I joined, there were experienced sole traders at the table who had gone through the ups and downs of business.
There was a solicitor, there was a bank manager, there was a seamstress – the lady who had asked me to join.
There was so much you could learn from all of those. Ironically, the seamstress was benefiting because everybody had their trousers taken up by her!
As a hair stylist, the males didn’t come to me initially, but their wives did – so Rotary is a fantastic opportunity to grow knowledge, to develop your own personal skills, but actually to also network and sell your own business. I think we have to look at that.
With lone workers and the issue of being isolated as a person working from home, that is a niche market which we should be looking at.
It’s a great opportunity for e-clubs to be established because all over the place people have somewhere to go. I think there is a benefit to using this as a network and membership, growth opportunity.
Isn’t the issue that we are competing with so many business clubs which are out there?
Business clubs are so much more expensive than joining Rotary.
If you are just starting out in business and you have to pay £50 or £60 a month to go to Rotary, you are going to think twice because you could be using that money on publicity or marketing.
It depends on where you are in the country about the cost.
But if you could be in a Rotary group for about £10 a month, which is effectively all I pay to my club to be in Rotary – it is then my choice when I come to the club, or if I eat – if you can do that, then £120 a year to network is a really good investment.
As a hairdressing business, we recently stopped paying to the Chamber of Commerce because we weren’t getting as much out of them as we were from Rotary.
But the Chamber is potentially a good place for a lot of Rotary clubs to join because we could be drawing in members for the networking. However, go back to the start of Rotary, when Paul Harris was that solicitor in Chicago.
He began Rotary to meet people in business, and they all started doing business with each other.
Fellowship is a bit of an old word, but Rotary is about friendships, enjoyment and fun, networking and that hand of help, which is vitally important. We all want to be part of something.
This Sunday 30 June – Donna Wallbank – a hairdresser from Brynmawr – becomes the President of Rotary for the whole of Britain and island of Ireland. We are very proud of this inspirational woman from South Wales.
— RotarySwansea (@rotary_bay) June 27, 2019
Why did you choose to become President of Rotary in Great Britain & Ireland?
I didn’t think I would. Someone once described me as a community gatekeeper.
As a hairdresser, you are part of everything going on in the community.
You know people, and if you don’t know the answer, you know people to go to. So, being part of Rotary and coming forward through the ranks has been an amazing experience.
I became a school governor because I didn’t like some of the things that were being done, so I knocked on the headmaster’s door and I told him so. To me, you don’t stand outside in the school yard and moan.
What is the point? You don’t achieve anything. So you knock on the door, you talk nicely, and you make the changes.
At the time, when I decided to become President of RIBI, I felt there were some changes which needed to happen and some frustrations.
Prior to that, I was national youth chair for three years and I loved that. I was also on Rotary International’s ‘new generations’ team for two years. I am passionate about giving opportunities to young people.
But, I was frustrated because, at the time, we were doing these one-year silos in Rotary.
And I have been really fortunate that we are now working in continuity. It is about personalities, it is about building friendships and disagreeing in private, but coming up with the model which will grow the association.
So are you suggesting one-year silos with the RIBI Presidency, or wider than that?
I think there were one-year silos in Rotary across the board. If you were a chairman of a committee at the time, it seemed to be just about what you wanted to achieve, rather than joined-up Rotary, joined-up thinking and working with everyone else.
That was frustrating. And I do think, with the greatest respect to previous Presidents, there was a ‘my year’ mentality.
But now, in Rotary in Great Britain and Ireland, we are living at a time when we can see the change.
When we jokingly called it a 3-D vision of Denis (Spiller), Debbie (Hodge) and Donna working together, we built a vision and an idea of what we could do as RIBI Presidents, and we bought into it collectively.
And we are doing the same with Tom Griffin (2020-21) and David Ellis (2021-22) who will follow me.
That is amazing that the cogs are all fitting, rather than stopping at June 30th and starting again. We are inter-working.
Is this notion of one-year silos something you want to see broken across all of Rotary, to encourage more joined-up thinking once the baton is passed on?
That would be amazing! To see close working and continuity would be great, so there is a progression of programmes.
It is not the President’s charity or the President’s project, but it is the club’s project and the person who is leading is actually just the figurehead. Because that is effectively what the club President is.
Without the club behind that one person, it is hard to make a project work. But if you are building continuity, then you will succeed.
A prime example is my own club, Brynmawr where our son, Shane, who is 33, was club President. Shane, by the way, asked to join Rotary, I didn’t persuade him.
He wanted to introduce something which the community could see, which they could touch and feel.
Shane wanted to introduce one community defibrillator – he landed up with five by the end of the Rotary year, because he got the club on board.
And the community saw what Rotary was doing because a younger person brought a different vision in.
This has carried on, because this year’s Brynmawr President, Marilyn Gwet, has made sure we are maintaining those defibrillators, that the annual fees are paid, that we are still fund-raising and promoting them.
It is not a one-year silo, and Ruth Sims, who follows in July, is doing exactly the same. That is an example where they have brought in new members to the club because of the defibrillator project.
How do we reduce the average age of Rotary?
If we want younger people, then younger means younger than the average age of your club – it doesn’t necessarily mean recruiting a 30-year-old. Over a ten-year period, our demographic will get better.
If your average age is 68, and you bring in a couple of 65-year-olds, the demographic is going to change because they are going to know some people who are 60, and then slowly you reduce the average age.
When I have said we need to bring in younger Rotarians, people have automatically thought 30 or 40-year-olds. I would love to have thousands of 30 to 40-year-olds join us because they are our future, but we have to be realistic about it.
And if we are bringing people who are a little younger, say 59, they will have childcare responsibilities as grandparents helping with the childcare of grandchildren.
We need models which fit the need, because today’s parenting and today’s business is not what it was 50 years ago.
It isn’t what it was 30 years ago when my husband Steve was at work and there was an expectation that I would look after the children.
What are your goals for the current year?
To leave Rotary stronger than when I found it – and I think I am really lucky because we have been working in continuity with Denis (Spiller) and Debbie (Hodge), RIBI has been strengthened.
I want to make the changes with the governing council which are needed, not change for change’s sake. Because a change for change’s sake is not beneficial.
I want people to look at membership within their own clubs because with an aging profile we are more likely to see problems associated with age – Alzheimer’s, dementia, hearing loss – and the environments we meet in are sometimes not conducive to harmony in a club.
For example, if you are wearing hearing aids, sometimes the room may not be good enough, and the club has not considered, for example, whether the room has a hearing loop.
The problems which are associated with mental health reaches every single one of our clubs because we are all touched in some way by someone living with mental health.
It might even be someone within our club who is a carer. There are different layers and we have to get back to looking at ourselves so that we can look after Rotary.
I am really excited that we are working on mental health. We are at the beginning of something which will become quite big and help our communities with. It is very much like Dementia Friends, having mental health awareness and sessions in our clubs.
That is something I would like to focus on. I have suffered from depression in my past. My first episode of depression was 14-years-old, so I recognised the symptoms, but some people don’t.
We have to be fit for today’s society, we have to be fit and adapt, and recognise the challenges we face.
How are you going to juggle the challenges of being Rotary President?
I am going to carry on working. I might not be able to work as many hours as I would like.
For example, this week I’ve only been able to work two days, but for the clients who want me, if I am only available at 6am and you have a loyal client base, they will come to me at 6am.
Unless we change in clubs, districts and this level, to make what we do more bite-size, we are not going to encourage working people to come forward to take up roles.
And if what we show, and I mean this with the greatest respect, retired people as President all the time, that is not going to encourage a younger demographic to come forward.
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Do you feel you are a flag-bearer as President?
I am not what people would expect. To make the change you have to put your head above the parapet and be the change-maker.
What about being a woman as President?
I don’t wear a ‘Women in Rotary’ pin deliberately because I believe I have this role because people voted for me because they knew I could do the role through my track record to deliver.
They didn’t vote for me, I hope, because I wore high heels and a dress. When I am doing Rotary, I am a Rotarian, not a woman in Rotary.
You don’t have a badge which says ‘I am a man in Rotary’. We shouldn’t push it on gender. We say we want diversity, but then we are pushing separation.
How passionate are you about Rotary?
I am probably more emotional than some men, I am more likely to cry.
It doesn’t make me weaker, it makes me more passionate and emotional. I was crying in governing council the other day about a story which got me about a child who, for a day, had his life enhanced by a Rotary project.
Young carers are close to my heart, because again it is young people. We don’t know what young people are putting up with.
We have a part to play in society and our part should not be following on the coat-tails of others, we should actually be pro-active, be looking and leading, and getting others to follow us.
It’s a bit like Volunteer Expo 2020. We are leading, we are doing, we are developing ideas, concepts and partnerships, and that is the way forward.
— Rotary GB & Ireland (@RotaryGBI) June 17, 2019
How would you describe yourself?
A committed, passionate, enthusiastic soul-searcher.
Rotary in G B & I annual Handover at Cardiff Bay today with Southern Wales District and Brynmawr and Pembrey & Burry Port clubs. Congratulations to Donna Wallbank, Steve and family on your inauguration. Have a fantastic year. @RotaryGBI @Rotary1150 pic.twitter.com/8cdGbqpsbl
— Cardiff Bay Rotary (@RotaryTigerBay) June 30, 2019
But basically, you are a rugby-mad hairdresser?
I love Wales and I love rugby.
We have three children, six grandchildren, a tank of marine fish and a parrot – and my husband Steve.
I have not been able to do, or I will not be able to do what I am about to do, without the support of those family members, and Steve.
And every Rotarian is the same. Because when we are off doing Rotary, we are abrogating a responsibility somewhere, at home and in our family life.
There could be a cost to that, and we have to watch that cost. Which is why I do believe it is about family, how we make our living, and Rotary.
Coming to @thenec from 1st-3rd May 2020.
— Rotary GB & Ireland (@RotaryGBI) June 7, 2019
How are you feeling about being President?
I am looking forward to it. I am terrified, exhilarated, nervous, conscious that it is a major role and with it comes the focus that I am committed to making the time because I am passionate about the organisation.