Lions hunting young blood

The Young Turk Matt Nicholson. Photo: Tracy Hardy.

He’s the Young Turk, the hired gun – and he’s been called in to reverse a trend that’s bedeviled service organisations worldwide. That’s staying young and relevant.

“The difficulty is the rules and structures that have made the Lions so successful for 100 years have stayed the same,” says Matt Nicholson. “But the world keeps changing and Lions need to grow up and get with it basically.”

The numbers speak. And ominously. The average age of a Lion in 2017 is 67 – 10 years ago it was just 37. Ten years ago there was a big pride of 16,000 Lions in New Zealand, today it’s dwindled to about 10,000. “That’s over a long time but it’s a trend and you can’t ignore trends,” warns Matt.

But let’s get it in some perspective. “The BNZ bank is the country’s largest bank. It has 500 employees and we are double that.”

So the Tauranga born and schooled entrepreneur, CEO and social media guru has been pulled in to stop the rot, to make Lions roar again – “getting more people and younger people interested in being part of us. Re-invigorating club activities.”

And to make New Zealand’s biggest - the world’s biggest - service organisation pertinent for people born after the baby boom era, he will target young people with ideas, suggestions and examples of modern community service under the Lions banner.

At 27 years old, Matt is 40 years younger than the average Lion. Isn’t he perceived as the young upstart, the interloper? “No, I don’t get rejection but I get a lot of ‘just explain it because I don’t get it’.” And, after all, he says, the will to change and grow must be there otherwise he wouldn’t have been taken on in the first place.

He says it’s not even so much the regimented structures of Lions that is making the club any less appealing, it’s the people. He says they’re selfish with their time, less community-spirited.

“That’s the way the world has changed. People are time poor, they work a lot more; they don’t have as many extra-curricular activities. They probably do fitness and hang with their friends, go out for dinner and then home to sleep.” In other words they don’t have discretionary time for groups like Lions and their good work.

“Once upon a time, to be social, you would join a Lions club, drag five of your mates along and make new friends, life-long friends. These days you connect around the world on Skype, or you can jump on Facebook - everyone talks on line, you don’t have to leave home.”

But that’s not getting the Lions’ job done and that’s the greater cause.

And that job , as it has been for 100 years, is feeding families that struggle to put food on the table, providing life-saving vaccines for children, saving the precious gift of sight, rebuilding communities devastated by disaster and bringing help to the vulnerable and the struggling. Service is the reason Lions exist.

And it has set a goal of serving 200 million people by the year 2021, tripling its current humanitarian impact.

“We just need to change a few things we are doing and Lions are relatively supportive of that,” says Matt.

At one point 32 per cent of Lions each year over five years were leaving the club. “It’s down to 10 per cent,” says Matt. The leak is down to a trickle and now they need to plug it.

“It’s about changing a mindset – for example people would ask me why someone would join Lions and I would reply why wouldn’t they? And we have made it more interesting. People don’t want to be structured, they want flexibility and they want to be involved in projects they are interested in.    

“They may not want to go out on revitalisation of parks, they may hate the environment, which is fine because everyone, including Lions, is different. Not everyone is going to love what you do.”

So the change manager is trying to make clubs more interesting for more people and younger people, based on what they’re interested in and getting them involved. And he is also going to sound the bugle for Lions.

“We make a massive contribution but it’s the world’s best kept secret. We have 150 projects on the go at any one time and we don’t talk about it. That doesn’t help us.”

The young, driven entrepreneur has discovered the “uplifting factor” about Lions is the focus is not on money, the focus is on driving a result to help people. “You still have to find money, you still have to spend money, you still market like a business but it’s more fulfilling because it’s helping people.”

And the more people at Lions, the more people they can help. “That’s our bottom line.”

“And what would happen if we weren’t around, it we didn’t have a Lions club. A lot of stuff that’s taken for granted wouldn’t happen. Stuff people didn’t know about or think about because we didn’t promote it.

“If we promote, more people will appreciate, more people will join and it becomes our legacy.”

The Young Turk is on the case. He has stepped aside as CEO of his own company for the next 12 months to get this project rolling. And as any Lion will tell you, it’s not about what has been done, it’s about what will be done next.

If you are interested in making a difference email Matt