July 19, 2007 in Voices

Memberships in many clubs declining, getting older

By The Spokesman-Review

Valley Rotary president Brad Krueger and member Carrie Stevey lead the club in the Pledge of Allegiance at a meeting at Mirabeau Park Hotel Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

The charter night photo of the 1922 Spokane Central Lions Club is the kind of artifact that makes a person stop and stare.

It has that Great Gatsby look about it. Hundreds of Dapper Dans in business suits, most with spouses by their sides, pack the Davenport Hotel.

They’re about to launch their first fund drive to support the suppression of narcotics. A drive for the Spokane Children’s Home will follow, and one for the Girl Scouts of America after that, followed by help for blind and sight-impaired people and a Girl Scout Camp on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

However, the more remarkable thing about the men assembled for the Lions’ first big roar might be their hair. Most of them have dark heads of hair – something lacking in traditional service groups these days.

Memberships at service clubs of all kinds are getting older and fewer as people younger than 40 skip the social organizations of their parents and grandparents. The void is making it difficult for service groups to provide the benevolent services they have offered people in need for a century.

“For some reason, these kinds of things don’t seem to hold the attraction they used to,” said Clayton Whittaker, president of the Spokane Valley Lions Club.

Last month, the Association of Lions Clubs celebrated its 90th birthday. The group was started by Melvin Jones, a Chicago businessman who believed that business clubs needed to focus on bettering their communities rather than merely networking.

In 1925, the group brought in Helen Keller as a convention speaker. Keller challenged the group to be “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” Lions clubs now work to rid the world of preventable and reversible blindness by providing health-care services.

Locally, Lions clubs collect eyeglasses for the poor, as they have done for years. But Whittaker said many Lions who once volunteered frequently and attended meetings regularly have reached an age where participating is difficult.

The Spokane Valley Lions has about 20 members, of whom only 12 to 14 regularly attend the group’s 6 p.m. meetings the second and fourth Mondays of the month at the IHOP restaurant. The group has a few young members – but not enough to keep up with the aging of the rest of the club.

It’s the same with other service clubs.

At 40,000 members, the Washington State Grange is roughly half the size it used to be. Grange halls have been shut down in areas like Saltese where the agriculture-based group once was strong. Yet, as a state, Washington has the best Grange membership in the country.

Since 1867, the group has worked to improve rural life and give the farm community a voice in politics at all levels.

Like a lot of older service clubs, the Grange started as an exclusive male fraternity complete with rituals that weren’t understood by outsiders.

Dan Hammock, the group’s communications director, said the Grange’s exclusive and somewhat secretive nature hurt membership. Consequently, Granges have tried to make the organization more transparent for the sake of attracting new members.

“It’s been happening over the years,” said Hammock. “I think in the last 10 years, it’s become pretty obvious that if your organization is aging and you’re not replacing members, then a secret organization is not going to work.”

Many of the rules and practices of service organizations have been cited as reasons for declines in membership, whether it’s a lodge hat or a secret-ballot application process or required meeting attendance.

Groups such as Rotary International long have expected members to attend weekly programs and make up attendance if a meeting is missed.

Attendance at Spokane’s Rotary Club 21 is stable, said Lucretia Patrick, the group’s executive director. The club got its name for being the 21st Rotary Club in the world.

Rotarians provide social services such as Camp Fire camp scholarships for disadvantaged children and vision screening equipment for the Guilds School, as well as college scholarships.

Rotary was one of the service groups profiled in a ground-breaking social study by Robert Putnam, published in the book, “Bowling Alone,” in 2000.

Putnam tracks Americans’ withdrawal not only from service organizations but also from many group activities upon which they once relied to keep connected to the greater society.

The book title plays on the decline of league bowling, hinting that the social purpose of the team sport has died and most bowlers now bowl alone.

Putnam found that while membership in Rotary International grew 12 percent overall between 1985 and 1994, growth was almost flat during the last few years of the period, including a growth rate of less than 1 percent by 1994.

He blamed the decline partly on the lack of free time in the typical American home. While one-income households of a decade ago were built on the idea that women took care of the home front, allowing men time after work for things such as service clubs, today’s two-income households leave the list of after-work chores for both wage earners. Neither husbands nor wives in the work force seem to have much time for service groups or social clubs.

Leaders of various service organizations contacted last week faulted their groups for not accepting women as members sooner. Most didn’t start admitting women until the mid-1970s, though some have women in leadership roles now.

The consensus among the leaders was that younger members, regardless of race or sex, are what service groups need now to survive.

For Kiwanis in Liberty Lake, the key to success has been recruiting not younger adults, said Patricia Lutzenberger, the group’s president, but rather children involved in Kiwanis youth groups.

“We get the kids involved first, and then we get the parents,” Lutzenberger said.

Liberty Lake Kiwanis K-Kids have been honored with Chase Youth Awards for conducting baby-food drives and library benefits and helping the Shriners Hospital for Children and the Guardian Assisted Living Home.

Adult members have worked to help the children’s section of the Liberty Lake Library and the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.

The club has done so with the strongest membership of adults age 40 and under in the county. More than 30 percent of Liberty Lake Kiwanis members are younger than 40 compared with only 10 percent in downtown Spokane and 5 percent in Spokane Valley.

The group in Liberty Lake tries to make Kiwanis a family thing.

“We have a lot of couples in this organization, and we target people who do things together. I just go out and talk to people and make a point to talk about recruiting,” Lutzenberger said.

The biggest recruiting events of the year – the most successful ones – are the father-daughter dance and the Christmas Ball.

On those nights, the scene is not unlike the 1922 charter night of the Spokane Central Lions Club. The room is filled with Dapper Dans and sharp-dressed Janes standing with the most important people in their lives beside them.

On nights like those, the strength in numbers feels like a measurable force.

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