Members of fraternal/social organizations say they are not the clubs your father remembers.
While conventional wisdom holds that fraternal, veteran and social organizations are declining in membership, Springfield’s Elks Lodge 138 is bucking the trend.
Nationally, Elks membership is declining slightly. In Springfield, membership is up.
Not only that, it has gotten younger.
“That’s where we found ourselves three or four years ago,” lodge secretary Gary Whitson of Springfield says of the “aging/dying” perception. “We realized we needed to get younger people and get them active, not just for the social aspect. We have a bunch of younger officers in the lodge now.”
Membership in the local Elks lodge has risen the past two years, a record other service organizations would love to have.
It was done, Whitson says, partly by refocusing the mission to issues more relevant to young people. The days when these groups could keep members interested with a meal and a guest speaker could be gone.
This winter, for example, a large billboard promoted the Elks’ efforts to keep young people away from drugs. Whitson’s son Blake, who is also a member of the lodge, helps coordinate that program, part of an Elks International initiative.
The other secret, Whitson says, is hustle. Current members work to convince prospective members that the image they may have of the Elks is outdated.
“We’re not really doing membership drives,” he says. “But we’re working hard to find people who are interested in what the Elks bring to the table.”
Aside from its anti-drug program, that includes scholarship programs, charitable activities and working with schools on issues the Elks care about.
These programs are getting a big push from organizations such as the Lions, Elks, Optimists and Kiwanis.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars is changing as well.
“We grew up in VFW with bingo and fish fries,” says Terry Vance, state adjutant for the organizations. “Now we’re in the computer age. The interest of vets today is somewhat different because of technology.”
Last year, Springfield’s Downtown Rotary club awarded $33,780 to 30 local charities in addition to $7,000 in scholarships and humanitarian funding through Rotary International.
And yet if the club wants to keep that level of giving, it has to work hard to retain members. Nationally, Rotary’s membership has dropped from its peak, which came in 1996.
Larry Thompson is head of Rotary District 6460. It’s a large district that includes much of central, western and southern Illinois. Thompson says the district’s membership is stable but not where he would like it to be.
“It’s a struggle this year with the economy,” he says. “Memberships sometimes get paid by the businesses of the members. With the economy the way it is, some of those businesses have stopped paying their employees’ dues and, consequently, the employees opt not to be members.”
David Parsons of Springfield, who will succeed Thompson as district governor, says that attracting the younger generation is going to mean two things — getting longtime members to embrace new ways of doing things and refocusing the traditional approach.
“Today’s up-and-coming generation,” he says, “is interested in service, not just sitting at a meal and chit-chatting socially. They want to be actually doing something, getting involved.
“Still, you’ve got to keep the meetings for your older folks. I like to go to dinner meetings, get there early, chat with people. You have to do both.”
Worldwide, Rotary International is doing fine. Growth is particularly strong in Asia, and there will soon be Chinese clubs joining the group. But Americans are not joining as they once did.
“It grew until about 2000,” Thompson says, “and has leveled off since that time. We’re holding our own, but we have to work extra hard.”
Social and fraternal organizations have tried a number of initiatives to entice new members. They offer incentives to current members who sign up new people. Regular informational meetings are held for nonmembers, including an audio-visual presentation on the group and the benefits of joining.
Prospective members are invited to be guest speakers. Some organizations require each member to invite at least one potential new member to a meeting. The American Legion recently instituted a Lucky 7 program. Legionnaires who bring in two members and secure five renewals from current members receive a special Lucky 7 pin.
Two groups that should be seeing an infusion of younger members are the Legion and the VFW. Wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been going on most of the last decade, have created a crowd of potential members.
Vance, VFW state adjutant, says Illinois membership peaked just before Desert Storm in 1990-91. World War II veterans were in their 60s and 70s then and still active. In the ensuing 20 years, many of them have died or have become physically unable to remain active. Korean War veterans, another strong group of VFW members, have also aged.
It all created a vacuum in membership that has been only partially filled by veterans returning from Middle Eastern wars. Part of the problem is that the new veterans have trickled back to civilian life over a number of years.
“Vets are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and joining,” he says, “but they are not as active as those World War II veterans were when they all came home at once. In the 1940s and ’50s, they came home to Springfield and their neighbors were veterans, and they all were together after winning the war.”
Dave Bakke can be reached at 217-788-1541.
Rotary International is the world’s first service club organization, with more than 1.2 million members in 33,000 clubs worldwide. There are 368,000 members in the United States.
Find a local club online at www.rotary.org. Use the contact information for that club or fill out a form on the Web site and the club will get in touch with you
Organized in Detroit on Jan. 21, 1915. There are 600,000 men, women and youth members in nearly 16,000 clubs in more than 70 countries and geographic areas.
Kiwanis and its service leadership programs volunteer more than 21 million hours and invest more than $113 million in their communities around the world. Find a local club online at www.kiwanis.org, and contact a club officer.
There are 90,000 Optimists in about 3,000 Optimist Clubs around the world. Every year, Optimists conduct 65,000 service projects and serve more than six million young people.
To learn more about joining, visit the My Sidewalk page online at www.optimist.org. At My Sidewalk, request information about a variety of topics. An Optimist volunteer will contact you.
Veterans of Foreign Wars
The VFW traces its roots to 1899 when veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine Insurrection (1899-1902) founded local organizations to secure rights and benefits for their service. There are 2.2 million members.
To join, call VFW headquarters at 217-546-2128; e-mail email@example.com; visit a local VFW post and fill out application; or go online at www.vfwil.org and click the “Join the VFW” link.
The American Legion was chartered and incorporated by Congress in 1919. It is the largest veterans service organization with 2.6 million members
To join: Go online at www.legion.org/join or contact your local Legion post
The first official luncheon meeting of the founding club was held on April 11, 1912, at the Coates House Hotel, then the fashionable hotel in Kansas City.
There are 20,000 members in the United States. During the last 10 years, its annual fund has provided graduate scholarships to 231 applicants — the largest number of scholarships to be granted to the hearing and speech field in the country.
To join, go online at www.sertoma.org.
With 45,000 clubs and more than 1.3 million members, Lions is the world’s largest service club organization.
Founded in 1917, the clubs are best known for fighting blindness. One million children have been screened by the club’s vision screening program.
Membership in a Lions club is by invitation. Contact a local club, ask if you can attend a meeting to learn more. At the meeting, ask about becoming a member.