Hey senior adults – our service organizations are dying and they need you
The American service organization is dying. Wikipedia defines a service club or service organization as a “voluntary nonprofit organization where members meet regularly to perform charitable works either by direct hands-on efforts or by raising money for other organizations. A service club is defined firstly by its service mission and secondly its membership benefits, such as social occasions, networking, and personal growth opportunities that encourage involvement.”
Many of today’s service clubs such as Rotary, Masons, Elks, Shriners, Kiwanis and Lions got their start as social clubs for business networking, but thereafter evolved into organizations devoted to serve their communities. Historically, various service clubs shared the same goals, the same membership requirements, and the same meeting structure. Many still meet weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly on a recurring day and time and commonly involve a meal or refreshments. Most of these clubs started with one club per city, but then expanded to include multiple clubs to accommodate differing schedules and preferences.
Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” noted that attendance at club meetings declined 58% from 1975-2000. Putnam also noted in 2000 that the decline of club meeting attendance was already part of an overall trend by Americans who also had 43% fewer family dinners and 35% fewer friends who dropped by to see them in their homes.
According to the annual report entitled, Civic, Social & Youth Organizations in the US – Industry Market Research Report, despite some revenue growth during the same period, industry organizations have continued to experience declining membership. Brian Cabell, in his 2017 article, Are Service Clubs Dying provided some sobering statistics. He noted Rotary membership was more than 400,000 in 1995. By 2017 it had declined to 330,000 and only 10% of the members were under the age of 40. Masons lost three million members from the 1950s to 2017. Elks membership declined by 50% from 1980 to 2017, and Shriners membership dropped by 50% from 1990 to 2017.
Adults aged 65 and older still account for a significant portion of donors to, and members of, industry organizations. According to the Industry Market Research Report, on average, those aged 65 and older also served over thirty minutes per day on civic and social activities. This amount far exceeds the amount dedicated by younger adults. Furthermore, older adults have the highest share of disposable income and, therefore, are more likely to afford membership fees and make donations to their social organizations.
Young adults have become increasingly less interested in social organizations. According to the Industry Market Research Report, because involvement in civic and social clubs requires some financial commitment and a stable and community presence, it takes young adults longer to achieve these statuses now than in past years and this age group’s participation in civic and social organizations continues to shrink. Brian Cabell agrees. He noted the trend is undeniable just like the reasons for the decline. He cited the following reasons for service club decline: (1) Young, professional people will tell you cost is a major obstacle to joining; and (2) The required commitment of time, not only for the weekly meetings of some clubs, but for the events and fundraisers they sponsor; and (3) Society is changing, the economy is changing. Years ago, you likely worked 9-5, took an hour break for lunch, and stayed at the same company for 30 years. No more; and (4) People are more transient. Their ties to their communities are not as strong as they once were.
So what are the possible solutions to this service organization crisis? As you can imagine, the solutions seem to be as numerous as the causes for decline.
1. Make reasonable accommodations for younger adults. Some clubs have begun to establish satellite clubs with lower dues and fewer regular meetings in hopes of attracting young adults. Still others are trying to establish meetings that are more “fun” such as including get-togethers, float trips, dances, barbeques and the like. Meeting attendance requirements are being relaxed. Whatever the accommodation, younger adults must be more attracted to service organizations or their membership will decline as older adults pass away or become unable to attend.
2. Encourage a more informal atmosphere . Many social organizations utilize an outdated format at their meetings. Officers and board members control the proceedings and Robert’s Rules of Order are used to ensure parliamentary procedure are observed. To younger adults who were raised by televisions and informality, this type of structure is off-putting. Still other clubs implement a weekly meal format and the meetings last an hour or more. Unfortunately, these rituals lack the brevity and fast pace that younger adults enjoy. For many business people today, lunch is a sandwich or salad at the desk while reading reports or checking email. Historically, companies were locally owned and operated. The local banks, gas and electric companies, and large employers were invested in their communities and would encourage their employees to join service organizations. Today, a company’s home office in New York or Chicago doesn’t have the same level of commitment to local communities and employee participation is not encouraged as strongly as it once was.
3. Involve family members. In today’s society, women have a larger role in the workplace. As a result, men have taken a much more active role in child rearing and household chores. These two-parent, two-career family structures place a burden on service organization participation in that disposable time is rare. Young adults tend to spend that rare extra time on family-orientated activities such as after school programs, sports, dance classes, music lessons and weekend trips. In order to encourage participation by actively working adults, some clubs offer activities that include the entire family. Still others allow children to attend meetings and host meetings near parks, in Malls or other entertainment enters that are more conducive to family gatherings. This trend is likely to continue as women and men alike continue to remain consumed by work and employment obligations.
4. Provide virtual meeting formats. One significant change that COVID has imposed on our society is the use and implementation of virtual meetings. As young adults and older adults alike continue to be torn by various obligations and their disposable time becomes rarer, the ability to attend club meetings from home or the office is likely to be an integral part to the survival of service organizations.
5. Make new and prospective members feel welcomed and appreciated. Remembering that some young adults are antisocial because their childhood included divorced families, less attentive parents, and hours of video gaming, social organizations must make new and prospective members feel welcomed and appreciated by meeting them at the door, calling them occasionally and providing them a big brother or big sister. These people and communications will allow a new member to feel welcome, become accustomed to club rules and norms, and eventually succeed in the club. Assuming members will learn on the go is one sure way of losing today’s young adults.
One thing is abundantly clear, without change, today’s social organizations will disappear. What emerging generations want in social organizational meetings is for the environment to be fun, social, and less formal. Current social organizations must adapt and embrace what young adults want in order to replenish their rosters and ensure their clubs will continue for generations to come. In the end, every new member, young or old, wants to be welcomed and feel appreciated.
Todd Miller is a monthly contributor and regularly writes and speaks on various legal topic including estate planning, probate and elder law. He formed the Law Office of Todd Miller, LLC, 1305 Southwest Blvd., Ste. A, Jefferson City, Missouri in 2006. He has been recognized as 2016 Adviser of the Year by GolfInc; Golf Tax Consultant of the Year by Boardroom Magazine three times; and “10 Best” attorneys by the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys and “10 Best” attorneys by the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys. Mr. Miller earned his juris doctorate degree from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1999 and graduated with honors from Lincoln University in 1991. You may find him at www.toddmillerlaw.com (573) 634-2838 or on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.