Organizations like Kiwanis and Rotary have been pillars of service and leadership in their communities for over a century. Over the past few years, though, memberships have gone down.
Lifestyles are busier, jobs are more demanding and there never seems to be enough time in the day. When schedules get tight, things like a Kiwanis meeting or a Rotary fundraiser may fall to the bottom of the priority list.
“I think all service organizations and volunteer groups are struggling with membership,” Chris Moning, president-elect of the Anthony Wayne chapter of Rotary, said. “Timewise, people are very stretched … There’s just more things taking families’ time … they’re more centric in their own worlds than always looking out into the community.”
The widest gap in membership appears to be between those older generations, the baby boomers and the following generation, the Gen Xers, and these younger generations born in the 1980s and beyond who are wholly absent from the lunch meeting scene on a weekday afternoon.
“A lot of it is about disposable time with millennials,” Lindsey Sharp, a local chair for the youth-based Rotaract program, said. “Their work-life balance is a little bit harder. You’re expected to be at work, to be on all the time at a place where you might not be able to get away at lunch.”
In addition, Sharp pointed out, the very structure of these organizations’ meetings, and the costs attached to these memberships, are unappealing to young professionals.
“For a lot of clubs, you’re paying yearly dues and on top of that you’re paying to eat lunch, so the cost itself associated with it is a big hurdle,” Sharp said. “It’s also the way the meetings are set up … I think sometimes there’s a lack of fun in them. They’re very much routine in how they go.”
One thing that is certainly not absent from the younger generations is the desire to help and serve. The values may not differ, but the demonstration of them is what has seen the most change.
“They understand giving back to the community and that it’s not always about getting something,” Dan Guse, president of the Time Corners Kiwanis Club, said. “I don’t know if the values are different, and here in the Midwest it’s a whole different ballgame. I think it’s a matter of knowing we’re here.”
To many young people, according to Sharp, Rotary is a place for old people to eat lunch together. The only ones who often realize all of the service and civic engagement attached to Rotary are those who had family members involved.
Moning agreed that a lack of awareness has hindered Rotary’s ability to engage with new potential members and advertise the involvement they have with the community.
“We need to do a better job at communicating that and getting more press about that,” Moning said. “I think that’s how we can grow our membership. We need to tell our story.”
Fresh faces in the mix could offer a new perspective and insight into the challenges and issues filling our world today. A younger member could change the way a program is done to make it more efficient or reach more people. Proficiency online and on social media would result in even more young people becoming aware, getting involved and ensuring the future of these organizations are sound.
To catch the eyes and imaginations of these new members, longstanding organizations today have to compete with hundreds of other groups and options available online or in person that may specialize in specific causes, have more flexible membership requirements or even allow members to get involved for free.
Rotary and Kiwanis are not ready to be drowned out by abundance just yet, though. Guse said that Time Corners Kiwanis has established three high school Key Clubs in Fort Wayne to expose students to the values and missions of Kiwanis. Additionally, Kiwanis has opened up a virtual membership venue that allows people to be part of this community in a more time-friendly way.
I know that if we want to remain a vital thing we’ve got to come to where the people are,” Guse said. “We can’t expect people to come to us; we’ve got to figure out where they’re at and get them involved.”
Once she steps in as president of Anthony Wayne Rotary in July, Moning would like to connect more with the high school and college Rotary groups to get a feel for what future members want. The challenge will be, Moning said, balancing the old traditions with new ideas.
“We’ll have three different generations we are trying to accommodate,” Moning said. “We still have the baby boomers, the Gen Xers, so being able to please all those generations takes a lot of creativity and thinking outside the box.”
Other organizations are not as excited about shifting away from what they’ve always done.
“It’s probably 50-50 wheter clubs are willing to change or not,” Sharp said. “A lot are willing to think about change, but the actually changing is hard. They just like the idea of change.”
As the older generations dwindle away, the younger people of today will be the ones that they need to filling in those open spaces. In a sense, the future of service organizations is to evolve to the changing masses or die clinging to traditions, unwilling to yield.
“The key is saving our youth and retaining youth,” Sharp said. “That’s the future right there, and honestly, if they don’t jump on board with getting younger people. then all those clubs will die. There’s a ticking clock on some clubs.”