Lions, Tigers, and Elks

The death of fraternal organizations in America.

by Andrew Braverman

"Delivery has failed to these recipients or groups. Your message couldn't be delivered as the recipient's domain does not exist."

So went the auto-response that I received after emailing the Order of Eastern Star, a masonic suborder open to women. The same went for my inquiry to the local Elks Lodge. Emails sent to three different local freemasons went without a response. Vestiges of these community organizations can be glimpsed online and off, but the trace stops there. Maybe “does not exist” is a touch too apocalyptic. But for fraternal groups like the Masons to service-based groups like the Kiwanis, the path towards irrelevance is unfolding quickly. 

In 2000, social scientist Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” which paints a picture of the evaporation of social organization in the U.S. Putnam compiled a body of data showing how dramatically American modes of social assembly have changed. This change has manifested itself in a departure from civic participation. While much of this withdrawal from the public forum has been a retreat from the political (i.e attending public meetings, working with political parties), equally important has been the withdrawal from service and fraternal groups. 

Putnam concentrates on the Freemasons, a fraternal organization that traces its roots back many centuries to ancient fraternities of stonemasons. Their philosophy self-identifies as a “beautiful system of morality… illustrated by symbols.” Freemason lodges focus on ritualistic internal proceedings, and are largely oriented around social activity. Beyond that, you encounter groups like the Lions Club and the Elks. The Elks were founded as an all-white and male social club (remaining all-white through the 70s) and currently boast 850,000 members. They remain largely a social group. The Lions put more emphasis on charity—their name is an acronym for Liberty, Intelligence and Our Nation’s safety. The Kiwanis Club and Rotary International are service groups as well, the former concentrating on charity to youth. 

These groups, ubiquitous in the world Putnam grew up in, are foreign to millennials. Many college students have never heard of the Rotary Club, much less a group like the Lions Club, which has experienced a near 60 percent drop in membership since their peak in the early 50s. Putnam’s diagnosis points a finger at the atomization caused by technological advances, which allow someone to, for example, talk to their friends on an iPhone all day long instead of having to interact face-to-face. Putnam’s magnum opus was a wake up call to many Americans. Many shrugged the warning off, but people that valued the interpersonal glue that pulled their grandparents and parents’ generations together grew wary. 

When I reached out to the local Rotary club, I received a prompt response from President Dennis Shoemaker inviting me to their annual holiday party. 

I arrived at the Antlers Hilton for the holiday party shortly after noon, on a wintery Friday. Although a large portion of local Rotarians are retired, group luncheons still have to squeeze into the traditional lunch hours of 12 to 1:30 p.m. to accommodate those working nine-to-fives. The ballroom at the Antlers was resplendent. Fill it with a room full of big-hitters like State Representative Larry Liston and Gazette Editor-in-Chief Vince Bzdek, and it shines even brighter (if a bit more imposing). Carol Bach, Director of Youth Services, offered me a brief summary of the Rotary Club, as the holiday processions went on around us. Rotary International is a worldwide service organization whose expressed purpose is to bring together business leaders and other professionals to catalyze philanthropy and advance the mission of peace on earth. The group has gained a reputation for the enormous steps that their PolioPlus initiative has taken towards eradicating polio.

She explained that the club is secular, but they seemed to be celebrating just one holiday. The only well-wishing mentioned throughout the program was “Merry Christmas!” A Rotarian favorite donned Santa’s typical red pajamas and led the group in thanking high-ranking members of the club. The festivities were loaded with holiday cheer, but it seemed that this only extended to the Christians of the audience (no doubt the majority).

Towards the beginning of the program, the group recited the Pledge of Allegiance in unison. Throughout, all speakers peppered their remarks with allusions to patriotism. The nationalist and religious sentiment was capped off when a children’s chorus sang the praises of the Christian God and our Nation in timeless classics like “God Bless the USA” and “Silent Night.” 

While the Rotary hasn’t felt the 60 percent plummet in membership that the Lions have, the 40 percent drop of the Kiwanis, or the over 70 percent of the Masons, they have still lost a quarter of their membership since the mid 60s. Women couldn’t join the Rotary until 1987, when the Supreme Court mandated in Board of Directors of Rotary International vs. Rotary Club of Duarte that they be allowed into the club. The Pikes Peak Rotary is still only 25 percent female. In addition to having disproportionate gender representation, the group also lacks young members.

Compare the imposing threads of faith and nationalism exhibited in the Rotary holiday party with how these ideals are regarded by millenials, and you start to understand young people’s reluctance to join the ranks of these groups. A Pew study recently found that the share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists has dropped sharply, from 71 percent to 63 percent, just from 2007 to 2014. The religiously unaffiliated accounted for 23 percent of adults, an increase from the 16 percent they represented seven years prior. 81 percent of Americans 69-86 years old—a generously represented group in civic organizations—“love” the U.S., while only 58 percent of their millennial compatriots feel the same way. These trends do not bode well for groups whose roots are buried in the ground of patriotism, faith and tradition. 

When I pressed Bach on young people’s reluctance to join the ranks of the Rotary, she offered a couple of explanations. Membership dues come to “over a thousand dollars a year,” something that young people often can’t afford. She also worries that the time commitment scares some away, even though it only involves a weekly meeting and sporadic service opportunities. To prove the Rotary’s commitment to attracting younger members, she mentioned Rotary Prime, which is a group of Rotarians under the age of 40 whose schedules don’t mesh with the rest of Rotary’s and who meet at night. She also plugged Rotaract, which is the Rotary’s manifestation on college campuses. Rotaract members collaborate with Rotary groups to “develop leadership…skills and have fun through service.” This branch represents another attempt to balance an aging constituency and avoid the trajectory towards obsolescence. 

Bach often emphasized the group’s diversity, sweeping her hand around the ballroom, where I only saw two people of color. I asked about LGBTQ representation in the Club. “That’s a good question…do we do any outreach?” Bach mused to herself. Unable to answer my question in person, Bach followed up with an email. 

“I asked around about the LGBQT question. No one ever asks. Guess that is the answer.” The explicit “don’t ask” left me wondering if there is also an implicit atmosphere of “don’t tell” regarding members’ sexuality. 

Patsy Thompson, President of the local Kiwanis club described similar trends in their organization. The Kiwanis club concentrates its efforts on charitable work that benefits children. Thompson offered another explanation for dropping membership: a lackluster economy. She explains that, in the past, many companies would sponsor their employees’ financial commitment to groups like the Kiwanis. But when the economy turns sour, “that’s the first place they cut.” Additionally, she distills a wider phenomenon about millennials to one sentence: “If it’s not online, they don’t want to socialize.” 

Thompson added glumly that she thinks that “kids really relate to kids…when we bring high school kids to[help on projects] your really see the connection.” The undertones of religion appear in Kiwanis membership as well—a prayer is said before all of their weekly lunches. She explained some of the benefits of membership to me, talking about how the professional benefits are “a two-way street,” and Kiwanis members become clients of other Kiwanis members. Thomson met many of her best friends through the club. These two benefits of membership used to be significant magnets attracting members, and still are for some groups, but young professionals seem less and less compelled by them.

Perhaps the most salient question is whether declining membership in these organizations is something we should be concerned about. Many high schools and middle schools around the US have mandatory community service projects. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is now something to stamp on your college résumé, rather than something to do for the sake of doing. Clubs like the Rotary and Kiwanis help just to help. Whether their members join because their God or their president tells them to is ultimately besides the point. 

“It’s not good…we need the younger generation to continue the service projects that we do,” Thompson says of the Kiwanis. “We help so many children,” she adds with a sense of helplessness. 

The Rotary seems to provide some insight into developing a model of civic organization that is sustainable in a much more complicated world than 50 years ago. They boast over 8000 Rotaract clubs, composed of young adults 18-30, in 167 countries. There are even 12,300 Interact clubs, a branch constituted of 12-18 year olds in 133 countries. Their membership decline has somewhat plateaued. Their online presence is active, and it seems like they belong in the 21st century. 

Millenials don’t exclusively organize online, but much of their offline social organization does pass through the conduit of the internet. Consider some of the more significant recent social movements spurred on by youth: the Egyptian, Tunisian and Syrian springs or the Occupy movements and Black Lives Matter. In these instances, young people have emerged from their atomization to organize around a pressing issue. All of them depended on the use of Twitter, Facebook and group messaging services.  This dependence suggests that implementing these tools of technology could prove essential for civic organizations to garner the attention of young people. So far, the majority of fraternal or service groups have failed to do so.  

It remains unclear whether young people need to readjust their values and remember the importance placed on the empathy of philanthropy (not to mention human connection), or whether groups that facilitate this charity need to adjust to a changing constituency. Unfortunately, both seem to have grown away from the other. What is clear though is that if these two fail to find a common ground, our communities and our world will lose. The altruism these groups cultivate is dying. As individuals withdraw from the social world, our institutions—which are, by the way designed for and around social interaction—fail. We lose sense of how we fit into the puzzle of society, which is certainly for the worse. If you care about the democracy you live in, you care about the declining social capital depicted in the struggle of these service and community groups. 


Part of the Toxic issue