WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - Lee Ballard stood out.
You could easily spot him in a crowd of 50 dedicated Kiwanians during the group’s weekly meeting on a recent Thursday at MCL Cafeteria in West Lafayette.
It was not because he sang off-key during the opening patriotic song or ate too much pecan pie or announced his 80th birthday during the “Happy Dollars” celebratory donation time, but because he was one of few members under retirement age in attendance.
“It is a little concerning that most of them are older and retired, but that makes sense,” the 29-year-old West Lafayette man told the Journal & Courier (https://on.jconline.com/1sM0Gtq ). “As a younger person, it’s harder to get involved with a club like this that meets at lunchtime. You have to have a flexible work schedule. My wife and I have a 3-year-old that we have to take care of. We have a lot of other responsibilities.”
Younger members such as Ballard might trickle into the Lafayette Kiwanis Club from Purdue Circle K, the collegiate Kiwanis affiliate. They are comfortable and familiar with the Kiwanis cause of service and want to continue the mission during their professional careers. For some, their fathers and grandfathers were Kiwanians. So it made sense to join a local club once they started their careers. They don’t mind being the youthful minority in the group, and they find the stories of the older generation insightful.
Most millennials or Gen Xers, however, would never dream of joining a club that seems geared toward their grandparents. That’s the general crisis the Kiwanis Club and other fraternal or service organizations are facing.
As members of the Elks, Rotary, Freemasons, Knights Templar and their ilk age and pass on, they are challenged with the uphill battle of recruiting younger members. Many organizations also face a decline in national membership.
For instance, the Freemasons are far from their glory days. They have lost nearly 3.8 million members since their peak in the late 1950s.
The national decline for the Elks started in 1980, and membership dropped from 1.64 million to 802,592 in 2012.
The Lafayette No. 143 Elks lodge has experienced similar membership losses since 1970. Back then, the lodge had more than 2,000 members. In 2010, there were only 322 members.
“Everybody has seen a decrease in their membership - whether it’s Mason or Moose,” said Jack Streicher, exalted ruler of the local Elks lodge. “The fraternal organizations have certainly seen a pretty steady decline. It’s a continuous concern - not only recruitment but participation in activities. A lot of people join but don’t really volunteer time or really participate in what’s going on. They are members in name only, passive.”
Streicher said younger people have time constraints and prefer “one and done” charity events, such as running a 5K.
“They don’t really want to be involved in running the organization,” he said.
Other experts say the decline is more indicative of cultural shifts.
It was the “Greatest Generation,” or World World II veterans, who triggered the major boom in many organizations after the war ended in 1945.
“They were ready to own this society, to be a part of everything,” said Duane Vaught, deputy grandmaster of Grand Encampment of Knights Templar, a Christian-oriented fraternal organization open only to Freemasons. “Unbelievable numbers of them joined everything. Our membership skyrocketed starting in the mid-‘40s until the mid-‘60s. Our membership was huge in the ‘50s. Everybody wanted to be a member.”
They were ready to own this society, to be a part of everything.
But their grandchildren - baby boomers who came of age around 1970 - were not joiners, he said.
“We are taking in a pretty decent number of members each year, but the deaths among the WWII generation offset the people joining every single year,” he said. “That’s the unfortunate part.”
George Braatz, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association of North America, agreed.
“During the Vietnam War, across our country, there was a feeling that no organization could be trusted,” he said. “The people of that age did not participate. They did not get involved in service organizations.”
Glenn Sparks, professor of communication at Purdue University, said changes in technology also play a role.
“The people who constitute (these groups) simply did not have the technology, so they cultivate different ways of socializing,” said Sparks, who researched changes in male friendship in American culture for his co-authored book “Refrigerator Rights.”
He said younger people are fulfilling one of the main functions of socializing in a different way.
“They are managing their relationships and feeling of being close to people through electronic technology,” he said. “They probably don’t feel as much of a need to go and physically congregate in a place.”
Another factor, he said, is that many groups organize meetings that focus on an informational event or a speaker.
“In the age of technology, where we move information at the speed of light, an informative event is not nearly as competitive or attractive an event to go to because we have information at our fingertips,” he said. “It’s really got to be special. It has to have something we just can’t get otherwise.”
For these fraternal and service organizations, however, hope is not lost.
Sparks said there are genuine rewards associated with face-to-face interaction and conversation - something technology lacks.
If service or fraternal groups want to survive, their meetings need to be “fundamentally social, fundamentally conversational and less informational,” he said.
They also need to include hands-on community service.
“Groups that are more successful at getting attendance are groups where members are doing something such as building houses while socializing,” he said. “You can’t get those benefits from looking at a screen. Generally after they have gone, they are hooked.”
A few local fraternal and service clubs have implemented similar ideas and have seen an uptick in membership.
Joel Rasmus, vice president of the Rotary Club of Lafayette Inc., said his club has seen some attrition in the past but has experienced growth over the past few years.
He declined to provide specific membership numbers.
The group moved away from featuring speakers who discuss topics that are relevant only to retirees, shortened meetings and eliminated attendance requirements.
“Any service club who thinks, ‘We’ve always done it this way,’ is the way to continue to do it, is fooling themselves,” he said. “The needs of young professionals are very much different today than they were a generation ago.”
The group also started focusing on hands-on community volunteering projects, such as Read to Succeed and Food Finders Food Bank’s BackPack Program.
“Our feedback from our younger members is they want very interactive community service opportunities,” he said. “They don’t want to just write a check.”
The younger members also have responded to nontraditional meetings in which they gather off-site for dinner, social hour or card night.
Charles Jindrich is a member of the Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem, more commonly known as the Modern Knights Templar, a contemporary Christian Order of Knighthood.
The order’s primary goals include “Keeping the Road to Jerusalem” open to people of all faiths and maintaining Christian values, and protecting Christians who are in danger.
It is a philanthropic, chivalric military order that is open to men and women but is not affiliated with Freemasonry.
Jindrich, who lives in West Lafayette, started a state chapter - the Lafayette-based Priory of St. Mother Theodore Guerin- eight years ago.
The Modern Knights Templar is a smaller organization with about 5,000 members worldwide.
Jindrich said it runs smaller because the order is selective and members tend to be affluent.
Although the state chapter has experienced steady growth - increasing from four members to 39 in the past eight years - the membership runs older, with the average member in his late 50s or early 60s.
“People are so busy with activities,” he said. “Younger folks just have a lot of other distractions right now.”
Also, the cost of joining such a group can be a hindrance to young professionals, he said. Members pay about $400 to join plus $120 in annual dues.
“Most groups like this are retired folks who have the finances,” Jindrich said. “There is a layout of cash on this.”
Other groups, such as the local Freemasons, say they are finding results simply by being more visible.
In the past, Freemasons were not allowed to tell anyone they were Masonic.
Due to declining numbers, however, they have become more visible.
“Freemasonry doesn’t recruit, but we do work to try and attract,” said J. Keith Henry, member of Lafayette Lodge 123. “Attraction is passive. We give them the opportunity (and) information. We talk to them, but they have to make the first step and talk to us.”
His lodge sets up an informational booth at the Mosey Down Main Street festivals during summer months.
Decline started in the ‘80s, when the massive WWII membership influx began dying out. By 2000, however, the membership numbers started to bounce back, Henry said.
“But they are not coming back super fast,” he said. “We don’t have massive numbers like they did after the wars.”
There are about 150 members in his lodge now, he said.
He could not easily locate past membership numbers, he added.
He attributes the uptick in membership to forming relationships with Purdue University fraternities and Ivy Tech Community College and restoring the Merou Grotto - the social club for Master Masons on North River Road in West Lafayette.
They restored the prophet’s lounge and the dining room on the second floor. The facility is also used for outreach, such as a community flea market held during the summer.
“Believe it or not, guys want to find things that don’t always involve going out and drinking,” he said.
The new members have been age 45 and younger. In the ‘90s, the average member age was in the 70s, Henry said.
Technology has also worked in the group’s favor.
“A lot of people think social media is great, but it lacks the physical connection, the handshake, the breaking of bread with your brothers,” he said. “A lot of people lack that social connection and they are starting to look for it.”
Information from: Journal and Courier, https://www.jconline.com
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