Elks, Lions May Go Way Of the Dodo

Civic Clubs

Brian Clark, an advertising executive, followed in his dad's footsteps and joined the Lions Club when he returned to Little Rock two years ago. But this father-and-son pair is becoming a rarity.

In the 1990s, civic and fraternal organizations - from the Elks to the Moose - have seen membership plummet. At the Little Rock Sertoma Club, for instance, only seven members usually attend the weekly Wednesday luncheon. Ten years ago, members filled a room that seats close to 50 people.

"Most [of these groups] have been around for nearly 100 years.... They've run into trouble because of a lot of social change," says Robert Putnam, professor of government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "People would rather be alone in front of a television set than out with a group."

Since the 1970s, Americans have altered the way they spend free time. Instead of going to bridge clubs and supper parties, they watch TV, go to the gym, surf the Web, or simply relax alone. Families move around more and break apart more, too.

For organizations like the Lions, which raises money for a number of charities including the blind, to continue, the next generation must sign up. But those in Generation X simply don't seem to have any urge to unite with their fellow man.

"In the past, people felt a need for organized thought," says Chris Counts, a local actor. "There was a sense of power in unity. Now, I think, we have an era where individuality is the calling..... The only united groups seem to have a negative public image like the IRA or skinheads and even most political parties."

Personally, he adds, "I'd rather be at home on my computer."

Professor Putnam is writing a book on the future of civic organizations and the country's need for community. He points to several changing aspects of American society that parallel the decline in what he calls "animal clubs."

For instance, dinner parties, once a social staple, have declined 60 percent in the last 20 years. Neighbors no longer visit each other. That interaction has declined between 20 to 25 percent, according to Putnam.

Playing cards doesn't even hold appeal anymore. Statistics show that in the past15 years card playing has dropped 60 percent. At this rate, no one will play cards in this country by 2013.

SOCIAL and civic groups began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way for people to connect with each other in the midst of change. Urbanization, immigration, and mechanization rapidly changed life after the Civil War. As the start of the 21st century looms, the country is once again suffering disconnection.

People, though, are no longer joiners. They prefer to do a volunteer project for a day and go home. Many would rather just sign a check than do any labor. Long-term commitments don't fit well in fast-paced lifestyles.

Jim Stanley, an Arkansas lawyer, has seen this apathy often. In September, he will become president of the North Little Rock Sertoma Club, an organization that helps the hearing and speech impaired. He has tried several recruitment methods to try to lure people, especially younger members.

"People seem detached from joining organizations," says Mr. Stanley, who has been involved in several civic groups. "It's this attitude about me, me, me. It seems the pride of being in these kind of groups is gone. Even corporations have a different philosophy than they did years ago."

Once corporations encouraged employees to join Rotary International, the Lions Club, or Kiwanis. Mr. Stanley says this no longer is true.

He wrote 150 letters to local corporations and businesses trying to recruit new members. Only five responded. Because of changes in tax laws, many corporations no longer pay organizational dues for employees.

While roughly 60 percent of Rotary members attend the weekly luncheon, more businessmen and women are finding it harder to spare an hour or two to hobnob and listen to speakers.

The element of prestige that these clubs once held has vanished. Many younger people think that groups like the Shriners, Masons, and Rotary do not have enough diversity.

Rotary, however, has changed. A US Supreme Court decision in 1988 allowed women to join the organization. Shortly after the decision, new women members signed up 20 times faster than men, and today female membership holds steady.

But the "animal clubs" appear to be teetering on the brink of extinction. Membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks stood at 1.3 million in 1996, a 21 percent decline from its peak 15 years ago. Between 1985 and 1995, the Lions Club saw membership drop about 14 percent. The Shriners were off 32 percent from 1979 to 1996, the Jaycees, 44 percent.

"People would rather sign a check," insists Janet McMahan, public relations manager for the Lions Club in Oak Brook, Ill.

"It's an unfortunate trend to try and reverse. Clubs like ours give very valuable services to their communities. People take for granted that they are around. If they weren't, every community would notice the difference," she says.

Putnam also cites falling numbers of parent-teacher associations, volunteers with the Red Cross and the Boy Scouts, and labor union membership.

Putnam hesitates to say the Internet has played a part in this decline, saying the decline started before Bill Gates graduated from elementary school.

Instead, he says, it's simply about reinventing the organizations so they work again in a new society. "It's a real challenge for the country," he says. "And yes, the Internet will play into this. It can be part of the problem or part of the solution."

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