Not your father's social club
To survive in the 21st century, fraternal and service groups reinvent themselves to attract younger members
In floor-length gowns — some sparkling with sequins, all adorned with medallions — the 13 women of the Palo Alto Rebekah Lodge No. 291 stood dwarfed in the voluminous Blue Room in downtown Palo Alto's Masonic Center on a recent Wednesday evening.
"I am a Rebekah," they recited in unison, repeating a creed that dates to the founding of their group, the Ladies Auxiliary Patriarchs Militant of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
"I believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of man, and the Sisterhood of woman.
"I believe in the watch-words of our Order — Friendship, Love and Truth."
Two golden columns towered like silent sentinels as the women stood with hands to their hearts. Their voices, strong and resonant, rose in the dark, wood-paneled room.
"Friendship — is like a golden chain that ties our hearts together.
"Love — is one of our most precious gifts, the more you give, the more you receive.
"Truth — is the standard by which we value people. It is the foundation of our society.
"I believe that my main concern should be my God, my family and my friends. Then I should reach out to my community and the World, for in God's eyes we are all brothers and sisters.
"I am a Rebekah!"
The room echoed with their final shout.
Noble Grand Laurie Prescott, the lodge leader, stood on a wooden dais surrounded by three ornate thrones and presided over the evening's business. Rows of empty assembly seats flanked the cavernous room's walls.
"Are there any applications for membership?" Prescott asked.
"No applications for membership," secretary Julie Thomas said.
Once a strong thread in a community's social fabric and a main source of public service, the Rebekahs and other fraternal and service clubs today are struggling after decades of waning membership, according to their leaders.
The decline can be attributed to several factors, the leaders say: women entering the workplace, time pressures on young professionals, a desire for couples to spend their precious free time together rather than at lodge meetings, as well as the revolution in online social networking.
From the Odd Fellows to the Rotary Club, service and fraternal organizations are searching for ways to breathe new life into their groups.
To keep up with the times, clubs are doing away with time-consuming meetings and adding hands-on activities. Some, like the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, are becoming more family friendly, adding incentives such as pools, work-out rooms and day care.
Patricia Mastalir, Royal Matron of the Eastern Star (Masons) in Palo Alto and a Rebekah, said the problem is nearly universal and something must be done if such organizations are to survive in the 21st century.
"It's very difficult. Members are getting older. We're all in the same boat," she said.
The numbers are sobering.
The Rebekahs, once 50,000 members strong in California in the 1950s, count just 5,000 members today. The Palo Alto Elks have shrunk from 3,600 to 892. Members' average age hovers around 70 and "young" means being in one's 50s, leaders said.
The groups have centuries-old histories.
The Odd Fellows were popular during the Industrial Revolution in England, when people moved from the countryside and left their social networks and safety nets behind, according to Debra LaVergne, a Palo Alto member since 1970 and past Noble Grand.
In California's gold country, nearly every town had an Odd Fellows hall where miners met, many of which can still be found today.
Women formed an auxiliary, the Rebekahs, and both groups functioned as a type of insurance. Members took care of their own, aiding the sick and burying the dead, LaVergne said.
But that role no longer seems relevant to many people, having been largely supplanted by government health programs and private insurance. Two assisted-living facilities for the elderly and a campus for troubled children in California are just about all that remain of the Odd Fellows legacy in the state, she said.
Now LaVergne, in her mid-50s and one of the youngest members of her lodge, is seeking ways to carry the membership forward for succeeding generations.
In a world in which the Internet offers endless new ways of interacting, fraternal organizations and service clubs still offer a connection for which people yearn, according to LaVergne.
"I just belong, and I need to belong. Substituting counting up your friends on Facebook pages is not the same," she said.
LaVergne joined the group when she was about 17. She was attracted to the organization's "happiness through service" philosophy and opportunities to bond with other women, she said.
"In the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs I'm actually an influential person. I get respect and validation. It's a very small pond, and I'm the big frog," she said.
The Palo Alto Elks Lodge 1471 has faced a similar crisis.
Facing declining membership and shrinking finances about seven years ago, it embarked on a major change, according to member Rod Norville. The lodge sold part of its El Camino Real property and is constructing a brand new home, in part to entice new members.
The group is actively seeking families and people in their 20s. Like many organizations, however, it must overcome perceptions of being an old boys' club whose members are hooked on ancient rituals.
In fact, the Elks have many women in their ranks and are also becoming more ethnically and racially inclusive, according to Exalted Ruler Donna Keiffer. The group now includes Latinos, Indians, Middle Easterners and Asians, among others.
Other clubs likewise are actively seeking a diverse membership. The San Francisco Lions depicts people of color on its website. In San Francisco, its clubs are located in Bayview-Hunters Point and Chinatown and there are Korean-American, Taiwanese, Nikkei and Hispanic clubs.
Tommy Fehrenbach, membership chair of Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto, said groups are trying to break down the old perceptions.
"The service-club stereotype is of a lot of retired white men. All you have to do is come to an event, and that's how you break those stereotypes down," he said.
Changing perceptions requires both outreach and dropping or tweaking some traditions that hark back several centuries, leaders of some organizations said.
"A lot of the language should be done away with. We don't have that formality anymore," according to Carolyn DeBoer, a fifth-generation Rebekah who is president of the Rebekahs Assembly in California and a baby boomer.
Lodges are realizing the value of marketing themselves, too. Those that do are having great success in recruitment, proving that people will take interest when given information, DeBoer said.
One Rebekah lodge became involved with its Chamber of Commerce and members made connections through the workplace.
"The success has been astronomical. The lodge now has 175 members," she said.
"We can't isolate ourselves in our own lodges. It's about getting out there and exposing yourself."
When Lions Club International, a service organization, saw a membership decline, it conducted public-perception surveys, according to spokesman Dane LaJoye.
"We were astonished by what we found," he said, citing the "old, white male" stereotype. "In truth, we're men and women of every conceivable culture. We really do represent the everyman."
The Lions mounted a re-branding campaign, complete with billboards and advertising to reflect its diversity and projects, he said. It surveyed people to learn which kinds of volunteering they were interested in, and then it offered the hands-on service projects that younger people want, he said.
"People want to build a house and pound a nail. They want to see tangible results," LaJoye said.
As a result, the Lions experienced its biggest one-year gain in two decades. The organization worldwide grew by 20,000 members, he said.
Women are now the fastest-growing demographic of service and fraternal organizations.
The Lions switched from being all-male in 1989. Today, 300,000 women worldwide belong to the group, LaJoye said.
Women have also revitalized the Elks. Keiffer is the first female exalted ruler in the group's 87-year history.
Last year, several leaders asked her to head the club, she said.
"They said, 'We need a softer touch now,'" according to Keiffer.
Ironically, Rebekahs are endangered in part because women are joining the Odd Fellows, which was all male until seven years ago, LaVergne said.
"That's saved several Odd Fellows lodges, but when women joined it put Odd Fellows and Rebekahs in head-to-head competition for new members," she said.
Clubs are also realizing they need to compete against non-service organizations, such as fitness centers, for members.
The Palo Alto Elks are in the midst of building a new lodge, which will have extensive recreational facilities: indoor racquetball and squash courts; Jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms; a ballroom; indoor and outdoor swimming pools; a basketball court and rock-climbing wall; group exercise rooms; billiards; an outdoor barbecue station and extended hours from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. to attract the younger, busy generation.
"It will be the flagship of Elkdom," said Norville, a former exalted ruler.
In order to finance the project, Elks members sold part of their property to a residential developer.
The lodge is slated to open in October and is already increasing membership, according to Norville.
While clubs are not forsaking their traditions — the Palo Alto Host Lions Club mounted its 44th Concours d'Elegance auto exhibition June 27, a fundraiser for 35 local charities — they are expanding into high-profile, even global, charitable efforts to attract new members.
The Lions have supported disaster relief in Haiti, New Orleans and overseas, in tsunami-stricken areas, LaJoye said.
"When there's a tornado in the Midwest, you can be sure the Lions Club is there," he said.
University Rotary Club of Palo Alto/Stanford built a school in El Salvador and has worked in micro-lending, according to the club president, Deborah Pappas. Those activities have attracted members under 40 in the past three or four years. The club currently has 90 members, a mix of professionals and retired persons. Approximately 50 percent are women, she said.
Many clubs are also leveraging social-networking sites and new technology for meetings and communication.
LaJoye said the Internet is fast becoming a crucial way to garner younger members. Groups that have "cyber clubs" that meet online instead of requiring attendance at a traditional gathering are seeing their memberships grow.
The Lions has an evening meeting at Palo Alto Airport for people who can't make the traditional luncheon, and the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto also holds online meetings.
"In today's economy — in our cut, paste and go society — there's not time for a 1.5-hour lunch," said Kiwanis secretary Howell Lovell. The club now requires attendance only once per month and involvement in one monthly service project. A satellite committee of younger professionals meets primarily through social-networking sites such as Facebook and communicates via Twitter and e-mail, he said.
Fehrenbach said the club's 82 members now range in age from 24 to 89. Twenty members — one quarter — are under 40.
Flexiblity is important to club growth, Rotary's Pappas said.
"These clubs have to be more forgiving."
They also have to be willing to explore new possibilities, such as working with other groups. She is trying figure out how to engage organizations doing work similar to the Rotary Club.
"It would make a statement. If we all got together, we could do a big project and have social time," she said.
Economic and social changes have boosted groups' membership numbers recently. Volunteers say a call to service by President Barack Obama has inspired them, and volunteerism is up in part due to unemployment. Service projects look good on resumes, and students seeking college admission also seek out service opportunities, Lovell said.
The groups do countless good deeds: visiting the aged; bringing blankets to lonely, hospitalized veterans; funding college scholarships for disadvantaged students; helping hearing-impaired children receive cochlear implants; and more.
Introducing young people to service early in life builds character, the Rebekahs' LaVergne said.
The Odd Fellows and Rebekahs have Junior Odd Fellows and Theta Rho Girls groups for kids ages 8 to 18. The Lions Club's Leo Clubs (5,700 worldwide) are designed for young people ages 12 and older. Kiwanis has youth groups — Key Clubs — at both Palo Alto and Henry M. Gunn high schools.
Fehrenbach, 31, is part of the younger breed of volunteer the organizations are counting on to take them into the future.
"Service has always been a part of my DNA," he said.
"We built a playground," he said of a recent project. "It's really touching. You see the value for yourself."
While some might argue that people can find countless volunteer opportunities online through sites such as VolunteerMatch.org and Idealist.org without the club commitment, service and fraternal groups offer something that is often in short supply: a sense of community, Pappas said.
"There are many aspects of a service club. You can get so much out of it. There are great speakers every week. You meet people that you may not ordinarily come in contact with. You're connecting with like-minded people.
"There's something really valuable about connecting. There's a lot of feeling a part of something bigger," she said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.