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Published: Saturday, 10/6/2001

Service clubs shrink as members age

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

Service clubs of business professionals in the Toledo area and nationally face problems recruiting and keeping members in an increasingly fast-paced world. Three recent local meetings demonstrate the fellowship and camaraderie, but also how American business people generally aren't joining clubs as they once did.

About 220 Rotary Club of Toledo members and guests gathered Monday at Zenobia Shrine Temple on Madison Avenue to hear mayoral candidate Jack Ford outline his agenda. His opponent, Ray Kest, who was in the audience, will get his turn next week before one of America's largest Rotary clubs.

Still, the downtown Rotary, with 505 members, has scrambled in recent years just to fill the 30-plus vacancies created each year by deaths and by members moving out of Toledo.

A block away, at the Toledo Club, 25 members of Toledo Host Lions Club met one recent Thursday to hear all about therapeutic massage. One member volunteered to be the subject of a live demonstration. The club's membership has dropped by 100 to about 60 in the last 13 years.

At Sylvania Country Club Wednesday, 10 men, mostly retirees, met for lunch and fellowship. They are the remnants of what was once the 100-member Sertoma Club of Toledo (the name is short for Service to Mankind). They were meeting unofficially, and they no longer pay dues - the club disbanded two years ago. “We just had trouble recruiting members, and when it got down to about six active members, we gave up our Sertoma franchise,” said Jack Witte, who joined the club in 1954, just two years after it started.

The reasons for such service clubs' struggles range from urban sprawl to corporate downsizing, time constraints on two-income families, and generational changes that keep many younger Americans from becoming the “joiners” their parents and grandparents were.

At one time, Optimist International had a major presence in the Toledo area, with at least three clubs within just a few miles of downtown Toledo. Now, the organization has only one survivor within the city limits - the Westgate Optimist Club, which is hanging on with 13 members. However, Optimist has 16 clubs in northwest Ohio and three in southeast Michigan.

The Optimist Club of Downtown Toledo gave up a year ago, when its active membership dwindled from about 50 in the 1980s to 13 or 14.

“Corporations used to sponsor members and pay the dues and encourage their employees to join service clubs,” lamented Paul Zimmer, a former president. “That situation dissipated. Toledo Edison became FirstEnergy, Champion Spark Plug went away, DeVilbiss went away.”

Ed Cahill, a former president of the defunct Sertoma club, said lack of corporate support also hurt his club. But he said younger members also noticed few of their peers joining.

The signs of change in service clubs are everywhere. In the Kiwanis Club of Toledo, which has met downtown for 85 years, membership dropped to 82 from a peak of 220. The National Exchange Club, headquartered in Toledo, peaked at nearly 49,000 members in 1,284 clubs in 1974, but now has 30,000 members in 900 clubs.

“We're competing against apathy,” said David Nershi, executive vice president.

Even though the largest service clubs - Lions Clubs International, Rotary International, and Kiwanis International - seem to be holding their own or even growing worldwide, their U.S. membership is stagnant or declining.

Some reasons are outlined in a critically acclaimed book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published last year by Robert Putnam, a native of Port Clinton who is a Harvard University professor.

Besides pressures of time and money and some other factors, he wrote, most important is “generational change - the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren.”

The author pointed to a study of membership in 32 national associations with chapters around the United States that found a sharp decline began around 1960. Similar declines have occurred in union membership, church attendance, membership in professional associations, and even in social card-playing and entertaining at home, he wrote. One of his findings, giving the book its name, was that America has more bowlers than ever before but far fewer leagues.

In short, Mr. Putnam concluded that “most Americans no longer spend much time in community organizations.”

Officers of several Toledo-area service clubs agree. “People are just not in a joining mood,” said Exchange Club's Mr. Nershi. But Exchange Clubs are trying to attract younger members by offering “hands-on activities,” he added.

Most clubs have tried the same recruiting tactics, with varying degrees of success - such as letters to company owners and managers and the “buddy” approach, such as bringing a friend to a meeting or signing up an associate as a new member. Some have liberalized their membership requirements, relaxed attendance requirements, reduced meeting frequency, and put membership pitches on the web.

Admitting women members to the onetime “old boys' clubs” boosted membership for a time and slowed the attrition. Although some service clubs resisted opening up membership to females for many years, their hand was forced by a Supreme Court decision in 1987.

Some, such as the Toledo Rotary, soon elected women officers - the downtown Rotary's first female president was Sue Martin, executive director of the Toledo Bar Association, in 1994.

Offering membership to women helped, said Barry Brandt, executive administrator for the Toledo Host Lions Club, which reached its peak membership of 160 in 1988. Most women who joined were 30 to 35 years old, and they tended to bring in others of about the same age, dropping the club's average member age to 40 from 50, he said. That has since changed, and the group's average age now is above 50.

Old-fashioned arm-twisting seems to work well for the Toledo Rotary, whose roster reads like the Who's Who of Toledo business. The 10th largest of Rotary's 30,000 clubs worldwide, the downtown Rotary has 508 members, near its all-time high. But the club was hard hit in the late 1990s by deaths, corporate reassignments, and retirees moving out of town.

When membership fell to 470, Rotary embarked on an aggressive recruiting drive, said Henry “Hunt” Sears, president. Mr. Sears, 43, a commercial Realtor and a fourth-generation Rotarian, added that the club had to bring in 60 new members in the last year to have a net gain of 30.

“We aggressively brought in our friends,” he remarked. “We had a `movers-and-shakers' committee that targeted executives of companies, then [approached them] one on one.” Each targeted executive was asked to join or at least designate someone else in the firm to join. One result: The club's average age dropped from 67 in 1990, to 60 in 1995, and to 52 currently, Mr. Sears noted.

In addition, Rotary has added special events aimed at younger families in recent years - such as a zoo night and a Cedar Point outing. “You have to include families, or you lose [younger members],” said Mr. Sears. His goal is to add 20 members in the coming year.



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