Civic clubs struggling

Published 7:18 pm Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Traditional formats don’t appeal to many prospective members

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

News that the Rescue and Battery Park Ruritan Club was dissolving due to declining membership is symptomatic of the challenge faced by many civic organizations — enticing young members to join and getting them to stay.

Every group has that problem, said Glen Schlickenmeyer, speaking for the Smithfield Ruritan Club.

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“Our group is aging, like all of them are,” he said.

Jim Henderson with the Carrollton Ruritan Club was particularly excited over the prospect of a new 30-something member. Henderson, who is also with the Isle of Wight Citizens Association and the Carrollton Civic League, joked, “a young person is in their 50s.”

As for new members in their 20s, 30s or even 40s, “it’s a rarity,” Henderson said. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The subject of civic involvement also came up during a recent tourism assessment exercise at The Smithfield Center. The discussion centered on how to get younger members of the community engaged by joining established civic organizations.

Some possible roadblocks discussed ranged from not feeling welcomed by existing members to conflicts over outdated methods of doing things. Also, it was noted by participants that younger people simply do not like attending meetings for the sake of meeting.

Marylee Willis with the Windsor Woman’s Club said her club got around that last hurdle by eliminating the program that was typically included at each meeting.

Now members are spending more time getting to know each other, said Willis of the Club that has doubled its membership over the past two years.

Willis said that potential new members receive personal phone calls and invitations, and once on board, are kept busy with projects. The Club also expanded its coverage area to include the Carrsville and Orbit communities.

But Willis said the club isn’t ready to rest on its laurels quite yet.

“We just happen to be at the top of the roller coaster right now,” she said of the Club, which boasts more about 80 members.

Schlickenmeyer said the Smithfield Ruritan Club saw a slide in membership two years ago, but after making an effort, the group is now stable.

The Ruritans work with the Smithfield High School BETA Club to plant seeds of future membership, as well as pulling in members through fundraisers, such as the recent car show on Main Street.

If they see how the group gives back to the community, they are more likely to get involved, Schlickenmeyer said.

Willis agreed that keeping people busy with projects is key, and the Windsor Woman’s Club has many, including work on the Windsor Town Center, a craft show and a backpack program at Windsor Elementary School where needy students can take home the food for the weekend. For that, the women raised $7,000 to get it going, Willis said.

Another tactic employed by the Smithfield Kiwanis Club is the “associate” member program.

The Club recognized it wasn’t attracting new members and this is a new strategy, said President Meredith Marchant.

Eric Leaman, who is working with the Kiwanis new associate member program, said that the group meets once a month after hours rather than the regular weekly lunchtime meetings. Associate members can volunteer for projects, but pay less dues than regular members, but whose dues include the weekly lunches.

So far, the associate program has attracted about 10 new members to complement the regular roster of about 40 members, Leaman said.

“People like it,” he said.

Leaman said that in the past, businesses paid for employees to attend the weekly lunch meetings, but as time and revenues grow tighter, are less willing to do so — and that impacts everyone, not just millenials. 

Graham Bryant, 25, revitalized a collegiate Ruritan Club while a student at the College of William and Mary. He is now a member of the Creeds Ruritan Club in Virginia Beach with his wife, Mary.

Bryant said young people want to give back to the community, but with many obligations to attend to, time is a valuable commodity. Instead of sitting through long meetings to get to a project, Bryant said that while in college he liked to organize them by email and then meet members at the target location.

Driving to a meeting, eating a meal, listening to a speaker and then planning a project just seems to be an inefficient use of time, he said.

When projects were planned informally by email, Bryant said the whole club would turn out, but if a project was planned in the traditional way, the attendance was cut in half.

“We are all busy, we all want to do good, we just need to be more efficient about it,” he said.

Another roadblock with younger folks is the emphasis on fundraising rather than the physical work of executing visible projects, Bryant said.

Fundraising is invisible to the community, but something like a group of Ruritans out picking up trash, that’s really valuable and the type of service people want to do, Bryant said, adding that he got hooked in middle school when he was asked by older members to cook up a batch of hush puppies.

“If I didn’t get something tangible to do, I don’t think I would be a Ruritan today,” he said.  {/mprestriction}