Service clubs: An optimistic future?

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Since 2004, homeless youth in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, have had somewhere to turn for a hot meal, a shower, and other much needed support. The Survival Centre, operated by the Boys and Girls Club of Charlottetown, is a free drop-in program designed to help young people struggling to live on their own. It fills a large gap in the community and until recently was facing certain closure. Funding for this safe-haven had nearly run out when a local Rotary Club stepped in. Their donation of $100,000 over the next four years will keep the centre up and running.

"It was beyond essential," says Krista Shaw, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club. "I really don't know what we would have done."

The Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty has been active since 1987 and continues to have a meaningful impact both locally and internationally. It was already building a school in Cameroon when it started looking for a cause to support closer to home. After a committee of members reviewed current community needs, the Survival Centre came to the forefront.

"We immediately felt that it was something that would fit our mold," says Lewis Creed, president of the Rotary Club, "in terms of trying to make a difference in the community and a difference for youth."

For more than a century members of service clubs like Rotary have volunteered significant amounts of time in order to give back to their communities.

A long history of service

The world's first service club was formed in 1905 when a Chicago lawyer called a meeting of a few business acquaintances. He hoped to form a club that would capture the friendly spirit he had felt in the small towns of his youth, but what started out as social meetings aimed at business networking rapidly evolved into something more.

This original group decided to meet regularly, rotating subsequent meetings between each other's offices and consequently adopting the name Rotary. They soon shifted their focus towards service to the community and the club's popularity spread. Within a decade Rotary clubs had formed all over the United States and had filtered into Canada as well.

Many service clubs got their start this way, as social gatherings for business networking, before quickly adapting into organizations focused on performing charitable works. They often began as a single club in a single city, and were then replicated in other communities. Most clubs now meet weekly or bi-weekly on the same days each month. These meetings usually take place at a mealtime, though each club has a unique schedule and atmosphere.

Over the years, service clubs have evolved into a significant source of funding for charities and other essential services, but today they're facing more challenges than ever.

New demographics present new challenges

Baby boomers are heading towards retirement, children are engaged in activities that require more parental involvement, and technology is constantly increasing the pace of day-to-day life. Membership is down as younger people fail to replace longtime members, and the average member age continues to rise.

All of these changes point to an obvious question: will service clubs continue to play a vital role in our communities?

While many agree the need for these clubs will always remain, there are different challenges that will have to be overcome in order to survive. Membership is already proving to be an issue for many service clubs, and some say finding a way to engage younger members will be crucial. Others stress the importance of staying relevant in the community and shifting project structures to keep up with the times. Finally, still others believe some of the changes we're seeing in society will actually end up benefiting these clubs and furthering their importance.

At the heart of any successful service club is the ability to attract new members, according to Alison Hunter, 32-year-old president-elect of the Kiwanis Club of Ottawa. And lately it's been a growing struggle. In fact, Lions International membership dropped from 1.45 million in 1995 to 1.35 million this year, and by 2009 Kiwanis membership had dropped by 20,000 since the early 1990s.

Though not all clubs have seen a decline in membership, there has been a general shift in the age groups involved. For one, getting young people to join is proving more and more difficult.

Herb Harrison, membership chairman of the Regina Central Lions Club, says he's having a hard time recruiting people in their 20s and 30s. Though they're often involved in some form of volunteering, he says they seem hesitant to join a structured group.

An even bigger problem these clubs face is recruiting members between the ages of 35 and 50, according to Gord Gamble, project coordinator at the Rotary Club of Dartmouth.

A factor that seems to affect members of that age group at the Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty is having young children, says Creed. Because kids are involved in so many activities these days, he says moms and dads end up acting as chauffeurs, leaving them with little time to go above and beyond and provide service through service clubs.

The Kiwanis Club of Ottawa is also facing this challenge, though Hunter says those members with young children often end up coming back.

"If you just let them sort of fall off, that's when you lose them," she says. "But if you understand that there's been a change, that they can't give what they used to but they can give something else, I think that's when you have more success."

She works hard to keep those members involved in different ways, asking them to help her with smaller tasks like making phone calls.

While membership has always been a challenge for service clubs, the current shift in demographics has sparked a need to reassess the ways they engage in communities and evolve with the times.

Changing with the times

Though Hunter says she recognizes the importance of tradition, clubs must adapt in order to stay relevant and to attract new members. She says while the Ottawa Kiwanis Club used to meet every week, they now meet only twice a month, making involvement more tangible for young people trying to establish themselves in their careers.

But service clubs also need to adapt in terms of the projects they choose to become involved with or contribute to, according to Bob Gray, a 60-year-old member of the Rotary Club of Charlottetown Royalty.

"You have to make sure that what you're doing is important in your community, and actually fill the need instead of saying, 'this is something we've always done so we're going to continue to do it'."

Gray was on the committee of members that performed the needs-assessment that resulted in the donation to the Survival Centre, and highlights it as a good example of this. "Needs change and communities change, and you try to stay with that."

Harrison says staying relevant is a big challenge within his club. A lot of the more senior members of the Regina Central Lions Club don't seem to want to go out and discover new areas that could benefit the community, he says. It's usually the younger members in their 40s and 50s that venture out to identify those needs.

It's also the younger members who will be able to incorporate technological advancements into these clubs, an important step in keeping up with the times.

Hunter says her club's weekly newsletter that use to arrive in the mailbox is now being sent out by email. Though she has already seen many changes take place in her club, she says it's not something that happens overnight.

"Our club is evolving so I think it will be successful in the long run, but it's like steering the Titanic — you can't turn it instantly," she says.

As service clubs attempt to evolve and stay current, Gamble points to one change in society that might actually help ensure their necessity and existence in the future.

"I think as governments continue to try to restrain budgets and limit their investments in community infrastructure, there's going to be a growing demand for volunteer dollars to support initiatives," he says.

He was recently involved in putting forth a call out for proposals on behalf of five metro Halifax Rotary clubs inviting established and registered nonprofit organizations to pitch projects that will have a big impact on the region and its people.

Though he knows there will be challenges, Gamble says the need for service clubs isn't going to go away.

Creed agrees, insisting there are many nonprofit organizations in the community that wouldn't exist without the assistance of these clubs.

There seems to be no doubt that these volunteer groups will continue to be needed. Though service clubs are undoubtedly facing challenges, as long as they're able to remain relevant and recruit new members, there will be opportunities to help.

"The attraction of service clubs, for the most part, is you end up with like-minded people who want to make a contribution to the community," says Creed. "And I think that will always be there."

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