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A Lion in Winter

A steep decline in service club participation signals the end of an era. Will the next generation be able to organize?


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Former La Mesa Lions Club president Jack Nichols


All had been Lions, and their passing from old age was more than a keynote in an acceptance speech on that night in 2008. Nichols, himself 78, a retired minister, had a point to make. The very future of the club was in jeopardy, he said, and not entirely from the effects of aging. The larger problem was this: younger members weren’t coming on board like they used to.

When Nichols looked out across the sea of gray heads from his inaugural vantage point, was he seeing the end of service in America? Not if he could help it. “From now on,” he told his constituents, dazzling in their Lakers-colored vests, “we’re going to go like 60.” In part, the slogan was meant to pick up the pace. But 60 was also the number of members Nichols calculated his Lions Club needed to keep from going dark.

The situation in La Mesa was representative of a growing trend across the nation. The Service Club Leaders Conference reported in 2010 that memberships in such organizations as the Kiwanis, Elks, Rotary, Lions, Jaycees, and other civic groups had been in decline for decades. The numbers presage an era in which service to community could be a thing of the past. But at what cost?  

“If service clubs disappear,” says UCSD lecturer and Community Investment Strategies founder Patricia Sinay, “we would miss that constant connection and love for community that’s broader than ourselves. That would be a huge loss.”  

By definition, service clubs do good deeds. They fund scholarships and keep books, art supplies, or musical instruments in classrooms. Some fight the good fight against poverty or hunger or disease; others provide reading glasses, or distribute shoes to the needy. Pat Thompson, a longtime El Cajon Elks Lodge member, sums it up in this way: “Service clubs do the good things that taxes don’t cover.”  

Like the Lions, some clubs have borrowed their names from various animals: the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, or the Loyal Order of the Moose. Then there are the Shriners, the Masons, the Rotarians, the Optimists, Jaycees, and Kiwanis, the Soroptimists, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the National Exchange Club, Ruritan National, Key Clubs, Circle K, DeMolay, Job’s Daughters, and the Order of the Eastern Star, to name a few. Some clubs have roots that date back more than a century; all are in various stages of survival.  

If service is indeed dying, then what is killing it? Television, for one thing, says Harvard professor Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But most important, he writes, is generational change, “the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren.” Donald Sauter, an Elk, and a past Exalted Ruler at that, agrees. He wears a navy blazer and a gold chain around his neck with two small yellowish lumps of what appears to be ivory. They are, it turns out, elk teeth. “If your mom or dad was active in the Elks, it either makes you want to be an Elk,” he says, “or, it makes you want nothing to do with being an Elk.”

Before computers, before social networking, membership in a brick-and-mortar community service club was an ironclad expectation of doing business.

There is a saying among service clubs, and it goes like this: Kiwanis organizes the town. Lions have the fun. And Rotarians? They own the town. Before computers, before social networking, membership in a brick-and-mortar community service club was an ironclad expectation of doing business. Influence was peddled at service club meetings. Connections were forged. Deals were made.

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