Change or die

Author: Barrett Rainey

Something’s happening here in our little Burg in the Oregon forest. Something distressing and disappointing. A damn shame. I’d bet it’s happening where you are, too.

Our little Rotary club is slowly disappearing. More people going out the back door than coming in the front. The other two local Rotary clubs are in the same trouble. So, too, are the Lions, Kiwanis, Elks, VFW and other business and social organizations. Our problem’s not unique. It’s an international issue. Times have changed. We – and they – have not..

Take Rotary. Founded in Chicago over 100 years ago by business leaders to share business news, gossip and professional tips while doing good works, it’s been a highly successful civic group in many a community, eventually going international. To its everlasting credit, Rotary has nearly wiped out polio in the world. If that’s all it ever did, Rotary would have earned everlasting honor in world social and medical history. Great job!

But times have changed and too many organizations have not. For instance, take those “business news, gossip and professional tips” reasons for Rotary’s creation. In too many local clubs, heads of business no longer participate on a regular basis. Most people who belong now can’t write a company check or commit corporate resources to a given community project. Many members have been “appointed” to Rotary or other civic groups by an employer rather than joining voluntarily out of a personal commitment to local volunteerism. Others are there because they genuinely want to do the “good works” but they don’t bring the resources – financial and corporate – that traditionally made clubs viable. And valuable.

As for “business, news and gossip,” small “tips” clubs have sprung up in every city and town. They’re designed to share member news for the benefit of others. A commonality. They meet – share – and go to work. They don’t usually undertake community projects as service clubs have done historically. They’re linked electronically. For their own welfare. It’s a “network” by definition. Business oriented. Not community service.

Lions, Kiwanis, Elks, Masons, Eagles, Moose, The Grange and other business and fraternal groups – like Rotary – have done similar good works and are important parts of the fabric from which this nation was crafted. And – like Rotary – they’re suffering membership losses because – in too many cases – they’ve not changed with the times. Some are already gone.

Just as we aren’t driving the vehicles we did 50-60 years ago – aren’t flying airliners with propellers – aren’t tied to the mail for written communication – aren’t driving state-to-state on two-lane highways – we aren’t conducting business and social affairs the same ways. If we haven’t kept up with the times and adopted the new things that come along, we’re out of business.

I don’t know the long term answers to save these valuable community resources. But it’s patently obvious they must change. In our little Burg, for example, the VFW recently closed two of its three struggling Posts and combined resources into one viable group. Returning military vets from Iraq and Afghanistan wars aren’t joining the VFW in large numbers. They’re founding new relationships in newly-created organizations based on common – and current – experiences to work for their special needs. The VFW has memberships of 70 and 80-year-olds. The new vet organizations memberships are 20-30-40-somethings with much different needs and interests. Which clubs are relevant? Which will grow?

Three local mainline churches – faced with declining memberships and older congregations – have combined three struggling youth groups into a single and more well-attended program. Just reality of the “marketplace.”

Our little community of roughly 20,000 doesn’t need three Rotary Clubs with declining membership. It needs one viable Rotary Club with today’s community service as the basis for membership. As the basis for existence. Same is true for Lions, Kiwanis, Elks and others who used to be valuable community resources. It’s not that they’re no longer appropriate. It’s not that they can’t be important resources for today. And the future. But – just as all of us have done to cope with change – they can’t continue to be important without reshaping their reasons for existence to today’s needs.

What roles they should play must be determined by each. There are still needs and there are still good people willing to serve. But needs changed as communities changed. More important, the business we do – and how we do it – is dramatically different. Not over the last 100 years of Rotary. Just the last decade or two.

Without change – no matter how drastic – some of these groups won’t be around. In a decade or two. And that would be a shame.

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