Two sides of the same coin. A double-edged sword. A mixed bag.
Any number of cliches could be used to describe the varying state of service clubs and organizations in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. Some flourish. Many are struggling. Others have steady membership, but some lost so many bodies that they had to close up shop.
“We have one lady who’s in her early 90s, and we have members in their mid-20s,” said Darlene Simpson, president of the Nez Perce County Republican Women’s Club, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last month. “Actually, our youngest member is 4.”
On the other hand are clubs like the Lewiston Clarkston Service League, founded 80 years ago as the Lewiston Welfare League. Katie Hollingshead, the club’s president when it closed on Dec. 31, said a number of factors affected membership over the past decade.
“It’s just one of those things where it dwindled and dwindled and dwindled,” Hollingshead said. “You can’t make people volunteer.”
Service groups have a rich history and enjoyed a strong run of success in the 20th century. But cultural shifts and changing attitudes toward volunteerism have left a mark, and many of the signs that announced the presence of such clubs on the edge of every American town are gone.
“I hate to see those organizations going away, because there are certain people that works best for,” said Charlette Kremer of Lewiston, an appointed member of Serve Idaho, the Governor’s Commission on Service and Volunteerism.
In their heyday, many service clubs operated with strict membership rules and policies, and Kremer said that aspect appealed to the kind of volunteer who needed the direction and structure provided by those organizations. Younger generations still have a desire to serve and volunteer, but they have tended to be more issue-oriented and averse to following rules and paying dues.
“So they’re looking for an opportunity to serve an organization that has a mission that they really believe in, like environmental stewardship or child protection or education, rather than a general club where members get together and support other organizations that are doing the work,” Kremer said. “I like all available options on the table, because everyone is different, and their motivations are different.”
Lauded and derided
Service clubs and organizations emerged as a force in American society around the beginning of the 20th century. Businessmen helped fuel their rapid growth as they looked for more organized ways to benefit their communities, all while getting a healthy dose of deal-making and socializing along the way.
But women were a much greater factor, with explosive participation coming from middle- and upper-class white women who didn’t work outside the home. Some clubs, like the Service League, even excluded working women from membership.
Another factor was the segregation of women from the public sphere. Historians have noted that many women used their participation in service organizations as a way to engage with issues of the day in a socially acceptable way since public life was almost exclusively reserved for men.
The country’s black population also played a key part in the service movement, especially in communities where their needs and concerns were largely ignored. Groups tended to focus on social issues like housing, education and employment. Several still thrive to this day.
Many of the small local clubs that were born out of informal activities like afternoon teas gained direction, organization and momentum when they affiliated with national organizations. An example was the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, incorporated in 1901 in Washington, D.C., by Ella Dietz Clymer, according to the “Dictionary of American History.”
The federation’s service activities focused on schools, libraries and parks — a perfect fit for many stay-at-home women. Men’s clubs evolved along a parallel path, with business lunches morphing into groups like Rotary in 1905 in Chicago; the Exchange and the Kiwanis in Detroit in 1911 and 1915, respectively; the Lions in Chicago in 1917; and the Optimist in Lexington, Ky., in 1919.
Most clubs found a niche for their service activities, with Rotary taking on polio, the Lions fighting blindness, and the Exchange fighting against child abuse. Their growth steadily continued as middle-class, suburban lifestyles gradually overtook the rural existence that dominated the American experience during the previous century.
In 1931, the 15 largest men’s clubs and six largest women’s clubs topped 1 million members. By 1964, the 26 major men’s clubs had 4 million members, and the eight major women’s clubs had 15 million members, according to the dictionary.
But that source also notes that women’s clubs were in sharp decline as the 20th century was winding down. By 2000, membership had dropped to fewer than 1 million, while membership in men’s clubs stayed about the same.
Most clubs were created with altruistic motives, but historian Jeffrey A. Charles wrote about the contempt heaped upon such groups from certain quarters of American society. In his 1993 book, “Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions,” he noted that the elite class looked down its collective nose at the clubs as an ultimately negative expression of changes to middle-class life.
“Lampooned and caricatured by H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis, derided by the literati, investigated by Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd and other sociologists, the clubs, these observers felt, typified the commercialism and materialism of American democratic society,” he wrote. “The intelligentsia of the twenties viewed Rotarians, Kiwanians and Lions as important but disheartening manifestations of the modern American male, who had evolved into a shallow joiner, booster and conformist.”
To the contrary, Charles found much more to the country’s fascination with such clubs than a simple caricature, writing that they clearly represented the country’s better impulses toward volunteerism.
Killed off by social media?
However they were viewed, most service clubs still thrived. But tectonic shifts in the cultural landscape eventually caught up to many of them. Hollingshead’s two prevailing theories about what happened to Service League revolve around the emergence of social media, along with what she called “helicopter parents.”
“People are much more consumed by their children’s activities, and push their energy toward that instead of volunteering,” she said. “I have kids, and I spend a lot of time doing stuff specifically for them. But I think that is part of the driving factor that leads you away from other things.”
Club service went hand-in-hand with traditional social activities like playing golf and joining card or bowling leagues that have somewhat fallen by the wayside, she said. And Service League in particular got overwhelmed by an even bigger cultural earthquake: the internet.
The league spent most of its energy on providing short-term financial assistance to needy families. Before social media, social workers at local schools and hospitals would refer appropriate cases for the league to consider. But that process went out the window once it established a Facebook page.
“They would expect an immediate response,” Hollingshead said of people coming to the page and directly appealing for money. “And if they didn’t get an immediate response, then you were the most awful person in the world and you didn’t care about anybody.”
The stress eventually pushed the last few members to the breaking point.
The shifting attitudes toward structured club service cited by Kremer played a major role in the demise of the last remaining local Kiwanis Club. Former member Dennis Ohrtman said membership was consistent up until a few years ago, when a contingent of nine people left en masse because they didn’t want to pay dues, attend the morning meetings or subject themselves to the boundaries of a club.
“It broke our hearts,” said Ohrtman, a 42-year member of the club. “They were delightful people.”
The club held on for a while. But the remaining members voted to close on a tight 7-6 vote a couple of years ago, he said.
“It got embarrassing to invite someone to give a program, and there was virtually no attendance.”
Simpson, of the Republican Women’s Club, agreed that some younger people don’t seem to relish the structure a club brings to volunteerism.
“They younger ones, they can go party without the rules elsewhere,” she said. “Why do they need to pay dues and follow rules to get together? It’s sad.”
Service clubs that have been able to retain membership can leverage those numbers to stay strong. Ohrtman said a good example is the Lewiston Rotary, which has enough members to spread the work involved in its various service projects.
“People can target in and choose one or two projects they want to do, and it doesn’t take the whole club to do every project,” he said.
Outgoing Lewiston Rotary President Frankie Paffile described the club’s membership as “steady.” Job pressures, moving from the area and death are the main factors when it loses members, according to its internal reporting.
But Paffile said Rotary International is actively recruiting new members through its Rotoract clubs for people ages 18-30. The club also has relaxed some of its rules about attending meetings and service activities. It currently has almost four dozen members.
Simpson said her group also is working hard to enlist younger members. She advised that approach for anyone in a club that is struggling to find participants. She also diligently sends in notes about the club’s regular activities to the Lewiston Tribune, often with a photo to make them stand out to potential members.
The club also did a recent mailing, and its civic education projects focus on junior high school students who could grow into future members. And Simpson said local members should consider going to national conventions sponsored by their parent clubs to learn more about recruitment.
Hollingshead was slightly more blunt with an assessment of attitudes toward volunteerism, citing one of her favorite sayings: If it’s important, you’ll make it happen. If it’s not, you’ll make an excuse.
“So whenever I invite other people to do something, I’m either going to see it happen, or I’m going to hear the excuse.”
Mills may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2266.