What will be the fate of NYC’s traditional civic organizations, as their old guard dies off and young people — more involved than ever with their careers, kids and virtual lives — fail to replenish their ranks? In many cases, community betterment organizations are becoming mitzvah-bestowing clubs of retirees by default.
The New York City Chapter of Soroptimist International, a civic service organization devoted to improving the lives of women and girls, celebrates its 90th anniversary Oct. 25.
But some of the 50 or so members left in the group, which had about 75 members 10 years ago and raises money to give scholarships to needy women, fear it may not make its centenary.
“We’re all old and getting sick a lot,” explained West Village resident Mae Gamble, 85. The Soroptimists try to recruit younger members, but are told by prospects they don’t have the time or money for community service.
“The economy is a very big factor,” said Gamble, a retired professor. “The single ones can’t afford it. We have dues and raffles and are always asking members for money,” Gamble said. Others “are just SO busy: They’re lawyers and teachers and have children and they just can’t fit [community service] into their lives,” she explained.
“At one time, this lodge had the largest membership of any lodge in the country: It was in the five figures,” recalled Joe Graham, secretary of the Brooklyn Queensborough Elks Lodge, who lives in Rego Park. Lodge No. 0878 now has about 250 members, but only about 50 are active. “The most active people are retired. Myself, I’m retired,” said Graham, who at 50 years of age is considered a youngster.
Soaring NYC taxes and property values, plus a declining membership (i.e. fewer dues to pay overhead) are a bad combination for many organizations, which have sold or otherwise lost headquarters and meeting places. After membership dwindled in Graham’s Lodge — a Queens Blvd. landmark known for its stunning Eli Harvey elk sculpture — the building was sold to a church, and 0848 downsized to another building, though, Graham noted, the lodge still retains ownership of the elk.
Before the Internet, fraternal and civic groups were crucial for professional networking, but people also genuinely wanted to collaborate in altruistic acts, said Graham: The Elks “are second only to the federal government in providing scholarship money,” noted the retired NYPD lieutenant. It makes him sad to see “the slow dribbling away.”
There are numerous reasons why membership in many established fraternal other civic associations is falling. New Yorkers have to hustle ever harder in a city with some of the nation’s highest housing and medical costs. Ever-longer commutes and lengthened work days leave people with little time for book sales, charity walks, scholarship bestowals and board meetings. Digital distractions have joined television — cited famously as driving social atomization in Robert Putnam’s landmark 2000 book “Bowling Alone” — in luring people inward. Also, many aspects of the old “invitation”-based groups seem stuffy or unappealing to many younger people.
But the main culprit in their demise is a dramatic shift from collectivist to individualist values and thinking – a trend that has potentially dire implications for democracy, said Scott Thumma, a sociology professor at The Hartford Institute in Connecticut. “You see the same thing in religion,” Thumma pointed out.
While the New York metropolitan area lost 725,000 religious “adherents” between 2000 and 2010, according to Census data, there was an increase of 566 churches, as more people broke off to worship “their” way. People are simply less interested in being members of organizations in which their own, individual needs are not paramount, Thumma explained.
“The demise of civic mindedness and interest in group life,” combined with greater emphasis on “the achievement of individual goals,” is evidenced in anemic block associations to the inability of Congress to pass useful legislation, Thumma said.
Even when people find time to join groups such as the PTA (another organization having recruitment problems) they are more likely to do so to advance their own individual objectives or those of their children, Thumma noted.
Also, “there has been a real decline of trust,” that is essential for productive group activities, added Pam Paxton, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. While 40% of boomers believe “most people can be trusted,” only 19% of millenials concur with that statement, according to Pew data released this year. But ironically, “one of the benefits of belonging to volunteer associations is that it brings you into contact with other people where you learn trust in all those micro interactions,” Putnam noted. For want of practice, people are losing “civic skills” said Putnam, like “knowing how to run a meeting, what an agenda looks like.”
Not all groups are in trouble, though. People are satisfying their social needs via book clubs, meetups and other “self enrichment” groups, many of which are on the upswing. In fact, 2011 data from the Pew Internet Project shows that almost 75% of all Americans are affiliated with some kind of group. The Internet may seem like a convenient scapegoat for many people’s reluctance to join up, but social media users are likely to be the most involved group participants, according to Pew.
The Women’s City Club of New York, a 99-year-old multi-issue advocacy organization with about 600 members, is utilizing technology to attract younger members, said executive director Jacqueline Ebanks.
Beefing up the Club’s web presence and online interactions is a top priority. Organizations today “need a Facebook page. You need a Twitter account and you need to be on LinkedIn,” explained Ebanks, who lives in the Baychester section of the Bronx.
“Individuals want to deploy their intellectual competencies, not just their sweat equity,” on behalf of civic organizations, Ebanks has found, so the Women’s City Club allows people to sign up online for specific volunteer opportunities with a minimum of hassle or bureaucracy, she said.
Another strategy is to hook kids on the joy of working with others to accomplish something wonderful early in their lives. Astoria’s Rose Anne Alafogiannis, 69, a member of multiple civic clubs, frets that many may be doomed after their current officers pass on. But she thinks the Kiwanis Club of Astoria-Long Island City, where she is president-elect, will survive due to Kiwanis International’s “youth division” initiatives that start in grade school, which become “Key Clubs,” in high school and continue through college
“We’re trying!” exclaimed Alafogiannis, adding that younger members are also recruiting their friends. Still, she noted, “the last few members we’ve gotten have been older.”