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Service Clubs in America need Millennial Love

   /   Oct 16th, 2013Opinion


This week I attended a Zonta meeting.  And I heard the same feedback: service organizations are fading.  How do we get some young blood?  In a group of 20 women, only one was under the age of 30.  The rest: upwards of 50.

And yet, Millennials (18-34) are an increasingly socially-conscious group.  What TIME magazine labelled as the “Me Me Me” generation, Financial Times rebranded them as the “Yes We Can” bastion.  They want to build communities, have jobs, and live in neighborhoods that give back.  Millennials are a refashioned lot – the same hippie, free-spirit mindset of the 70s – in a more modern day attire with smartphones.  But they’re building apps for philanthropy, spending their college years abroad in developing countries, and returning home to build social enterprises and non-profits.

They are the ideal audience for America’s service organizations.  Yet, Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, and Zonta are troubled with a decline in membership.  These are the folks who finance local Boys and Girls clubs, community centers, food banks, and clean up programs.  They support scholarships, create community gardens, and prize local small businesses.

The values are completely inline: be part of something greater.   Same idea, different approach though.  Service organizations convene for ceremonious meetings, partake in a formal structures, and invest in awards, ribbon-cuttings, and plaques.

Millennials, instead, are happy to picnic, hobnob at the bar, try a local brewery -  and at the same time, devise social programs.  The aim is the same: engage with the local community.  Little formality, though.  And considerably cheaper.

Millennials also look for fundraising options that are streamlined with their lifestyle.  Charity Miles exemplifies this.  Gene Gurkoff had been running marathon for 11 years to raise funds for Parkinson’s research, a disease that had caused the demise of his late grandfather.  Running on his own, he couldn’t garner the kind of corporate sponsorship he was yearning for.

So, he decided to build a larger community.  He developed Charity Miles, an app that rewards you for every mile you run, bike, or walk.  Cyclists and walkers get 10 cents for each mile.  Runners get 25 cents.  It came out last year; in one year, 150,000 users have raised over $400,000.  Now, Charity Miles donates to an assortment of charities: The World Food Program, The Nature Conservancy, Feeding America, and more.

Tech for good – that’s one Millennial approach to social impact.  A simple fundraising mechanism but tech-friendly, collaborative (relying on corporate sponsors). and geared towards the masses – literally, anyone can use it.  Not just for MIllennials.  Not just for members.

Member-exclusivity is a turn off.  Millennials create groups that are collaborative, open, and aspire to minimize politics.  Titles are less significant.  Rewards are in the intangible – you know, that age-old sense of “feeling good” or a simply, having sense of community.  Gifts are not needed.

Service clubs are at the backbone of American communities.  They constitute America’s famous civil society -  what Alexis D’Tocqueville wrote about in the 19th century.   A Frenchman on an exploratory mission, wandering through America, Tocqueville was intrigued by how strong our social fabric is, how we chose to work in unison to address social needs.  Democracy, he said, trickled down beyond the political realm, beyond the confines of the capital, to every aspect of American life.  And civic organizations, geared towards bettering local communities, were dynamic, lively, democratic institutions.
Today, that dynamism is evident in hubs in major cities that serve as community space for non-profits and local enterprises to occupy, work in, and use for special events.   The HUB is a nationwide (with some international centers as well) network of social enterprise centers.  They’re not offices.  They’re not schools.  They’re not performing arts centers.  They’re all of the above: a mish-mash.  But their objective is to be a central source in the city for all those want to do “good.”  More specifically, for all those organizations and companies that have social impact embedded in their DNA.

HUBs are thriving.

Service clubs are struggling.

So perhaps we need to rethink the structure and approach of these service organizations.  We need them.  There is no question about that.  With the times, though, we must adapt.  And the time has come to adapt.  Reduce the hierarchy.  Starting thinking horizontally, not vertically.  Eliminate the politics.  Reduce costs.  Start collaborating.  Try experimenting.   And one day, service clubs could be thriving again.’

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.  Photo Courtesy of OpenSourceWay (Flickr).

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