Can Civic Groups Like Moose, Elks Survive?

The International Order of Loyal Raccoons was once an important part of everyday life for TV characters Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton of "The Honeymooners."

But like those characters from the 1950s television classic, fraternal organizations are in danger of becoming a grainy memory from years past.

As older members die off and younger generations find civic groups irrelevant, membership in centuries-old civic clubs like the Moose, the Elks, the Optimists and others is dwindling.

Organizations like the Odd Fellows, for instance, boasted about 1 million members in their 1940s heyday -- today, the Odd Fellows' ranks have thinned to half that number, according to a club spokesperson.

Is there a future for civic groups in America?

Cow Chips and Memberships

Sauk City is a small town nestled in the rolling hills of south-central Wisconsin. As befits the Cow Chip Capital of the state, the Sauk Prairie area is home to an annual cow chip throwing contest, as well as regular Chamber of Commerce golf outings and an autumn grape stomping festival.

But even in this stronghold of bedrock Midwestern values, fraternal organizations are struggling.

"One of the problems that all groups are having is membership," said Ed Jacobsen, president of the Sauk City Optimist Club. "A lot of clubs are down considerably."

The Sauk City Optimists host spaghetti dinners, support a scholarship fund and have a Meals on Wheels program. Despite these efforts at reaching out to the community, the group fails to get many members to show up at their mandatory meetings.

"People are so darn busy. They don't have time for it," said Jacobsen. "I'm not sure people care anymore."

Making Safer and Healthier Communities

It's not just members of small-town civic organizations who lament the disappearance of their traditions.

Many sociology and civic history experts believe these groups added a critical dimension to everyday life in American communities -- one for which there is no easy substitute.

"Repeated social interaction, such as the kind found at Elks, Moose and other clubs, greases the wheels of society by enabling social trust to develop," said Abby Williamson, associate director of Harvard University's Saguaro Seminar, which focuses on civic engagement in America.

"The social networks that form have value for individuals -- more resources in a time of crisis -- but also for society as a whole," she said. "Communities that are more connected are safer, healthier and demonstrate better outcomes for children."

Williamson also believes the decline in civic organizations may have a negative effect on democracy in the United States.

"For a country that relies on participation for democratic legitimacy, participation in clubs can serve as an entree to political participation, such as voting, advocating for local change or even running for office," she said.

Is Social Mixing a Thing of the Past?

Civic and fraternal organizations were one of the few places where men of varying educations and social backgrounds would socialize and network. President Calvin Coolidge, according to legend, was inducted into the Elks by his chauffeur.

"For so much of American history, they were a way for men of different occupational backgrounds to come together," said Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard.

But now, according to Skocpol, people are more likely to participate in professional societies related to their occupations, where they meet people with similar backgrounds, education and income.

"A lot of these fellowship organizations have been replaced by professional organizations that cater to the educated middle class," she said. "This is contributing to greater inequality in America, dividing the highly educated and professional managerial class from everyone else."

Members Enjoyed Medical and Insurance Benefits

The loss to some communities includes more than intangibles like social networking.

Members of civic groups, many of whom were uninsured working fathers, were eligible for important financial benefits, according to David T. Beito, associate professor of history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Most clubs offered medical care and health benefits to members and their families, in addition to building hospitals and orphanages.

Among poor families, the loss of these membership benefits is felt most sharply. "In poor neighborhoods, lodges used to be very important," Beito said. "That's a great loss and it's been suffered already."

Beito also noted that civic groups were often a primary means of entertainment in smaller towns. And in some communities with strict liquor laws, he said, "they were the only place you could get a drink."

What's Causing the Decline?

Various factors like commute times and households with two working parents have been blamed for shrinking the membership rolls of civic clubs. The powerful impact of telelvision, however, is near the top of everyone's list.

"Technological developments such as television have privatized our leisure time," said Williamson. "Americans are filling their hours with solitary time in front of the television, rather than time with friends and neighbors."

Williamson also blames the typical commute for a decline in civic participation. A recent census report states the average American commuter now spends over 100 hours a year getting to and from work -- longer than the typical two-week yearly vacation.

"Suburban sprawl means that Americans spend more time in their cars and less in their communities," she said. "Every additional 10 minutes behind the wheel result in a 10 percent reduction of individual civic participation in all its forms."

Women and Minorities Need Not Apply

Other experts note the changing roles of men and women in families and workplaces since the 1970s forced Americans to rethink their participation in traditional organizations like all-male fraternal groups.

Television parodies, like those seen on "The Honeymooners" and the absurd rituals of "The Flintstones'" Royal Order of Water Buffaloes, did little to enhance the reputation of fraternal groups.

"It became less fashionable among educated people," said Harvard's Skocpol. She also believes gender-based discrimination caused these groups to fall into disfavor.

The Optimists, for example, did not offer membership to women until 1987. Most groups relegated women to provisional or auxiliary participation in a handful of select activities.

And by excluding Jews, blacks, Asians and other minorities, these once-powerful fraternal organizations may have paved the way to their own demise.

"If you look at the 19th century, just about every organization that existed was exclusionary," said Beito.

Though most clubs now admit women and minorities, to a generation raised on the lessons of the civil rights and women's rights movements, change may have come too late.

'Not Your Grandfather's Moose Lodge'

The Chicopee Falls Moose Family Center in western Massachusetts is one example of an organization that has successfully fought to earn its place in the community.

"It was a dark, no-windows-in-the-building place," administrator Bruce Adams said of the all-male, beer-drinking, clannish nature of the lodge.

Now, the Moose Family Center has full wireless Internet access. Free computers are available for children and adults. The club also sponsors 15 soccer teams for boys and girls.

These days, according to Adams, "there are many times when you can come into our center and there are more women than men here. We provide activities for the entire family."

"We're not your grandfather's Moose Lodge," said Adams.

The Chicopee Falls Moose Family Center also supports the community by providing athletic fields and other support to programs that have been slashed from local schools' budgets. The group also recently gave $25,000 to the local public library, Adams said.

And Adams' approach seems to be working. Total membership, which hovered around 1,100 in 2001, has since swollen to over 2,000 members.

"This is why younger people want to be a member here -- because we're helping our community," he said. "Soccer moms are joining, soccer dads are joining."

But not everything's changed, according to Adams. "A man can still come in here for a beer." Added Adams: "And a woman can come in for a beer, too."

Reaching Out to Younger Members

Few clubs, however, can boast membership gains like Adams can. Optimists International, whose membership peaked in 1990 at 175,000, has seen steady declines since.

Krista Grueninger, communications manager for Optimists International, claims their membership "drops a few percentage points each year." Membership today stands at about 105,000.

To combat this, the Optimists are reaching out to school-age children to involve them in the club's activities. "It's a way to get them into the service mode," she said.

"Also, we're looking to expand into college communities so that when they leave college, in addition to their jobs, they can get involved in our organization in their free time," Grueninger said.

The group is also considering a membership-at-large status, which would allow people to join without requiring attendance at regular meetings. This new level of membership, however, has not yet been approved or implemented by the Optimists.

The Thinning Herd

For some smaller chapters of the Elks, the Moose and other groups, where fewer than a dozen elderly members struggle to keep a club operating, efforts to boost membership may come too late.

This leaves some experts asking what, if anything, will replace these groups?

Virtual communities, like those found on, and other networking sites, may provide a similar form of participation in community affairs.

"Many potential solutions have been proposed -- bolstering connections through the Internet, through workplaces and through mentoring programs," said Harvard's Williamson.

But many observers believe this once-vital part of American life is doomed to extinction. According to Skocpol, "Something has been lost and it's not being replaced."