Can Civic Groups Like Moose, Elks Survive?

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 friendster.com, meetup.com 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."

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