Is it hip to be a Shriner? 'Old guy groups' stage a comeback
By Jamie Sotonoff
The Northwest suburban Kiwanis club meets online.
Local Shriners maintain a comprehensive Web site and promote their charity
projects on CNN's Comcast Newsmakers segments.
Most of the area's Moose lodges have been converted to nonsmoking "Moose
Family Centers," and more women than men show up for their monthly blackjack
These ain't your daddy's philanthropic organizations ... except, they are.
Groups like the Shriners, Kiwanis International, Elks, Moose and others are
working hard to shed their reputations as old guys who want to march in parades,
drink beer and "escape the missis."
Instead, they're updating their images and extending a welcoming hand to young
men, and, in some cases, women.
While it's still a struggle to recruit young members - because of societal changes,
misperceptions about the clubs and fear of isolating older members -
membership is on the rebound.
Local Moose lodges, for example, saw membership increase last year for the first
time in years, said the Illinois Moose Association's state membership chairman,
Todd Kramer, of Des Plaines.
According to famous trend spotter Marian Salzman, men's clubs are back in
vogue. In the wake of the metrosexual trend - in which heterosexual men openly
embraced their feminine sides - Salzman said men want to return to traditionally
masculine activities, like men's service clubs.
"It's becoming hip to be an Elk," said Dwayne Rumney, past national president of
Membership in groups like the Shriners, Moose, Elk and Kiwanis peaked after
World War II. Back then, young men joined these groups for a mix of socializing,
philanthropy and business networking.
At the time, most homes didn't have television sets and women were home with
The weekly meetings might have been like social gatherings, but the men never
strayed from their mission: to raise money for charitable causes, whether it be
helping a sick child in the community or providing eyeglasses for people in Third
As society changed, these groups, for the most part, did not. Membership ebbed
and flowed, but it wasn't until the past decade that it started declining steadily.
And as the numbers fell, it became increasingly difficult to recruit young members.
"You tend to recruit the people you know. And 70-year-old people know 70-yearold
people," Kiwanis International spokesman David Williams said.
Why did young men lose interest in these clubs? It was a mixture of factors,
sociology experts and group leaders say.
The main reason is men's changing role in society. No longer just the
breadwinners, men today work longer hours, commute farther, are more transient
and share in child-rearing and housekeeping duties because their wives also
Being busier than ever leaves little time for meetings or hanging out with the guys.
"Typical male bonding rituals have gradually eroded," says Dr. Scott Haltzman, a
Brown University psychiatry professor who studies men's behavior. "Men haven't
changed. They just aren't behaving the same way they did a generation ago. But
men still need the opportunity to connect with other men and be understood by
other men in their terms. It's a way of communicating that women often can't
Men also don't commit to things the way they did years ago. For example, the
average Kiwanis member used to be active for seven years. Today, it's only four
years, Williams said.
Public perception is another problem. These groups unintentionally developed
reputations as being uninviting "old guy groups" prompting young men to
overlook their philanthropic missions.
Jeff McIlrath of Geneva admits that his initial impression of Shriners was as "the
guys who wore funny hats at parades." But his wife's boss was a Shriner, and
being new to Chicago, he inquired about the group. If nothing else, he thought, it
would be a good place for career networking. So at age 27, he joined. And to
McIlrath's surprise, the group offered networking plus much more.
Now 37, McIlrath's active in the club's Highlanders band (the older members
taught him how to play the bagpipes), brings his wife and children to their many
family-oriented events and has many good friends of varying ages and
"From a mentoring perspective, I've learned how to become successful from the
Shriners," said McIlrath, who runs an information security department of a large
consulting firm. "You can put your money into a whole lot of charities that do
good work. The reason I like this one is that there are a whole lot of social
The tricky part of recruiting young members is to not turn off the older, longtime
members, who don't want to meet online, or at 8 p.m., or move the lodge's
Implementing change in established organizations is always difficult. When
appearing on Comcast Newsmakers, for example, the younger Shriners had to
convince a few of the older members that it wasn't necessary to wear a suit and
tie on camera.
"It's an internal struggle, because we're changing years and years and years of
thinking," said Shriner Rick Kohn, 60, of Inverness.
How have these old service clubs successfully wooed young members? Each
one has used a slightly different approach.
The Shriners rely on the Internet and the media to help change their image from
"the guys in funny hats" to "the guys who help sick and needy children."
They also highlight the organization's many sub-clubs for interests ranging from
piloting to clowning. This fall, the Shriners plan to start recruiting young members
at college fraternities.
Hooking them when they're young is how Kiwanis International maintains its
membership base. Starting in kindergarten, they can join K-Kids, which is
followed by a succession of groups through college.
The creation of a Northwest suburban e-Kiwanis Club - one of only a handful of
such groups in the country - helps, too. That allows members like Kathy
Scheuing, 34, of Carol Stream, the mother of 2-year-old twins, to keep an eye on
her kids or eat dinner during meetings.
Knights of Columbus appeals to young Catholic men with their religious or
political activities, such as keeping the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of
"Our target audience is a little smaller ... but we go after people with the same
values we do," says Don LaJoie, executive secretary of the Illinois Knights of
Columbus State Council.
While the Elks don't have any specific programs to lure young members, they are
working to make their projects more short-term. With everyone so harried today,
long-term commitments scare off potential members.
"They'll say, 'I'll help you clean up the side of the road next Tuesday,' but that's
it," Rumney said.
The Moose attributes its membership rebound to its decision to increase the
number of family programs. They've also relaxed some of their "ritual"
ceremonies, waived the enrollment fee for new members and done subtle
things, like change the name of the weekly fish fry to the "Family Fish Fry."
"We try to have a family function once a month now," Kramer said. "A man's a
father first. He's not going to go spend time at the lodge if it takes away from his
family. So now, if the kids say, 'Hey, daddy, can we go to the Moose?' He's going
to say, 'No problem.'"
If they can get a man to come with his family, and they have a good time, it's
likely he'll want to come back.
As Kramer says, "If you don't schmooze 'em, you lose 'em."
Become a new member of an old group