The Downtown Rotary Club got some good news last week: Membership had ticked up a bit to 219.
The only problem is that a couple of decades ago, the number was about 400.
Service clubs long have been staples of American civic involvement and volunteerism, as well as social and business contacts. Many clubs remain strong and active, even with fewer members.
But in the social media age of Facebook, Twitter and smartphone apps, will service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Optimists, Lions and all the rest ever again appeal in large numbers to younger generations?
Larry Gomez, who recently retired from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, told Rotarians that social media are important, but what's crucial is personal contact.
“Eyeball to eyeball is how business works,” he said. “Trust is part of the Omaha ethic, the Midwest ethic. You've got to look a person in the eye to get business done in Omaha.”
Gomez, who was the chamber's director of small-business services, isn't downplaying the role of electronic communication. He got a laugh from Rotarians by recalling the title of a seminar he attended a quarter-century ago: “Computers: Are They Here to Stay?”
Uh, apparently so — even though Omaha investor Warren Buffett once quipped that the Internet is “a passing fad.”
Yes, everything has changed. The Downtown Rotary, in fact, hasn't met downtown for years because of “parking and other issues.”
Last week, 93 people attended the final meeting of the Rotary year at the Field Club, west of downtown at 36th Street and Woolworth Avenue. Todd Murphy of Universal Information Services stepped down as club president and presented a gavel to his successor, Leslie Volk of Union Bank and Trust.
She is the fourth woman to become club president in its 102-year history. Financial adviser Cella Quinn, still an active member, was the first, in 1996.
Many service clubs were all-male bastions until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in 1987 that Rotary clubs could not exclude women from membership because of gender.
Opening up service clubs to women didn't result in big increases in member rolls. The downward trend was already underway.
In his 2000 book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert D. Putnam said that attending club meetings such as Rotary and Kiwanis had declined by 58 percent in the past 25 years.
The Omaha-Bellevue-Council Bluffs metro area has 12 Rotary clubs with 904 members, a total that appears to have leveled off. Gretchen Bren, executive director of Downtown Rotary, said that four years ago, those clubs totaled 921 members.
Volunteerism, even outside service clubs, appears to be doing well. Iowa and Nebraska rank in the top six states for percentage of people who donate time and efforts to good causes.
The decline in service club membership is attributed to a number of reasons.
“Businesses aren't as flexible in letting people off at lunch,” Bren said, “and lots of businesses have their own service projects. There are so many more ways to get involved now.”
“Society seems to be busier, and there are a lot more challenges for people's time,” said Murphy, the outgoing president. “We haven't done a good job demonstrating the benefits of civic organizations like Rotary.”
Service clubs usually meet once a week and hear from an outside speaker. Clubs raise money for charities, honor scholars and sponsor other activities.
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For decades in Omaha, each of the eight visiting College World Series teams has been assigned a service club as a host. Downtown Rotary this year hosted Oregon State. The club also helps sponsor the annual Outland Trophy banquet in Omaha.
Rotary provides international exchanges of adults and students. One of its causes is to help eradicate polio in the world; in that regard, Bren has been part of trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Service clubs aren't political. At last week's Downtown Rotary meeting, a greeter was Republican Hal Daub, a former mayor of Omaha. Taking part in a panel discussion was Democrat Jim Suttle, who recently ended his term as mayor of Omaha.
Suttle, an engineer and a former Rotary president, said retaining members is a challenge in “a faster and faster high-tech world,” not only for service clubs but for churches and other organizations.
He agreed that volunteerism is alive and well, citing the many who helped on both sides of the Missouri River during the flood of 201l.
“We were neighbors standing side by side,” he said. “Volunteerism never stopped. We did not hurt for volunteers.”
Joining Suttle and Larry Gomez on a panel was Mary Lynn Reiser, director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
UNO business graduates are eager to become involved in the community, she said, and service clubs like Rotary could try to recruit them. Omaha is a welcoming community, she said, for those who want to become civically involved.
When she was president of the National Association of Economic Educators, Reiser hosted a board meeting in Omaha. Board members “were just shocked that I could say 'Hi, Jim' to the mayor and that I knew both of our U.S. senators by their first names.”
Whether in service clubs, nonprofits or other organizations, people who get involved and donate time make a community strong. Social media are great, but there's no substitute — in business or volunteerism — for contact that's eyeball to eyeball.