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Why are Charitable Professional Organizations Dying?

I was talking with some friends last night and we were discussing the general decline in community organizations for business people. There are many of them, groups like the Lions, Elks, Civitan, Rotary, Masons, and the Jaycees. All of these organizations still exist but I don’t see their presence the way I remember it a generation or two earlier.

I’ve been trying to figure out what has changed, and I can only come up with theories based on my own expericence. In 1997 I joined the Boston Jaycees as I was new to Boston and working as a Sales Rep before Dell completely crushed everyone selling computers to businesses.  Jaycees (Junior Chamber) “gives young people between the ages of 18 and 40 the tools they need to build the bridges of success for themselves in the areas of business development, management skills, individual training, community service and international connections.”

The quote is from the US Jaycees website but it’s interesting to note the difference between National and the Local chapter. The Boston chapter did not have much interest in many of the national programs such as Gun Saftey, Agriculture, or the current “Support our troops” – the types of programs that don’t get that many votes from the People’s Repulic of Cambridge.

The Boston Chapter was on an upswing and getting close to 50 members I believe. The story that I’ve been told (which is past second-hand and may be nowhere near the truth) was that somewhere around 5 years earlier the chapter was well over 250 members. There was going to be some kind of “Taste of Boston” food event downtown and all of the money was spent and there was some sort of permiting problem. There was no event, the money was lost and the resulting rift on the board wiped out half the members immediately and within a couple of years most of the chapter was gone. Originally the chapter was designed as a feeder organization for the Chamber of Commerce and they went to their rolodexes to reboot and find some young execs to keep the chapter going as well as the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders (TOYL)” awards that had gone on for more than 45 years and had honorees such as John F. Kennedy and Sumner Redstone.

I was involved with the Chapter for about 5 years, serving on the board and working some of the TOYL events, but ultimately I was no longer able to spend time working for the Chapter. I started working out on the 495 loop at a startup during the bubble, got married and moved to the suburbs. There was no business benefit, my social calendar was now full, and I was working directly with the Franciscan’s Hospital for Children as my charity of choice (they had a Boston Marathon Team in 2002 that I raised funds and ran for). The Chapter was over 100 members when I finished my time on the Board and I had handed the Website off to a new Vice President.

Fast forward to this year, the domain registration lapsed, and TOYL appears to be gone and there’s no presence on the web.  So what happened? I saw two major splits after I left, both in the board and TOYL. One of the elections many of the VP candidates aligned with a Presidential Candidate that did not win, that crushed any chance of a smooth transition. TOYL also split, some of the organizers started a competing event (competing only in the sense that there is a limited supply of volunteers and Chapter bandwidth). The last I heard was that the final event a few years back did not turn a profit and they were unable to pay the bills.

So, what have I learned and how do these organizations need to respond to the changing competitive landscape?

  1. Business is not as local as it used to be. With new technology and big box retailers, local economies exist only in major metropolitan areas. When Main Street Bank, Corner Hardware, and Joe’s Auto Service were all in the town center depending on each other the community had already started to gel. With eTrade, Home Depot, and Dealerships providing car care, things have changed. Response: Only a strong national organization would be able to overcome this challenge. I remember Jaycees publications selling ads to Budweiser, these are the kinds of moves required to fund a national organization.
  2. The new local is the web, any organization without a web presence is invisible. Given that the market for people who can create a web presence is very tight, pro bono work is hard to find and again – the web makes it easy to work with charities directly. Response: The only solution I can see for this is centralization. Even in a chapter over 100 members there were only 1 or 2 web professionals at one time, this makes transitions vulnerable.
  3. It’s easier than ever to start a new business, and harder than ever to keep one open. Starting up a new awards event is exciting and generates buzz. Making the 5th time you’ve run an event profitable is a full time job and not really fun for anyone. Response: For awards it’s not about event management, it’s using the professional connections of the organziation to make it high profile and profitable. Let a pro manage the event and use volunteer staff for a discount, but focus on keeping the event full. Another would be to separate the Gala event from the award itself. Awards can be mailed, you don’t need to sell tables of 10.
  4. In pre-blackberry business world 9-5 were the hours of the professional. The concept of the professional has all but vanished. This is a real problem as a decline here also tends to lower ethical standards, the power of taking an oath has been proven to increase ethical behavior. Response: I have no idea what can be done here, I’m love to hear suggestions.
  5. The members of community organizations have varied goals – some want to do charity work, others want to get business benefit, and some are looking for dates. Add to these three goals the fact that a chapter must remain a profitable business and you have an exceptionally challenging environment. In fact – it would be easier to grow your own business so you can keep the profits, choose your own charity and work for them directly, or find a date online. Response: The organization has to market itself as unique, the only place you can get all three at the same time. I think the fragmenting of the market may be more than any of these organizations can overcome.
  6. The divide between business and social. Dan Ariely’s Predictable Irrational makes some great points about this – social relationships are judged differently than business ones. Everyone wants to have a good time, but ultimately the incoming cash needs to outweigh the expenses or the organization will collapse. Response: In my opinion, this should be laid out from day 1 that this is a business. Dues should be priced at a point where it hurts to require members to put some skin in the game people who are just showing up for fun will not even last 6 months.
  7. Politics. Choosing the agenda for the organization is the right and responsibility of the organizations leaders, and they are chosen through majority vote. Response: Members should not be eligible to vote until their second year. Allowing members that have done nothing but drink for 3 months to influence the direction of the board is asking for trouble.
  8. Leaders don’t grow on trees. Being an elected official doesn’t mean you are a leader, there will always be a small number of the total group that are committed enough to carry and pass the torch. Response: Finding leaders is the number one priority, and the odds are probably against you.

Unfortunately I think the days of community professional organizations are limited. In the days when you were going to be with your employer for more than 20 years, these organizations made a lot of sense. Today when you will have a new job every 5 years and probably work in 2 or more parts of the country, if not world, these groups can’t adapt fast enough to stay focused and consistent.