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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.

3 replies on “Why are Charitable Professional Organizations Dying?”

John – while you’re probably right that changing times are making these groups less relevant, I think another major problem is simple lack of exposure to any potential new members.

I’m 38, have been employed in a major metro area most of my adult life, and never had any inkling of the purpose of organizations like the Lions, Elks, Rotary, or Jaycees.

Occasionally I’d see some white-haired gent riding in some parade in an old Buick convertible with a logo on the door. (I hate parades, so I haven’t even seen that many of these examples.)

No one at any workplace has ever mentioned any such group. I’ve never encountered a TV, radio or print ad explaining what they’re about. I’ve never seen an ad on a website. Never seen a flyer on a lunch table. Never come across an article about something such a group did, or a blog entry from a member discussing some activity.

I drive by an Elk’s lodge several times a week but as near as I can tell from the sign in the lawn all they do there is play bingo.

Your article here is the first thing of any kind that I’ve ever seen that even began to give me an idea of what these groups are for. And I’m not some sheltered, untraveled, unread, small-town shut-in.

On one hand, I suppose it’s too bad I never had a chance to participate in and learn from one of these groups. On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s much to learn from groups with this apparent total lack of adaptive business survival skills.

Good comment Todd, I’m not surprised. I think the real problems is that these groups are unable to promote themselves through any mass media due to lack of funds, and anyone who has the charisma to lead a group like these can either make more money doing it in the business environment, or have total control working for a charity of their own.

I think there are three things being lost with the demise of these groups:
1. The ability to socialize, face-to-face, with peers. The events from mixers to galas teach you how to behave and work a room in a safe environment. The company holiday party is not the place to practice this stuff. You also have the benefit of going to meetings when you travel to other towns on business.

2. Another social benefit is that it beats the bars looking for dates. Chicago Mike met his wife through the Jaycees, and I can think of many members that have gone on to marry.

3. Getting an opportunity to serve on a working board in a safe environment is a huge benefit. Understanding things like Robert’s Rules of Order, and learning how the political machine works are invaluable if you aspire to the executive boardroom.

Unfortunately I think these organizations try to be too many things, to too many people and will have to adapt to survive.

John, this is all excellent. You and I have talked a lot about this offline and lived it at the same time.

I always said one of the best things about the Jaycees was that it was an all-volunteer organization. That being said, it was one of its biggest challenges as well. When you are caught up in the day-to-day operations of the chapter, growing the chapter tends to fall along the wayside. Also, it is dependent on the current set of people to help it grow. For example, over the years we were on the board of directors we had some extremely effective membership directors, and some extremely lame ones.

I do believe that today the challenge is greater in finding new members as organizations are competing against people’s jobs, getting an MBA or just sitting on the couch playing video games. Plus there are activity-based groups like Boston Cares (and in other cities) which are about getting people to participate in an event here and there, and on occasion a few people bubble-up to leadership. That requires a team of people to work even harder to find people, like Todd who commented here.

I also put some of the blame on the national Jaycees organization. They own the brand of the Jaycees, and what are they doing to sell it? Only recently have they strongly-suggested chapters use a common logo. But are there national campaigns or marketing efforts to sell the organization? No. If anything, they are more self-serving, but that is a topic for another time, and to be accompanied by a beverage in hand.

The contrast of there being no Boston chapter and a thriving one in Chicago is interesting for me. Sure, there are 3.5 million people here as compared to about a third of that in the greater Boston area, but there has been a consistent effort through the years to keep the chapter going and recruit new leaders. They have their challenges too, but they face them head on.

So to Todd and others who are looking to get some deep roots in the community, make a difference in others lives or just to find a mate – there are groups out there, and with a little elbow grease you may find the right one!

mp/m

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