A group of friends sit at the bar at the Portland Elks Lodge. The average age for the club is 74. From the left are Lucille Leeney, Pat Woodbury, Alan Mancini, Clayton Cooledge and Linda Cooledge. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Wednesday is buffet night at the Elks Club lodge in Portland.

On a recent Wednesday, a couple of dozen members gathered in the club’s dining room, filled with dark, round tables arrayed around a horseshoe-shaped bar.

For $6, the Elks get pizza and brownies. Mixed drinks at the bar are just $4.50 and the conversations are light and lively – many of the members are old friends.

But the key word there is “old”: Leanne Ladd, 53, of South Portland appears to be the youngest person in the room and Martha Binette, 68, the leader of the lodge, said the average age of the Portland Elks is around 74.

Although Binette said the club is adding members after years of decline – about 10 will be inducted next month – it’s going to take a pretty significant influx of younger members to get that average age down. Like many other service and fraternal organizations in America, the Elks thrived for a century, but it and other venerable clubs with charitable underpinnings are struggling to survive in the new millennium.

Groups like the Elks and Rotary say their membership is graying and the ability to attract younger members runs headlong into a preference among millennials to look for social engagement online.

“There’s been a huge decline in service clubs in America,” said Bowen Depke, membership chairman of the Portland Rotary. He said the Portland Rotary has about 125 members, roughly half the number it had two or three decades ago.

Depke said the old line organizations like the Rotary – the Portland chapter was formed in 1915 – are suffering from a surfeit of choices for young adults looking to volunteer, while the ability to volunteer for many is squeezed by the press for time to work and spend with family.

“It’s just a crazy, busy world,” Depke said, “and there are all sorts of service organizations out there. There’s just choices and choices.”

That’s one reason why it’s hard to recruit new members and difficult to keep them, said Amanda Kaiser, who runs Kaiser Insights, a consultancy based in Pennsylvania that advises nonprofits on how to attract and retain members.

“There’s a lot of competition for members and it’s difficult to retain them past that first year,” she said. Kaiser recommends teaming new members with an experienced member to act as a mentor, often for up to a year.

Service organizations in Maine are no different from similar groups around the country, Kaiser said, where most are having trouble attracting new, especially younger, members. She couldn’t provide data, but said it’s clear memberships in service clubs like the Rotary, Elks, Kiwanis and Lions clubs have plummeted.

She also said that a lack of new and younger members can become a vicious cycle, since many organizations rely on word of mouth to attract people to join. Without those younger members coming in and sticking around, she said, the organizations lose that personal approach to attracting new members.

That points to why attracting young people is becoming critical to service and fraternal organizations, said Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits.

“Engaging millennials is a common topic” she hears among her membership, Hutchins said. Her organization provides a four-month training program for young professionals looking to serve on the boards of local nonprofits.

One suggestion she has for those nonprofits is to look for ways to work with, rather than counter, younger adults’ affinity for online engagement.

“When you think about how we’re all spending our time these days, we’re challenged with ‘Do I really need to do this in person? Can we do it electronically?’ ” Hutchins said. But so far, few organizations have abandoned in-person meetings for an online connection.

THE ATTRACTION OF PROJECTS

Depke said the Rotary, which used to have a strict requirement of 100 percent attendance at its meetings, has relaxed that rule because making the weekly Friday noon meetings of the Portland Rotary can be a challenge for some. He said other chapters in Greater Portland offer morning or early evening meetings as an alternative and, while makeup meetings are still encouraged, the emphasis has shifted to taking part in service projects.

“You make it (to meetings) when you can. It’s really about the service projects,” he said, adding that he encourages members who are recruiting younger potential members to take them to a service project rather than a meeting.

Depke said he was attracted to the Rotary because of the wide range of projects the organization supports. Locally, the Rotary provides volunteers and raises money for groups such as the Preble Street Resource Center and the New Mainers Task Force, and it provides mentoring to young people at the Long Creek Youth Development Center. Internationally, the Rotary is involved in vaccination programs, providing hearing aids to the needy and supporting development projects.

A few years ago, a Maine member noted the need for artificial limbs in the Dominican Republic, where the Rotary has projects to provide health care and clean water. The proposal was approved by higher-ups in the Rotary, he said, and now several hundred people in the country have arm extensions, thanks to the Rotary’s efforts.

“If you join an organization, you can get critical mass” that is often lacking with projects backed by smaller groups, Depke said.

SOCIALIZING WITH YOUR PEERS

The Elks seem to attract many members for their social activities.

The Portland lodge, off outer Congress Street, has about 540 members and has been growing slightly in recent years, although it remains well below where it was two or three decades ago, according to its leader, Binette.

Ladd, of South Portland, said she joined the club as a social outlet about a year ago, after her husband died. Her mother and brother, longtime members of the Elks, suggested she join.

She keeps going for “these silly people,” Ladd said, gesturing to those around the horseshoe-shaped bar in the club’s main room, used primarily for dining. She also was involved in the Elks’ support for the Summit Project, which honors dead veterans by placing stones with their initials on them on mountaintops around the state.

The Elks also raise money to support the Maine Children’s Cancer Program, said Binette, whose title as head of the lodge is “Exalted Ruler.”

“It’s more like Exhausted Ruler,” joked Binette, who helps oversee operations of the club, waitresses in the dining room on Fridays and works as a home health care aide a couple of nights a week. She joined the Elks 14 years ago and chaired the lodge’s scholarship committee before becoming Exalted Ruler.

Binette said the club has attracted some people from local businesses – Unum and a medical office building are neighbors – that see it as a convenient place to grab an inexpensive drink and dinner after work.

The lodge has recently had a facelift. It sold off some surrounding land and put $800,000 into a renovation. It now consists of a few offices and two main rooms – the dining room and a large multi-function hall that’s used for membership meetings and other events, such as weddings.

Outside that hall sits the original table and chairs used by the leaders of the Elks at their first location on Spring Street in Portland. Binette said no one’s allowed to sit in the chairs, but not because of some obscure Elks rule – the wooden chairs are cracked. Above the table is a large, mounted elk’s head.

Lucille Leeney, 76, of South Portland remembers when the lodge had an indoor swimming pool in a separate building. She used to take her grandchildren to the pool, which she said was closed about six years ago.

Now the Elks are primarily for socializing, Leeney said.

“For people our age, it’s a night out,” she said. “You don’t have to spend a lot for a meal.”

But others remember a time when the Elks were a bigger draw with a more active membership.

“This place used to be packed. You couldn’t get in here on a Friday night,” said Bob Berry, 77, of South Portland. Berry, who joked that he’s been a member “all my life,” has actually been with the Elks for about 35 years.

“Times have changed and young people are not coming,” he said.


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