Submitted by Seth Anthony
Triune Lodge #307 Middletown, PA
“We all have the same problems you know” he said. “Whether Odd Fellows, Masons, Pythians, or Rotarians – it’s the same issues, they just have different names.” I pondered on that statement and realized how true it was. Later, I spoke to my Pastor who lamented the issues facing the church and membership. Then I heard it again from a client at work, who was saddened by the lack of interest in their charitable mission.
It clicked. We are all facing the same problems. It’s just a matter of where we are at on the spectrum and how we’ve chosen to face it.
The spectrum consists of five generalized challenges. Most groups struggle, to some extent, in every area. Like every generalization, there are certainly exceptions. This is my first pass at fleshing out this idea, so I invite your assistance in helping to refine it.
Challenge 1: Identity
In my daily work, I assist non-profit, mission driven organizations with their branding and marketing efforts. These bodies have often been around for a century or more. They have strong historical roots, maybe stemming from a religious organization, but sometimes from community or fraternal groups as well. At one time, the membership that founded them was so powerful and well funded that they need not look outside their walls. Their fortunes were solid and their mission understood by all of their supporters. Then the bottom fell out.
Membership declined. Money dried up. The government moved in on their territory. They once served as the bastions of charitable giving, such as retirement communities, children’s homes, and hospitals; now, they were left with few resources and little support. They turned to the larger community, changing their names, but clinging to their mission in an attempt to maintain their identity. For most, however, it was already lost.
Now, these groups are pivoting, trying to find their place in the world. They have turned into general non-profits, trying to continue the work they do – some are successful, some are not. During this process, many fraternal groups died, while others became community organizations or life insurance schemes. They lost their identity. They lost their soul.
Challenge 2: Relevance
If you don’t know who you are, it’s hard to explain why you matter. Today, we ask ourselves why someone should be an Elk, a Moose, an Eagle, or an Owl (and yes, all of those groups still exist.) What benefit does membership entail? If the answer is “doing good deeds to help others,” the ship is already sunk. There are thousands of ways a person can help their community without paying dues. An organization must offer something to attract and retain members. They must show some relevance in society.
In many ways, the Masons lucked out in this category. Society has kept them relevant through conspiracy theories, books, and movies. These depictions are often wildly inaccurate, but the mysticism created around Freemasonry, thanks to popular culture, has helped give them an air of relevance when in fact, most Masonic Lodges have also lost their way.
Odd Fellows didn’t benefit popular culture. Our ways were over looked. While Masons were placed on the pedestal of power, Odd Fellowship was laid low with irrelevance. If we are to restore our Order, we must not only all agree on our identity, but also our relevance to society. Are we a charity? A fraternity? A club? All? None? Until we agree on this, we cannot stand united.
Challenge 3: Membership
When you don’t know who you are, or why you exist, it’s hard to recruit others to your ranks. Why should I become an Odd Fellow, and struggle to rebuild a Lodge, when I can walk three blocks down the street and become Elk? They at least have a bar and entertainment!
Once you’ve lost your way, membership is the next challenge you face. Because of an inability to demonstrate purpose and value, membership wanes. Older members stay out of a sense of duty. They “get it,” whatever “it” is. But, newer younger members don’t see the value of “it.”
Instead of knocking on the door of your lodge, they wander by. They look up and see the sign hanging out front. Instead of a vibrant and engaged Lodge, they see a relic of the past, doomed to failure. “I bet they were quite the club back in the day” says the pedestrian. If only he knew they could still be quite the club today with a little effort.
Challenge 4: Money
Your identity is gone. Your relevance lost. Your membership is fleeing. Then the financial burdens hit. When your Lodge had 500 members, it was a palace to fraternalism, teeming with excitement and activity. At 250 members, it was open a couple of nights a week, with committee meetings and projects. At 100 members, the doors swung wide for stated meetings and the officers regularly gathered. At 50 members, the hinges started to become rusty from disuse. It was harder to find someone to volunteer time as a custodian and maintenance worker. At 25 members, the dues no longer supported the structure, and the building was sold.
For far too long, we’ve kept dues artificially low and relied on the investments of the past. We’ve turned to our member’s wallets because their backs have been broken by age or infirmity. Now, their wallets are full of moths and no one remembers how to organize a fundraiser. Budgets are forgotten because so little money is available. The death toll doesn’t come from the clang of a brazen bell, but from the sounds of pennies hitting the floor as we scramble to pick up the pieces.
Challenge 5: Engagement
When an organization starts to go South, this is often the starting point. The membership begins to withdraw. They stop volunteering their time and choose to volunteer their money instead. Members pay their dues because they identify with the organization, find it relevant, and value their membership. But, they can’t seem to find the time to become involved in the activities and mission.
Increasingly, Milennials often fit into this category. As a Milennial myself, I carry dues cards galore. I’m proud of all of my memberships. But, I’m also fickle. If I don’t find what I want, I leave and go elsewhere. I pay dues to literally dozens of organizations, but I’m engaged with only a handful. I can admit that I’m part of the problem.
Finding a way to re-engage members who have dissociated from the group is one of the most challenging problems out there. You can conduct surveys, offer up new ideas, and change your schedules ad infinitum. If were that simple, we’d all succeed! Every organization is a different challenge, because our communities and needs are so varied. Finding the magic elixir to get people engaged in your group is going to be very different from what it might take to bring them back to mine. The chance of failure, however, is not an excuse for indifference or lack of effort. If you don’t try to engage your members, you’ve already given up and started down the path laid before you.
This post may seem disparaging, but it’s not meant to be. If we do not recognize the issues we face, then we cannot fix them. These challenges are not “we problems,” they are “me problems.”
It is very easy to think that others are doing the work. I can tell you right now, they aren’t. Until you pick up the pieces and start to reassemble them yourself, you can’t expect others to do the same.
That’s where leadership starts and that’s when your Lodge is reborn.
Not with a loud boom of sudden activity, but with a resolute sigh that starts a revolution.