Local service clubs struggle with declining numbers, aging membership

Organizations hope to find new members, new ideas
November 27, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.
Baked goods are auctioned off at a Kiwanis Club of Bellingham meeting at the Five Columns Greek Restaurant on Nov. 1. The Key Club at Sehome High School donated the goods to raise money for families in need at their high school.
Baked goods are auctioned off at a Kiwanis Club of Bellingham meeting at the Five Columns Greek Restaurant on Nov. 1. The Key Club at Sehome High School donated the goods to raise money for families in need at their high school. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

Service clubs in Bellingham are struggling with declining membership across the board. As longtime members get older and younger professionals struggle with the time commitments that traditionally come with being part of service organizations, clubs like Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions are finding ways to fundraise, organize events and recruit new faces.   

Kiwanis Club of Bellingham is still making plans to support the kids of Bellingham and Whatcom County in the upcoming year despite a declining and aging membership, said Janet Armstrong, current club treasurer and 31-year member.

The club, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, focuses on kids, said Elizabeth Bennet, current club president and 29-year member. The club sponsors baby food drives and parenting class scholarships and helps build local play areas and parks. While the club is motivated, new members would help bring new ideas and energy, Bennet said. 

“We need to have that younger innovation for what we’d like to do and what we can do in the community,” Bennet said. “We’re really trying hard to focus on areas that we can help with and that will benefit children.” 

photo  Kiwanis Club of Bellingham has been doing community service projects since 1922. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

In the Rotary Club of Bellingham, club directors recognize the speed of daily life has changed. The obligations and demands on working professionals are no longer constrained to business hours, which makes committing to two-hour lunch meetings and service projects difficult for people who aren’t retired, said Paul Grey, a club member since 2001 and current club president.

“The speed of business back then ... was typically 8–5. What is it today? Nonstop,” Grey said. “How do we adapt our club to fit the millennials and how they operate not only in a business setting but as a service or nonprofit organization?” 

Rotary International has found that younger Rotarians want to make an impact more through service and less through spending, Grey said. If it’s between organizing a service event or writing a check, they’d prefer to be working out in the community, and they’d rather decide something in the moment than form a committee to deliberate whether or not to do it, Grey said.  

The club helped fund large projects in the last year, including the Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center and the Whatcom Center for Early Learning, to help children experiencing homelessness or poverty, said Shauna Naf, club member and publicity coordinator.  

“I always knew that I wanted to be part of a group that really did some amazing things in the community,” Naf said. “It's one thing to do things on an individual level, but when you can come together for other people for a common goal, it’s really just so impactful.” 

The Rotary and Kiwanis clubs are trying to make their organizations more accessible and attractive for potential new members. The Bellingham Kiwanis chapter is thinking about changing its meeting times and frequencies to accommodate busy schedules, club treasurer Armstrong said, and the Rotary club hopes to educate more people on its mission and services, Naf said.  

While the main clubs are seeing an aging membership, youth chapters of service clubs offer outlets for high school and college-age young professionals to serve their communities. For young people, finding time to dedicate themselves to helping others can be difficult when they have to juggle school, homework and jobs, said Lily Storbeck, co-president of the college-level Rotaract Club of Bellingham. The club currently has around 20 members, and Storbeck is impressed with how they balance time commitments in an increasingly expensive world.

photo  Rotary Club of Bellingham president Paul Grey, left, and director of vocational service and membership Shauna Naf stand on the steps of the Whatcom Center for Early Learning. The club is currently raising money for the local child care center. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“I very much disagree when everyone says that we’re lazy or we don’t care, because I think as a generation, we’re very empathetic towards other people,” Storbeck said. “We want to help, it’s just very difficult to help other people when you’re not established yourself.” 

The Bellingham Central Lions Club, witnessing the declining membership trend, is actively working to boost its numbers, said Candi Pataky, former president and current member. The club, which also celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, has delegated volunteers to projects like the Al Boe Wheelchair Warehouse program, which loans durable medical equipment to Whatcom and Skagit residents in need. 

But volunteering and becoming a club member are very different, with the latter being an oft-rewarding experience, Pataky said.  

“Although volunteering is usually the fun part of it, we always need leaders and we always need people's ideas, or their input or their background in one area or another,” Pataky said. “People like to be acknowledged [and recognized] for their talent, and that’s what you get as a member.” 

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