There’s one thing about the world that hasn’t changed since the 1950s heyday of clubs like Kiwanis International.
“People still love to come together and have time with friends,” said Stan Soderstrom, the recently appointed executive director of Indianapolis-based Kiwanis.
That’s why Kiwanis encourages new clubs to meet over drinks, if that’s what members prefer, but will not move its operations to Facebook, Soderstrom said.
Soderstrom takes a back-to-basics approach to declining membership—a fundamental problem that plagues Kiwanis and other national service clubs. Rather than trying to drape the 95-year-old club in a new identity, Soderstrom thinks Kiwanis should do what worked for most of the 20th century: Hold meetings, emphasize the professional benefits of networking, and start new chapters at a fast clip.
“The social aspect is an important part of what we do,” said Soderstrom, who belongs to the Pike Township Kiwanis. “We should probably play to it as a strength.”
Soderstrom, 51, was in charge of membership until taking over as interim leader last fall. The Kiwanis International board
named Soderstrom executive director in January. His predecessor, Rob Parker, was the first full-time executive the club had
Although Parker set an ambitious goal to grow Kiwanis to 1 million members by 2015, the loss continued over the past three years. Kiwanis has 239,000 adult members, down 26 percent from the 1992 peak of 324,727.
The decline in dues-paying adult members threatens the bottom line. The single-largest source of revenue, dues, accounted for $10.8 million of a total $18.6 million in the 2008 fiscal year.
Fighting the inevitable?
“Kiwanis, Rotary and all the others have had a 100-year run,” said Les Lenkowsky, an IU clinical professor of philanthropy, who specializes in volunteering patterns. “That’s pretty good.”
These days, the clubs are competing with many other organizations that require fewer committments than Kiwanis or Rotary, Lenkowsky said.
“They actually do expect you to go to luncheons. They expect you to do a variety of things. While people are willing to put in a fair amount of time, they want it to be on their own terms.”
Soderstrom does not see the inevitable demise of Kiwanis. He thinks the organization simply needs to turn its attention back to building new chapters. Kiwanis is expanding in parts of Asia and Europe, but North America, where members’ average age is 57, is a problem spot.
One of the books Soderstrom keeps in his office at Kiwanis headquarters near Interstate 465 and Michigan Road is “Bowling Alone,” in which political science professor Robert Putnam presents evidence of Americans’ declining civic engagement. He also has a copy of “The Ladd Report,” in which the late Everett Ladd points out flaws in Putnam’s work.
One of Ladd’s prime examples is the decline in Parent Teacher Association membership. While it’s true the PTA fell out of favor, Ladd points out that the national organization had been replaced by independent Parent Teacher Organizations, or PTOs.
Soderstrom takes the trend in parent involvement as a cautionary tale for Kiwanis. After all, why should anyone pay dues, which range from $100 to $500 a year, just to get a magazine from headquarters?
“If you’re going to be a national or international organization,” he said, “You better bring value to your locals.”
A Texas native who did a five-year stint in marketing with the Dallas Cowboys, Soderstrom talks about his strategy in terms of “co-branding” and “product.”
Kiwanis’ main promotional product is Key Club, a high school leadership program with 325,000 members. Many high school principals want Key Club on their campuses, but they need a Kiwanis chapter to serve as the sponsor.
That’s where Kiwanis makes the pitch for a new club with school professionals and parents as the founding members.
“We always go to the schools first,” Soderstrom said. “That’s probably our best new-club-building strategy in North America.”
Another Kiwanis strategy is to piggyback on expansion efforts by national, kid-centric organizations, like Boys and Girls Clubs and Boy Scouts of America. Under a recent agreement, the scouts and Kiwanis will work together to grow membership in 10 targeted communities across the country.
This June, the Kiwanis board of trustees will select a worldwide service project. That, too, represents a “co-branding” opportunity, Soderstrom said. The chosen cause will likely have other corporate sponsors, which may help spread Kiwanis’ name around the globe.
Kiwanis members are not above knocking on doors, either. Last fall, Geist resident Roger Stalowicz joined state Kiwanis leaders in search of the minimum 25 members to start a club.
They rounded up a school principal, bankers, financial planners and township government officials, ranging in age from the mid-30s to 73. The one thing all 26 members in Geist have in common is an interest in Kiwanis’ mission of helping children, Stalowicz said.
“It is difficult, I will say, starting a new club,” said Stalowicz, who is president of the Geist club.•