Help wanted: Membership in Carson City service clubs declines

King Lion Tim Kniffen leads the weekly Carson City Host Lions Club meeting at Tito's Mexican Restaurant.

King Lion Tim Kniffen leads the weekly Carson City Host Lions Club meeting at Tito's Mexican Restaurant.

Carson City residents benefit from the work for local community service clubs.

But when it comes to volunteering to help, familiar organizations — such as Carson City Sunset Rotary, Carson City Kiwanis, and the Carson City Host Lions Club — are struggling to recruit members.

“I think it goes in cycles,” said Sunset Rotary President Jeff Fine. “People do burn out and it takes a while to revitalize.”

These groups commit to supporting families in need and raise money for local parks and businesses, such as providing scholarships, and were a bustling trend during the 1950s and 1960s when most first established.

Leaders and members say there are three culprits behind membership decline: time priorities, assumption of age discrimination, and marketing.

“It’s about the sense of giving back,” said Stevan Lyon, secretary of Carson City Kiwanis. “There are thousands of organizations in town that help but don’t work together. We need help with sponsors; we’re barely hanging on as a community as we need to eradicate the high number of homelessness here. We’re not a big city where it’s easy but there needs to be more time to focus on what our community needs.”

As each local club is facing the same obstacle course, all are figuring out strategies to attract more potential members and fix the decline to continue to serve the community — and to turn things around by rebuilding social capital.

“We may be competing for members but we’re collaborating on different services and projects,” Fine said. “It’s rebuilding the fences together.”

Priorities over commitments

Fine, Lyon, and Tim Kniffen, president of the Carson City Host Lions Club, would’ve never gotten involved with their organizations if it weren’t for inspiration and encouragement, as all were focused on different priorities until then.

Fine is serving in his first year as president for the local Rotary Club. Although his father also is a former member of the organization, it was his daughter who inspired him to take the role, as the club raised money for her to study abroad.

For Lyon, it’s his fifth year in the organization; he has served as president and lieutenant. When Lyon operated a restaurant in Eureka, Calif., a local Kiwanis group would hold meetings there weekly and encouraged him to join in 1996.

Kniffen’s reasoning is somewhat similar to Fine’s; he got involved with the Lions Club three years ago when his daughter received a scholarship from the club, as his father also is a member.

“I wanted to be a part of that giving,” Kniffen said. “But how do we work with the community and give back? It’s a social change and a project to resonate.”

Leaders of the local organizations say people want to get involved with community service, but with kids, work, or school to accomplish, people struggle to find time.

“It takes time and effort,” Fine said. “Many times I wish I wasn’t doing it but I have responsibilities with the club. At the same time, it’s rewarding.”

For example, the Rotary has student sponsorships to study abroad for a year and live with a host family. Although parents send out $6,000 to their traveling child, the club provides the host family with a monthly stipend for support.

Fine said he also liked the other positive aspects Rotary supports, such as education, clean water, local economies, and women empowerment.

Fine encourages the local club to help host events to raise money for scholarships, such as Kentucky Derby Day. Fine also was involved in the club’s donation of benches to Carson Tahoe Health in 2016.

With all of these projects, the local Sunset Rotary has 11 members but only six contribute on a regular basis. Globally, there’s 1.2 million members.

“When you have more people, there’s a better dynamic,” he said. “There are different communities doing different things. With ours, we’re doing everything; no one gets a chance to relax.”

Fine also considered the lack of membership is caused by the timing of weekly meetings — 6 p.m. on Thursdays. There’s also the noon club, which meets during lunchtime.

Declining membership

As for the Carson City Kiwanis, it used to be a club of at least 90 people, Lyon said.

It’s down to about 40 members now, with about five to eight members doing 80 percent of community service, he said.

“Like all service clubs, you have to pay to join,” he said. “But with that money, we paid $1,400 in fees and penalties to reestablish in the state over the years. That’s gone — we used it for children in need and other local causes.”

For the local Kiwanis, membership is $145 a year. For service clubs in general, membership commitments include paying dues, attending weekly meetings, participating in events, and serving on committees.

About 15 to 25 people attend Kiwanis weekly meetings, Lyon said.

“People also have their own interests within the club,” Lyon said. “If they like to cook, they are more likely to commit to cooking events rather than park clean-up days.”

In the Carson City Host Lions Club which claims to be the oldest service club in Carson City, active members have been involved for 30 to 40 years. Most of their meetings are held once a week at noon, with a $75 membership annual fee.

The money is saved to support school districts and STEM activities, such as Carson City’s robotics trend.

However, members are concerned about the scheduling of meetings and type of events, whether it attracts or pushes away potential members.

“Estimated, there’s 50,000 service organizations in the area,” said Ray Masayko, former president and current member. “Flexibility is key and we need to encourage a platform of what works for them.”

Part of that involves attracting millennials to increase the diversity in the clubs. Although many either are parents, attending school, or working full-time, there’s still a competition of time, interests, and a generational gap.

“I think we have this image of being older people,” said Lions Host member Lou Skaggs. “We’re seen as less vibrant and less steady. But we fail to try to connect this opportunity with grandchildren.”

For example, 80 nations are involved with Kiwanis, totaling up to 592,820 adult and youth members. However, 58 percent of that is made up by youth, due to the Key Club and other extended programs for kids and teens.

“It’s hard to get the business folks and youth involved,” Lyon said. “We’re trying to attract them, but it still doesn’t solve the issue.”

Demographics in age

The youngest member in Carson City’s Sunset Rotary is 50 years old, Fine said. In both local Kiwanis and Lions, the average is 60 years old.

“We need to ingrain them while they’re young,” Lyon said. “The age perception exists with all service clubs, especially with high school students.”

Just like Kiwanis’ youth groups, the Lions Club also offers student and family memberships, such as the Lions Leos at high school.

The Rotary also offers youth leadership awards and fellowships for studying abroad.

“When younger people are involved, you start thinking outside of yourself,” Fine said. “It brings communities together and builds a tighter bond.”

Kiwanis Circle K is already established at the University of Nevada, Reno, to encourage college students to stick with Kiwanis for long-term. The club also hosts community service-based activities and projects.

Lyon said members usually return in their mid-30s when they feel like they have time to commit again.

“We have to reinvent to keep people interested,” he said. “We’re focused on the community, not to fix the world. However, we do contribute to international projects within the organization.”

Lyon said the local Kiwanis also supported other organizations, such as Relay For Life, by helping them raise funds for the event. However, the interest dwindled, he said, and the next step to succeed in fundraising is to hold a concert, to attract a new generation.

“People get burnt doing the same thing over and over,” he said. “All clubs are facing this challenge and I think we just need to reinvent. We need to host meetings through Skype, and embrace more of technology and social media.”

Aside from rearranging schedules and activities, service clubs also need to further educate the youth about their purpose to defy age discrimination, such as hosting social mixers, compared to hosting meetings at local restaurants.

“We want more of the youth as much as possible,” said Vince LoPresti, Lion Club member and owner of Bradway Properties. “We also need to spend more time with them as a club so we can learn from them and apply it.”

But with membership pricing, Lions Host member Sam Herceg said most of today’s generation will not be able to afford it.

“They’re not going to want to donate $100 for lunch or raffles, or $20 a week for a membership,” he said. “They want to do something social.”

“People don’t know what these clubs do,” said Lions member Phil Christopherson. “It’s a problem we’ve had before in the past. We have limited space in advertisements. If we can get it to the populous, it may change.”

Enhanced marketing

Fine said one of the most crucial things to change within the local Rotary Club is to raise exposure.

“We admit we don’t do advertising,” he said. “But that’s because we’re busy planning and running events. The standpoint is to spread awareness, not brag.”

Lyon said it’s cost-prohibitive for all clubs. Members also expressed money is a challenge when it comes to advertising, as the fees are directed toward donations, activities, meeting venues, and to support the club itself.

Kniffen of Lions Host suggested getting more involved with school projects as a way to promote each club.

“The question is, how do you get involved?” he said. “We don’t think the younger generation doesn’t care, but when they’re busy, it looks different to us.”

Lyon said recruiting members is still difficult. He’s changed schedules and facilities, but people don’t stick around.

“Sometimes, I think it’s more of an apathy,” Lyon said. “It’s something to put on a resume, even if there was little to no commitment.”

Lyon said more passion is needed regardless of life schedules or age — and the perception of having to do versus wanting to do.

“When you help a child, the look on their face is huge,” he said. “It’s a hand-up, not a hand-out. These clubs exist to empower to change lives. There are too many people who make poor choices and it affects kids. We step in to help and I hope that sticks around. But it’s too little.”


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