Before becoming a member of the Rotary Club of Asheville this year, Skyler Duncan didn’t know much about the venerable service organization.
“I remember they gave scholarships in high school and that sort of thing,” says the 30-year-old Merrill Lynch financial adviser. “My perceptions were your stereotypical ones: older members, maybe a little bit behind the times, maybe a good old boys club, for lack of a better term.”
Since joining at the urging of his neighbor, Duncan’s ideas about the club and its mission have changed. But his experience illustrates the challenge Rotary and other long-standing local groups face in recruiting millennials and Gen Zers to fill their aging ranks.
“If you break it down by age, our largest category is still people over 60 years old,” says Ross Sloan, president of the Asheville Rotary. “There has been some movement in terms of getting in younger members, but it’s slow.”
For more than a century, local chapters of nonprofit service groups have been a part of community life across Western North Carolina. The Rotary Club of Asheville was founded in 1915. The Asheville Kiwanis Club started out in 1919. The Canton Lions Club dates to 1938, making it a comparative newcomer.
Like so many other institutions that trace their roots to the early 20th century, these clubs are rethinking how and where they fit in an increasingly diverse, digital-driven world. As Sloan points out, Rotary started as an all-male networking group for professionals. In practice, that meant its members were almost entirely white men for decades.
“We kind of were set up for not being a terribly diverse organization,” Sloan admits. “We have for some time now been open to everybody, but I’m not sure that’s well known in the community.”
For some groups, the social disruption of COVID-19 created an additional barrier to growing membership. The Asheville Kiwanis, for instance, is down to 12 members from about 30 just before the pandemic.
“Our challenge has been more awareness and people’s willingness to become re-engaged in anything, whether it’s volunteering or participating in meetings,” says club member Jeff Pearsall.
For Duncan, however, the pandemic served as a motivator to get involved in Rotary. After working from home for 18 months in response to COVID-19, he became worried that such long-term isolation could have serious mental, physical and spiritual ramifications, and he vowed to become more active in the community.
Duncan’s path to Rotary membership highlights one reason service clubs have traditionally been important — and what could be lost if they fail to appeal to younger generations.
Peter Nieckarz, an associate professor of sociology at Western Carolina University, says membership in service organizations increases “social capital.” Just like the financial kind, social capital represents value: the strength of communities where people have multiple meaningful relationships outside work and family. Churches and political campaigns, Nieckarz adds, provide a similar benefit.
“It helps people feel a stronger sense of connection and a stronger sense of duty to their community,” he says. “I think these organizations do a better job of getting people to adopt similar values, much more so than people are going to get from just sitting on their couch and watching CNN or Fox or MSNBC.”
Ashley Huggins, who joined the Asheville Kiwanis Club in 2017, has welcomed the chance to work on volunteer projects with people she never otherwise would have met.
“Often we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us: people who like the same things, think the same ways,” says Huggins, a 33-year-old who works for First Bank in Fletcher. “That can cause division, which I think we’ve especially seen over the last few years. It’s helped me broaden my interactions.”
Beyond brooms and bulbs
As a woman under 40, Huggins remains a rarity in the world of local service clubs. Each is addressing age and gender diversity in various ways.
Max Bumgardner, president of the Canton Lions Club, says the group has had to brand itself differently to appeal to potential younger members. It currently has about 40 members, four of whom are in their 20s.
The Lions hold one business meeting a month at BearWaters Brewing Co. in Canton, an atmosphere seen as more welcoming to young people than the traditional downtown luncheon spots. And the group emphasizes to potential recruits that its members fundraise by working concessions for concerts at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.
In December, for example, members will be serving at Warren Haynes‘ popular Christmas Jam. “If younger folks like to listen to music, they can sure do that while they work,” Bumgardner says.
The Lions, like other clubs, have dropped mandatory meeting attendance requirements, which they saw as a barrier to attracting young people who value flexibility in their schedules. Some groups, including the Asheville Rotary, also offer hybrid meetings, with both remote and in-person options.
But ultimately, Bumgardner believes the best selling point for Lions is the work the club does in the community. Among other things, the group takes disadvantaged children on shopping trips at Christmastime and provides financial help for food-insecure students.
Last year, the Canton Lions Club partnered with Clyde Lions Club, the town of Canton and others to put on a benefit concert for victims of the devastating flooding in Haywood County. And the group is partnering with the Waynesville Kiwanis Club to raise funds for an inclusive playground at the Canton Recreation Park to replace one destroyed by the flooding.
“I think when younger folks see that, they say, ‘Oh, these aren’t the guys that just sell light bulbs or sell brooms to raise money,’ ” Bumgardner explains.
Other groups have similar service efforts to trumpet. Kiwanis has a mission of “improving the world one child and one community at a time,” says Pearsall of the Asheville chapter.
Locally, that has meant adopting Johnson Elementary School and raising money to help build the Kiwanis Family Care Center at Mission Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. The club has also provided $50,000 in funding and manpower to build a playground at Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry’s Transformation Village, which provides transitional housing for homeless women, mothers with children and veterans.
Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions have all allowed women members since 1987 — the result of a national antidiscrimination lawsuit — and each organization says it now makes recruiting female members a priority. Sloan points out that 53 of the local Rotary’s 150 members are women.
“We would like it to be more reflective of the overall population in Asheville, but it is moving in the right direction,” he says. Rotary also has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and has partnered with Black Wall Street AVL to offer business coaching and other programs.
But it’s not enough to simply hang up an “All are Welcome” sign, Sloan says. “You’ve got to be deliberate about reaching out to people in all segments of the community to let them know who you are and what you’re about, and encourage them to visit and consider joining you.”
That approach worked for 26-year-old Cassidy Harbison, who initially figured the club wasn’t particularly welcoming to young professionals. But a chance meeting with the then-club president at a UNC Asheville basketball game convinced her to attend a meeting.
“There were a few young professionals in the room, and that is when my perception immediately changed,” says Harbison, assistant director of athletic advancement and game day operations at UNCA. “I knew that I did not have to look for other service clubs to fit my season of life, that Rotary could do just that.”
Since joining the club in March, Harbison has become active in several Rotary activities, including heading up its Public Image Committee. Fellow newcomer Duncan likewise serves as co-chair of a committee that addresses climate and the environment, issues of particular interest to him. That committee has engaged with local actions such as a proposed Asheville city ordinance that would regulate single-use plastic.
Equally fulfilling, Duncan says, has been his work with the International Committee, which has raised grant money for Rotary chapters in South America and Asia to support recycling and telemedicine efforts in rural areas.
“That international presence is really impressive to me,” Duncan says. “I never knew that that was something that Rotary was part of.”