Editor's note: Previous versions of this story had Ken Holmes' first name incorrectly stated and Nancy McCarthy Snyder's name incorrect.
On May 31, the Hypatia Club of Wichita disbanded.
Founded by Mary Elizabeth Lease, the Hypatias have called Wichita home since 1886. The club dedicated a statue to Lease earlier this year and in its early years was a strong advocate for women’s rights.
Now, after 126 years, the club no longer exists.
“As we got older and did less, people weren’t interested in joining us,” said Josephine Brown, the last president of the Hypatia Club. She said the club was down to 15 members, including two who live out of state and four who reside in care homes.
The fate of the Hypatia Club is a situation many civic organizations face today. Struggling with an aging membership and competing with younger generations’ definitions of community, many groups wonder how long they can continue.
Changes in society
The Haysville Lions Club is one such organization debating its future.
Phil Journey, a member since 1983, says the club is discussing whether or not to disband. Journey estimates the average age of members is over 65 and says it is sometimes difficult to get members – all 12 of them – to attend events, never mind trying to recruit younger members.
“As the age difference becomes greater, it becomes harder for people to make the connection,” said Journey, a Sedgwick County District Court judge. “It’s hard to relate.”
He also cites time constraints and economic woes as reasons younger members don’t join.
Nancy McCarthy Snyder, director of the Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs at Wichita State University, agrees with Journey and also attributes changes in society to the decline in membership.
“What we’re finding is people keep redefining community for themselves,” Snyder said.
Younger generations can now find community online and through different, newer social outlets, she said.
“They’ve just grown up differently,” she said. “There’s more choices available to people.”
Snyder thinks it will be difficult for older civic organizations to survive in their traditional forms, and that their futures will depend on leadership.
“(The organizations need) people who will give time and energy to them,” Snyder said. “They’ll have to reinvent themselves.”
Of course, reinventing an organization is easier said than done. And sometimes, not even the older members want to lead.
“Year after year, no one wanted to be an officer,” Brown said of the Hypatia Club. “It doesn’t sound good, but it’s the truth.”
When civic organizations disband, more is lost than the clubhouse and familiar atmosphere for members – contributions to the community also disappear.
Lions Clubs around the world donate time and money to many charitable projects, but they focus on service that assists the blind and visually impaired. The Haysville club, like many Lions Clubs, has donated eyeglasses, raised funds for guide dogs and donated money to libraries for large-print books and to the University of Kansas’ KS Lions Eye Clinic and Research Center. They have also provided scholarships to local students and built a shelter house in the Haysville Park.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows and the Rebekahs – a branch of the Odd Fellows – also make donations to many charitable groups and provide thousands of dollars in scholarships and financial aid to students. They are also the largest non-corporate sponsor of the Arthritis Foundation, said JaNell Clark, secretary and past president of the Rebekah Assembly of Kansas.
The financial donations are important for many charities, but the donation of time is equally important.
“(Civic organizations) get people involved in group situations and give someone another outlet to volunteer,” Clark said.
For Journey, the Lions Club is a way for people to volunteer, and he hopes more people join to do just that.
“It’s more than just a bunch of old guys getting together,” Journey said. “It’s about doing something for your community.”
‘Bucking the trend’
Not all civic organizations are facing such dire straits.
Rotary is one civic organization that is “bucking the trend,” Rotary Club of West Wichita president Jody Besthorn said. With 65 members, she said the West Wichita Rotary has a stable and younger membership, compared to some civic groups in the area.
“We have a cross-section of all ages: retirees, mid-career professionals and young professionals looking for a way to get involved,” Besthorn said.
Interact, the student version of Rotary, helps introduce Rotary to young people.
“It brings more awareness (of Rotary) to kids and their parents,” Besthorn said. “It strengthens the intergenerational connection.”
The Downtown Wichita Rotary club also sponsors Rotaract, a Rotary-affiliated club for young professionals, ages 18 to 30. Downtown Rotary president Sheryl Wohlford said that organization helps attract younger members and keep them involved.
“Service organizations have to find a way to keep their members engaged and wanting to do the service projects,” Wohlford said. “People’s time is valuable. They have to see a connection with the service project.”
Derby’s Rebekahs is another organization successfully recruiting younger members. The club will initiate five people in July, Clark said.
Clark attributes the success to the lodge’s frequent involvement with other community organizations. Community visibility, combined with recruitment programs and advertisements, helps bring in new, younger members to the Derby lodge.
Still, Odd Fellows and Rebekahs lodges are not immune to the membership woes civic organizations face. Clark said Kansas lodges have seen an 8 to 12 percent decline in membership for the past 15 years, and the average age of members is between 65 and 70 years old.
“A lot of our loss is due to death,” Clark said.
In Wichita, the Downtown Lions Club is also doing well, compared to the Haysville club. According to former president Ken Holmes, the Downtown Lions Club has 75 members, with 35 to 45 members regularly attending meetings. Still, he estimates the club’s average age is over 65.
While Holmes doesn’t think the Downtown Lions Club will disband anytime soon, he acknowledges it could happen.
“Last year we lost four members to old age,” Holmes said. “When you have maybe two-thirds of your membership over 70 years old, disbanding is possible one day.”
Future for civic groups
The key to survival, club leaders say, is to provide programs members want to participate in.
“Organizations struggle to find the right niche for their demographics, what it is their members want,” Besthorn said. “(What they do) has to be meaningful to members.”
Wohlford calls attracting and retaining members the “biggest challenge” facing civic organizations.
“You got to keep it interesting,” she said. “Because without members, you don’t have a club.”
The disbanding of some groups is part of the evolution of civic organizations.
“You reach a point where you have to say, ‘We’ve done good, and it’s time for something else to replace us,’” Besthorn said. “There will be things to fill that void, but they will be different.”
In Haysville, Journey is waiting to hear the club’s decision. Should the club decide to disband, Journey may try to join another nearby Lions Club.
“It’s going to be a hole in my life,” he said.
As for the Hypatia Club, Brown plans to have lunch with former members but doubts the club will be restarted by younger women.
“Never in a million years” did she imagine the club would one day close, Brown said. “Hypatias were so dedicated and so loyal to one another. At one time, it’s my understanding, they had over 200 members.
“I can’t tell you how many of the good ones have passed away.”