Service clubs get a Gen-X boost

Logo of the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks of the USA


KAI RYSSDAL: Service clubs have a long and proud tradition in this country -- Shriners and their work for children's hospitals, along with Moose and Elks Clubs.

But when was the last time you met one of those guys who was under the age of about 65? You never have, have you? Because since the 1980s, the clubs have been struggling to survive -- competing against families, careers, and a healthy dose of cynicism.

But a resurgence of sorts seems to be developing, as Marketplace's Amy Scott reports.

AMY SCOTT: A stylish golden elk head looks out over Hoboken's trendy Washington Street. It looks right at home among the neighborhood's upscale restaurants and boutiques. So it's a surprise to find it marks the entrance to a basement bar, where 82-year old retirees play poker with men half a century younger.

POKER PLAYER: Full house! Three nines.

This is lodge number 74 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The Elks have lost more than 600,000 members nationwide since 1980 -- older Elks have died off and younger ones have lost interest.

But thanks to Lodge 74, and others in Austin, Denver and San Francisco, officials say that decline is slowing down. The Hoboken lodge added close to 30 new members a few months ago, and officials say 70 percent of active Hoboken Elks are younger than 40. That surprised 37-year-old Karen Babyak. She pictured the typical elk as a crusty old man.

KAREN BABYAK: Probably served in about three wars, sits on his front step, wants to, you know, get these kids out of the neighborhood, that kind of thing... But we found a lot of people that were younger, and also a lot of interests -- like the older people even are really interesting.

Babyak and her boyfriend applied just last week to join the lodge. The Elks have allowed women since 1995. Thirty-six-year-old Jason Alvarez belonged to a fraternity in college, and says he missed the community service. Each year the Elks raise millions for college scholarships, kids with cerebral palsy, drug education. But the lodge also offers a kitschy place to hang out, complete with jukebox, pool table and $5 buffet.

JASON ALVAREZ: It's a nice place to come down to. You can actually hear each other talk, without blaring music, play a little pool, a little pinball. And just have a good time without having to fight your way to the bar and pay exorbitant beer prices.

The Elks like to talk a lot about the beer.

CLAUDE FELTS: Anywhere else on the strip, a beer will go for four, five, six dollars... Come here, the most you pay is two dollars. You can't get that nowhere else.

MICHAEL HANNON: It's about being an Elk, cheap beer and community service. By the way, in that order.

The Elks aren't the only service club attracting new members. Last year, the Moose fraternity grew for the first time in more than a decade. The Masons saw their smallest decline in years. Mike Andrews is spokesman for the Shriners. He says the average age of new members is falling. This fall the Shriners plan to launch a recruiting campaign -- they may even start wooing college students:

MIKE ANDREWS: Much in the same way that IBM, or Microsoft, or any of the large corporations recruit on college campuses. Because we think when young men find out what we have to offer, we think there'll be an interest in joining our ranks.

The quest for younger members has created some tension with old-timers. Jack Badeau Jr. is a former exalted ruler with the Elks of Ontario, California -- that's Elk-speak for president. He says he worked hard last year to bring the average age down to 66 -- it had been in the 70s. One tactic? Badeau says he switched from ballroom music on Friday nights to something a little more current.

JACK BADEAU JR.: I made sure that I didn't get out of control. I certainly didn't mess around with hard rock 'n' roll. No, top 40s is kind of where I'm talking about.

POKER PLAYER: Fifty-fifty. Can't win, unless you're in.

At the Elks lodge in Hoboken, Edward Huelvig sells tickets for a raffle benefiting disabled children. He's 83. He doesn't mind the newcomers -- except for one thing:

EDWARD HUELVIG: Nobody participates. What I mean by that is, they join as members, they pay their dues. But you don't see them.

But after decades of declines, long-time Elks say they'd rather have card-carrying, dues-paying members than no members at all.

In Hoboken, New Jersey, I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.


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