What Can Associations Learn From Social Clubs?

For decades, social clubs have brought people together, and today a new crop of venture-backed clubs is emerging. What membership challenges and opportunities do clubs face, and what can associations learn from them?

Social and civic-oriented clubs are not a new phenomenon. Many old-school clubs have faded, but as Fast Company’s Elizabeth Segran pointed out last week, several new 21st-century clubs are on the rise because of venture capital funding.

You might recognize the names: The Wing (a women’s club with flexible coworking space), WeWork (another coworking space making moves into education), and SoHo House (a social club that gives professionals access to hotels and meeting spaces around the world). They have key differences with associations and more traditional social and civic-oriented clubs that have existed for decades, but they’re worth exploring because of their rapid growth.

One person keeping an eye on the trend is Leigh Zeitz, a past president of the Kiwanis Rough Risers in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and webmaster for the club’s blog. He recognizes the competition the new organizations represent. While Kiwanis continues to do important fundraising and service work supporting youth initiatives, he says it’s harder to recruit new generations of members.

“The majority of our members are retired,” Zeitz says. “If we’re going to address a new population [of members], we need to make changes. But the question is: How much change are we willing to make?”

That’s a question many association leaders are asking too.

Zeitz says if things remain the same, the club could someday cease to exist. Already another nearby Kiwanis club has closed up shop. “That’s a trend we know could be an issue,” he admits. “We don’t talk about [closing] a lot, and we need to do more planning about where we are heading in the next 10 years.”

Zeitz and other leaders at the Kiwanis Rough Risers are pushing forward on a few changes, working to stay relevant amid a wave of new organizations offering new membership opportunities. Here are three ways they’re addressing the challenge.

Accessibility and flexibility. Face-to-face engagements are an important way to create a sense of belonging, especially for young members. Many new social clubs, like The Wing, foster community by offering inviting and flexible spaces for members to use as third places away from work or home.

The Wing features small perks like free WiFi and coffee, comfortable couches and workstations, a library system, and lockers and showers stocked with free products. By creating an experience that’s inviting—and even Instagram-able—The Wing tells its members that it’s accessible and a good fit for their busy lives.

The Kiwanis Rough Risers aren’t always doing that, Zeitz says. Club members usually meet once per week for breakfast at 6:30 a.m.

“In today’s world, 6:30 in the morning means getting the kids to school,” he says, and for others, it might mean going to the gym or sleeping in. However, his club has experimented with event formats, including web conferencing to engage the club’s members with speakers from remote locations.

Satellite membership. Not every member will be involved day to day, and that’s OK. Zeitz says some Kiwanis members skip weekly meetings but remain in the orbit of activities. To engage these people, the club uses a lower-priced “satellite” membership for less active participants.

In this respect, Kiwanis is taking a page from the WeWork membership model, which gives individuals the option to enroll in on-demand pricing where coworking space is rented by the day or even the hour.

Legacy factor. While many new social clubs have slick branding and compelling calls to action, established organizations like Kiwanis International remain relevant because of their legacy of mission-driven work. Telling that story is an important differentiator for member recruitment. In this video, the Kiwanis Rough Risers highlight the club’s service mission to appeal to new members:

Zeitz is also working on a digital scrapbook of the group’s legacy that will demonstrate the vital role the club has played in youth-led projects, like the rebuilding of a museum and funding of the city library’s first computer.

“We have gone out and tried to make the world a better place,” Zeitz says. “And this blog archive helps tell our history. It’s a place that celebrates where we have been and where we are going next.”

Associations can also be storytellers of impact. It might just mean going into your archives in search of content gold.

Is the emergence of new social clubs and coworking spaces creating new competition for your association? How are you responding? Post your comments below.

(Geber86/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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