The Independent Order of Odd Fellows has been around for hundreds of years. But in the 21st Century, it’s no exaggeration to assert that bringing new members into our Lodges is the existential question of our time.
For decades our membership numbers have slowly diminished as members move away or pass away, and initiations of new members don’t keep pace. That’s a fact. The vast majority of our Odd Fellow Lodges in California and around North America have shown steady net losses year after year. That, of course, is not sustainable. It will inevitably result in weakened Lodges, Lodges propped up by associate members from other Lodges, and Lodges that simply fade away when they consolidate or surrender their charters. It’s just math. If, year after year, a Lodge losses two members while adding one member, the math leads to an inescapable result.
And it’s a sad fact that most of our Odd Fellow Lodges are aging. These Odd Fellow Lodges have not brought in new younger members for years, while the existing members age in place. Why don’t they bring in new members? I don’t think it is laziness. I believe it is complacency. The existing members are comfortable with the status quo. They would like Lodge life to continue just the way it has been for the last decade or two. They effectively ignore the future. And now, in many cases, it is too late to save the Lodge. How do you bring new younger members to a Lodge where the existing members are all in their 70’s and 80’s?
To be sure, this descent doesn’t happen quickly. It’s not like a fire or flood that requires instant response. It’s a very slow process. It’s a process that unfolds over many years, sometimes decades, and so it is often ignored or at least put on the back-burner. But it is a real problem, and it imperils our Order as surely as a fire or flood.
Against this disturbing trend, there is an interesting phenomenon that’s been playing out in a parallel track. While the vast majority of Lodges are showing net losses of membership (or static membership) there are a precious few Lodges that, year after year, show net gains in membership. For some reason, Sovereign Grand Lodge – which professes to be very concerned by membership losses and has a Membership Committee that gives lip service to the subject – has generally ignored those Lodges that have shown steady net gains. For example, my Lodge has had steady net gains for twenty years, and not once has any representative of Sovereign Grand Lodge or a member of the SGL Membership Committee ever contacted my Lodge personally, by phone, by text, by letter, or by email, to inquire how we do it. That is puzzling. It’s not rocket science to realize that those few net-gaining Lodges have discovered the secrets of success. How do they do it? The growing Lodges’ membership development programs should be studied. Perhaps useful information could be provided to other Lodges which might help them sustain and grow their memberships.
To kick-start this process, this DMC article will focus on a very successful membership development program in a Lodge that is most familiar to me: My own Lodge in Davis, California. For the last 12 years, since I took over the reins as Membership Chair, Davis Lodge #169 has shown a net gain in membership each and every year. When I joined my Lodge in 2004, we had less than 30 members on our books. Today, in 2022, my Lodge has 364 members. How do we do it? We have an integrated membership development program. Following are the components of our program. I am hopeful that leaders in other Lodges will find some kernels of membership wisdom in this information. Perhaps they will find it useful to bolster membership in their own Lodges. So, here are the nine components of the membership development program in Davis Lodge #169:
The Plan. It all starts with a membership plan, because membership growth doesn’t just happen by luck. A membership plan must be developed by a Membership Chair or a Membership Committee, or both. A membership plan has many parts and they all have to be interactive, coordinated and and integrated – that is, the parts support the whole.
The Big Tent. My Lodge is a reflection of the community. We provide a big welcoming tent to good, moral people of all genders and all ages. We welcome people with disabilities and every ethnicity. We pay particular attention to bringing in the next generation of members. If all the members of the Lodge are in their 70’s, then in the long run it doesn’t do the Lodge a lot of good to bring in new members who are all in their 70’s. Nothing wrong with folks in their 70’s, but the Lodge needs to also bring in members in their 60’s, 50’s, 40’s, 30’s and 20’s. To have long life, a Lodge must be a multi-generational family.
The Active Lodge. Any successful membership plan starts and ends with the same requirement: An active Lodge. Virtually no one wants to join a boring Lodge. So, whether your Lodge is big, small, or in between, you have to have something going beyond meetings. The possibilities are virtually endless. In my own Lodge, we have 64 committees that cover the waterfront of social, community, and lodge-serving committees. There is something for everyone. We go on hikes, go to the movies, take wine-tasting trips, host music venues at the Lodge, and much more. And if a member wants to start a new committee, we generally say “yes”. For example, recently a member wanted to start a committee to build barn owl boxes. So, we said “yes”. Over 15 members signed up to work on the committee to design and build them. The boxes provide nesting homes for owls and the owls diminish the rodent population. Committee members had a blast building the boxes in the spirit of friendship. The activities bring community attention to the Lodge, and prospective members contact us about the possibility of joining.
The Lodge Hall. Any good membership development program requires a clean, attractive and functional Lodge. A dirty, smelly, paint-peeling building is a turn-off to potential new members. Investing in your Lodge Hall – entrance, signs, floors, walls, heating/AC, etc. – will pay dividends.
The Website. Particularly for members under 40, a strong website, and a strong social media presence is essential. Plus the website can be an important tool for members and for folks who are thinking about joining the Lodge. It’s well worth an investment to have a webmaster who can produce a top-notch website. And the website can be an excellent source of information for applicants as well as members. To check out what I believe to be an excellent example of an effective Odd Fellows Lodge website, go to www.davislodge.org.
The Pledge Book. Years ago I wrote a “Pledge Book” for the benefit of our Lodge applicants. I have updated it from time to time, and it is available for them on our Lodge website. The Pledge Book provides historical and useful information about our Order and about our Lodge. It plays an integral part in the Pledge Process of our Lodge.
The Pledge Process. Unlike most Lodges, initiation in the Davis Lodge does not happen quickly – it takes (typically) 4-6 months between application and initiation. And we have so many applicants that we schedule three initiations per year. We allocate the Pledges into groups, depending on when they submitted their applications. And we require them to go through a process which familiarizes them with the Lodge, the members, and Odd Fellowship. That way, before they are initiated they are knowledgeable and committed. The Pledge Process requires them to read the Pledge Book, take and pass an open-book test (about what they learned in the Pledge Book), interview at least seven members of the Lodge, and in turn be interviewed by the Membership Committee.
The Social Meeting. My Lodge has formal meetings (with ritual and regalia), but we also have social meetings. We may be the only Lodge in North America that schedules a social meeting on Saturday morning, complete with a complimentary breakfast. The social meeting is open to members, pledges, and their guests. It provides a great opportunity for the pledges to meet members (and interview members) and also to learn about social and community activities planned by the Lodge and Lodge committees. I highly recommend that Lodges schedule social meetings which add to the fraternal and social well-being of the Lodge and its members.
Club Night at the Lodge. For the past 12 years, my Lodge has scheduled “Club Night at the Lodge” every Thursday evening. Club Night starts at 5:30 p.m. and ends around 8:00 p.m. It provides an opportunity for members, pledges, and their guests to simply “drop in” and socialize at the Lodge. We have an open bar, we provide dinner (for $10 per plate), we have a piano player providing some background music, and at around 6:30 p.m. we start trivia, with prizes (cookies, usually) for the winners. We play by table and it becomes kind of a team sport, with great camaraderie and very friendly competition. The winning tables always share the cookies with other tables. Club Night, once again offers an important opportunity to pledges (or potential applicants) to see first-hand the Lodge and the Lodge experience. I often invite prospective applicants to join me at Club Night where I give them a tour of the Lodge Hall, answer their questions, introduce them to pledges and members, and get to know them.
As you can see, it is important to integrate the components of a membership development program. And an effective program can revitalize a Lodge.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California
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