Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
Odd Fellowship came to California in 1849, about one year before the State was admitted into the Union. The first Lodge was formed in San Francisco under the name California #1 – that Lodge exists to this day. Many other Lodges formed in San Francisco and in the Bay Area, and because of the discovery of gold, Lodges were formed throughout California in rapid succession. In particular, the gold country became home to many Lodges. Virtually every tiny hamlet in the gold country had a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a hotel or two, an assay office, a couple of saloons, general store, and an Odd Fellows Lodge Hall.
In the late 1800’s a significant number of Odd Fellows Lodges were instituted. In the 50 years between 1849 and 1899, close to 400 Odd Fellows Lodges popped up in California. And the membership grew exponentially. In those early years, the number of Odd Fellows shown on the books and records of the Order were:
1900 31, 588
Except for a slight decline as a result of the Great Depression, the growth of the membership of Odd Fellows in the first part of the 20th Century (from 1900-1930) was satisfying and steady, as shown by the following numbers:
But then, the great decline in membership set in, and except for a brief spurt in membership as World War II servicemen returned, the Order in California has been in a steady decline as shown in the these statistics:
It is a sad and revealing fact that by 2010, the Order had fewer members on its books than we had in 1860. Currently, in 2015, the number of our dues-paying members hovers at around 4,000 in only 118 Lodges. Two other statistics are worth mentioning. First, that number of 4,000 is the number of members “on the books”. We all know that the number of members on the books does not translate into “active” members. In virtually all Lodges, the number of active members is only about half the number that are on the books – as some members only pay dues and do little else. If only half of our members are “active” then we have only about 2,000 active members in the entire state. Second, over half of our 118 Lodges have 25 or fewer members. Now, a Lodge with 25 members means a Lodge with 12 or 13 active members. I am confident that there are Lodges with 25 or fewer members that do quite well. But I am also confident that we have a significant number of Lodges with 25 or fewer members that are at real risk of losing their quorums and thus becoming historical footnotes.
Why is this happening to our Order, and what’s the solution?
As to “why”, I believe that it’s all attributable to the changes that occur in an evolving and modernizing society. When Odd Fellowship formed in the 1800’s there were no cars or airplanes, no radio or television, no movies, no electric appliances, and certainly no Internet and social media. Government provided virtually no services to people. All that changed in the ensuing years. The changes in the 21st Century proceed with even more rapidity. For Odd Fellowship to behave as if we were still in the 20th Century, or even the 19th Century, is charming and quaint – but it will spell the demise of the Order. Friendship, love and truth will never go out of style. But filling out membership cards by hand, using hard-copy application forms, typing and mailing newsletters, keeping minutes by hand with a pen on forms in a book, reading verbatim at meetings all the correspondence that arrives at the Lodge, filling out warrants by hand before checks can be written – these are all indicia of another age.
As to the “solution”, it is as self-evident as the problem. Simply put, Odd Fellowship must evolve to fit the times. Look. The basketball that was played in the 1900’s is not the basketball played today. The food stores of the 1900’s are not the food stores of today. The way we traveled in the 1900’s is not the way we travel today. The way we communicated in the 1900’s is certainly not the way we communicate today. Who in their right mind would believe that we should run our Odd Fellows Order today the way we ran it in the 1900’s? Yet, that is precisely what we do in our Lodges. And the result is that we have many Lodges that have not, and do not attract new members in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. We have Lodges in California that have not brought in new members for years. We have Lodges in California where the members are all grandmothers and grandfathers. No offense to grandfathers and grandmothers – I’m a grandfather myself – but if a Lodge skips an entire generation, that Lodge is in trouble.
Fraternities need to replenish membership to survive. That’s because existing members move away, withdraw, cease to participate or pass away. It’s inevitable. New members provide the lifeblood for the survival of a fraternal order.
How do we attract new members? I will be frank. For those Lodges that have skipped a generation (sometimes two) of new members, where all the members are in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – it’s too late. Those Lodges are destined to lose their quorums at some point in the near future, and thus lose their charters or consolidate. They are dinosaurs, and cannot long survive in the environment of the 21st Century. But for the rest of the Lodges in California, there is hope. We need only look to the handful of Lodges in our state that are NOT losing members – that are actually showing net gains of members year after year. These Lodge show that fraternities are still relevant, and that Odd Fellowship can survive and even thrive in the 21st Century. How do they do it? If you look at the Lodges that show net gains, you will see that they are first and foremost open to all – men, women, and all people. And you will see that they are three-dimensional Lodges, emphasizing not only the ritual of our Order, but also planning fun social events for the members, and engaged in good works in their communities. They have evolved with the times, and they will be the fraternal survivors of the future.
F – L – T
Jurisdiction of California