volunteers

Part 2: Service clubs struggle to stay relevant as nature of volunteering and demographics change

Service clubs have been a major source of volunteers in South Okanagan communities, and they’ve left a legacy of recreation facilities and charitable work.

But in recent decades some clubs have come and gone, and others are struggling to hang on.

In Osoyoos especially, but also in Oliver, there are parks named for service clubs that no longer exist, but once played an important role in establishing those parks.

Both communities have Kinsmen Parks, though the clubs are no longer active. Osoyoos has lost its Lions and Gyro clubs, though the Lions are still hanging on in Oliver.

Two women’s clubs – the Soroptimists in Osoyoos and the Women’s Institute in Oliver – both folded in recent years.

Cheryle King has been an active volunteer in Osoyoos since she and her husband Jim moved there in 2008. (Richard McGuire Photo)
Cheryle King has long been a volunteer with organizations such as Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce. (Richard McGuire Photo)
Members of the Rotary Club of Osoyoos cook pancake breakfast on Canada Day. This club has maintained an active membership, while other clubs have been less successful. (Richard McGuire Photo)

It’s partly the changing nature of volunteerism and recreation, but the loss of these once vibrant clubs can also be attributed to demographics. Members get older and it becomes difficult to attract younger members.

“They age out. They burn out,” said Cheryle King, an Osoyoos volunteer who has been active in the Chamber of Commerce (both before and after amalgamation) and has served leading roles in the Rotary Club of Osoyoos, and at Rotary’s district level.

The Kiwanis Club of Oliver continues to do good work in that community, including raising funds through a thrift shop. But it has struggled to maintain membership.

In March 2016, Oliver Kiwanis member Peter Morrow, almost 80 at the time, wrote a letter to the Oliver Chronicle reflecting on the demise of the Osoyoos Gyro Club and the struggles faced by Kiwanis in Oliver.

“Over the years, service clubs and fraternal organizations have had dwindling memberships because younger adults, for whatever reason, have been reluctant to join these groups and step up to the plate,” Morrow wrote.

“I have taken part in many [Kiwanis] club activities and quite frankly, I’m burned out,” he continued. “I no longer have the enthusiasm I had when I joined 20-plus years back. Looking around at my fellow and gal members, I see a club with the average age of 70 (11 are over 80 years). How long can we last?”

Carol Sheridan has been president of the Oliver Rotary Club and she’s also engaged with many volunteers in her job as manager at Oliver Parks and Recreation. (Richard McGuire Photo)

For several years before the Oliver Women’s Institute voted to “go into abeyance” at the end of 2017, club president Helen Overnes tried to encourage more women to join the club to keep it alive. The club’s history in Oliver dates back to 1923, and it taught leadership and other skills to many women over the years.

Carol Sheridan, president of the Oliver Rotary Club, who works as manager at Oliver Parks and Recreation, said she was particularly saddened when the Oliver Women’s Institute disbanded.

“They were one of the oldest Women’s Institute groups that we had in the province and unfortunately they couldn’t adapt,” Sheridan said. “They were down to three or four really elderly women, and they just couldn’t attract new people.”

One problem, she noted, was that the Women’s Institute met during the day and didn’t want to change its meeting time. This made it harder to attract younger women who were working, parenting or in school.

“Ultimately, what happened is they were trying to attract members that they wanted to fit into what they’d always done,” she said. “They just were not willing to change.”

Members of the Indo-Canadian community in Osoyoos and Oliver are active volunteers at local events. (Richard McGuire Photo)

In previous decades, there was much more segregation of service clubs along gender lines.

King points out that until 1989, women were not allowed to join Rotary. Even when she joined the Osoyoos club about two decades later, she was in the minority as a female.

Since then, a growing number of segregated women’s clubs have disbanded, with members joining with their male counterparts. For example, the Osoyoos Royal Purple disbanded in early 2017, and a number of the women joined with the Elks.

Similarly, the Lions Club once had a separate branch for women, the Lionesses. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, women were allowed to become Lions and the Lionesses were disbanded.

Today Oliver still has a small Lions Club, but the Osoyoos Lions disbanded in 2014 after the club had dwindled to just two senior couples.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which erupted in 2020, had a big impact on volunteering, and contributed to the demise of the Osoyoos chapter of Soroptimist International.

The club had relied on fashion shows to raise funds for local youth programs, particularly aimed at girls. Shirley Corley-Rourke, secretary, said at the time that Covid made it impossible to hold fundraising events.

Sometimes service clubs and volunteer groups face difficulties when key leadership people or deeply committed volunteers move away.

Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff points to the example of super-volunteer Jessie Smythe, who left Osoyoos for Penticton in 2018. Smythe was active with the Osoyoos Festival Society, the Osoyoos Soroptimists, the Osoyoos Lawn Bowling Club, the Mariposa Auxiliary, Market on Main and the Osoyoos Arts Council and Concert Society.

Her move was a blow to all these organizations.

Subrina Monteith, executive director at the Penticton-based South Okanagan-Similkameen Volunteer Centre, suggests organizations should have succession plans and do exit surveys when members leave.

Subrina Monteith is executive director of the Penticton-based South Okanagan-Similkameen Volunteer Centre, which matches non-profits looking for volunteers with volunteers looking for meaningful opportunities. She’s provided advice to groups seeking assistance.

“Some creative ideas that I’ve shared with non-profits in this region include building succession planning into decisions,” Monteith said. “Try to create co-chairs, so a co-chair, a co-treasurer, is a natural succession planning. Build subcommittees so those subcommittees are engaged in organization, and those committee members will eventually become members of your board.”

She laments that a number of organizations she’s worked with don’t have a business plan or a succession plan.

She also suggests exit surveys for members leaving to find out why.

“Are they leaving because there’s internal conflict?” she asks. “Are they leaving because they’re not being valued? Are they leaving because they’re not being utilized. Those are opportunities to build a better, stronger organization. Nobody likes negative feedback, but sometimes negative is positive.”

Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff (right) has been an active volunteer with the Osoyoos Festival Society. Pictured here, she points to winners of the cherry pie eating contest. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Sheridan in Oliver says a key to retaining volunteers is showing appreciation. Both Oliver and Osoyoos hold town-sponsored volunteer appreciation events during National Volunteer Week in April where they honour all volunteers, and hand out awards to some of the most deserving.

McKortoff shares Sheridan’s view.

“We need to show appreciation for people who are volunteers and make them feel valued,” McKortoff said.

“Make it fun,” advises King, who suggests combining work with social events. “As long as it’s enjoyable, they don’t feel they’re being taken advantage of. As soon as you start feeling like you’re being taken advantage of, you back off.”

She also believes that being more flexible with members makes it easier for more people to participate. Rotary, for example, used to have stricter rules about the number of meetings members had to attend and the services they had to perform. By relaxing those rules, it opens the club to new members who might have limited time.

King also thinks clubs need to be more direct in inviting people to become members.

“I think a lot of people are reluctant to ask,” she said. “You’ve got to put it out there.”

Similarly, some clubs don’t “toot their horn” enough by telling the community what they do, she added.

Sheridan thinks people coming into the 40s and 50s age groups are more reluctant to join service clubs, and it may be because the way people like to commit their time has changed. They see a club as a larger commitment and fear getting drawn in. She agrees with King that membership rule changes have made it easier for people to donate their time as they are able.

“Something that clubs really have to address is what is your public image in the community,” she said. “A lot of these groups have been around for so long they’ve never really had to market themselves. They’ve never really had to go out and say, ‘join us.’ Now we all do because people aren’t joining us.”