Kelly: In Facebook age, service clubs still offer face time -
Published Friday, July 5, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 9:53 am
Kelly: In Facebook age, service clubs still offer face time

The Downtown Rotary Club got some good news last week: Membership had ticked up a bit to 219.

The only problem is that a couple of decades ago, the number was about 400.

Service clubs long have been staples of American civic involvement and volunteerism, as well as social and business contacts. Many clubs remain strong and active, even with fewer members.

But in the social media age of Facebook, Twitter and smartphone apps, will service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis, Optimists, Lions and all the rest ever again appeal in large numbers to younger generations?

Larry Gomez, who recently retired from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, told Rotarians that social media are important, but what's crucial is personal contact.

“Eyeball to eyeball is how business works,” he said. “Trust is part of the Omaha ethic, the Midwest ethic. You've got to look a person in the eye to get business done in Omaha.”

Gomez, who was the chamber's director of small-business services, isn't downplaying the role of electronic communication. He got a laugh from Rotarians by recalling the title of a seminar he attended a quarter-century ago: “Computers: Are They Here to Stay?”

Uh, apparently so — even though Omaha investor Warren Buffett once quipped that the Internet is “a passing fad.”

Yes, everything has changed. The Downtown Rotary, in fact, hasn't met downtown for years because of “parking and other issues.”

Last week, 93 people attended the final meeting of the Rotary year at the Field Club, west of downtown at 36th Street and Woolworth Avenue. Todd Murphy of Universal Information Services stepped down as club president and presented a gavel to his successor, Leslie Volk of Union Bank and Trust.

She is the fourth woman to become club president in its 102-year history. Financial adviser Cella Quinn, still an active member, was the first, in 1996.

Many service clubs were all-male bastions until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in 1987 that Rotary clubs could not exclude women from membership because of gender.

Opening up service clubs to women didn't result in big increases in member rolls. The downward trend was already underway.

In his 2000 book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Robert D. Putnam said that attending club meetings such as Rotary and Kiwanis had declined by 58 percent in the past 25 years.

The Omaha-Bellevue-Council Bluffs metro area has 12 Rotary clubs with 904 members, a total that appears to have leveled off. Gretchen Bren, executive director of Downtown Rotary, said that four years ago, those clubs totaled 921 members.

Volunteerism, even outside service clubs, appears to be doing well. Iowa and Nebraska rank in the top six states for percentage of people who donate time and efforts to good causes.

The decline in service club membership is attributed to a number of reasons.

“Businesses aren't as flexible in letting people off at lunch,” Bren said, “and lots of businesses have their own service projects. There are so many more ways to get involved now.”

“Society seems to be busier, and there are a lot more challenges for people's time,” said Murphy, the outgoing president. “We haven't done a good job demonstrating the benefits of civic organizations like Rotary.”

Service clubs usually meet once a week and hear from an outside speaker. Clubs raise money for charities, honor scholars and sponsor other activities.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

For decades in Omaha, each of the eight visiting College World Series teams has been assigned a service club as a host. Downtown Rotary this year hosted Oregon State. The club also helps sponsor the annual Outland Trophy banquet in Omaha.

Rotary provides international exchanges of adults and students. One of its causes is to help eradicate polio in the world; in that regard, Bren has been part of trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Service clubs aren't political. At last week's Downtown Rotary meeting, a greeter was Republican Hal Daub, a former mayor of Omaha. Taking part in a panel discussion was Democrat Jim Suttle, who recently ended his term as mayor of Omaha.

Suttle, an engineer and a former Rotary president, said retaining members is a challenge in “a faster and faster high-tech world,” not only for service clubs but for churches and other organizations.

He agreed that volunteerism is alive and well, citing the many who helped on both sides of the Missouri River during the flood of 201l.

“We were neighbors standing side by side,” he said. “Volunteerism never stopped. We did not hurt for volunteers.”

Joining Suttle and Larry Gomez on a panel was Mary Lynn Reiser, director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

UNO business graduates are eager to become involved in the community, she said, and service clubs like Rotary could try to recruit them. Omaha is a welcoming community, she said, for those who want to become civically involved.

When she was president of the National Association of Economic Educators, Reiser hosted a board meeting in Omaha. Board members “were just shocked that I could say 'Hi, Jim' to the mayor and that I knew both of our U.S. senators by their first names.”

Whether in service clubs, nonprofits or other organizations, people who get involved and donate time make a community strong. Social media are great, but there's no substitute — in business or volunteerism — for contact that's eyeball to eyeball.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Explosive device blows hole in windshield, damages another car
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
19-year-old arrested in connection with March shooting
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast 'political expediency' as foes hail ruling to delay decision
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Nebraska senators to study tax issues over break
Portion of Saddle Creek Road closed after water main break
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Police identify 21-year-old shot in ankle near 30th, W Streets
Cult murderer's death row appeal denied, but execution in limbo
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
< >
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »