Service Clubs used to be central to the existence and development of rural towns and cities. But the needs they catered to are more and more being met by government, technology and social change. Is there a future for them?
Progress ends up killing things off. Some institutions and ideas evolve enough to survive, but plenty of others simply see their time come and go as they lose their relevance to the world around them. Often we welcome these changes, but sometimes it's sad to see a part of our surroundings disappear when we don't know what will be left in its place.
That's how I feel about small towns' service clubs. Organisations that once boasted scores of members in each club, raised massive amounts of money for community projects, and provided an opportunity for people to develop stronger ties with their neighbours are now disappearing faster and faster each year.
Travelling through rural Australia one of the things that was common to almost all small towns was the service club directory on the road in. Here, each of the service clubs would proudly identify themselves and give travelling members from other towns the information about how to find them. You'd find Rotary, Lions, Zonta, Quota, the Country Women's Association and Apex logos outside most towns, and for larger towns there'd often be more than one of each, but today the signs are fewer, or worse are nothing more than a reminder of organisations that no longer exist, with no-one left to even take their sign away.
Ironically, the amount of time that Australians spend volunteering each year is greater than at almost any time in our history, but that hasn't helped the service clubs, which, in many ways, are still largely artefacts of the early 20th century.
We're happy to participate in Clean Up Australia Day, or do a few hours at a Bunnings barbecue for the pre-school, but the prospect of heading off to a dinner meeting once a fortnight, or perhaps every week, is a commitment that very few people want to make.
When most service clubs were formed they were single gender organisations, mostly for men, that provided a social outlet, as well as a helping hand for the community. They were more egalitarian than gentlemen's clubs and less secretive than the Masons or the Royal and Ancient Order of Buffaloes, and they thrived in small towns. Service clubs were renowned for building things and taking care of people in the community for whom social services were lacking, or more likely, non-existent. They were practical organisations who would be providing free firewood for widows one week, and running a bush dance the next. At a national level, their influence was even more impressive, with achievements like founding Guide Dogs, providing free milk for school kids in the '30s, funding autism research in the 60s, and providing millions of dollars for the Life Education Vans that so many of us visited in primary school.
But progress is killing them off.
We don't need service clubs to fulfil our social needs any more, the idea of going to a meeting once a fortnight to catch up with some friends seems quaint in a world where we can instantly make contact on Facebook or Twitter. The small towns that once hosted these clubs are themselves disappearing, with a more mobile population simply leaving them behind rather than investing time in them.
Service clubs also struggled with what equality meant for them, with some organisations troubled more than others by integrating women into their membership.
More broadly, the model of a husband going off to his Rotary or Apex meeting after work while his wife stays at home with the kids simply does not fit into a society where both partners work and men are more involved in their children's lives than they would have been two generations ago.
Another of the reasons that service clubs are finding it hard to keep going is that so much of what they used to do is now looked after by one level of government or another, or by a charity that is solely focussed on a single issue. The demands we place on all levels of government today are far beyond what they were when service clubs were at their peak.
Every local council now has teams of people dedicated to creating community events, from Australia Day to Harmony Day and everything in-between, state and federal governments provide support for people that would have been almost unimaginable even thirty years ago. Every cause seems to have a dedicated charity that's being professionally run, sometimes one that was created as a result of a service club project, and have time and resources that a small club simply cannot compete with. This makes it exceedingly difficult for service clubs to define their purpose, not just within their community but for their own members. Without a strong sense of purpose it's hard to attract new members or even hold on to the ones you've already got.
Membership in service clubs in Australia is declining, and the average age of the members is increasing. While strong organisations like Rotary will not disappear completely, it is unlikely that they will once again become the social forces that they once were. Even the venerable CWA, which helped provide postnatal health services to women across the nation, has been reduced to judging scones and cakes on cooking shows to raise their profile.
In one way or another service clubs have always been a part of my life. When I was in primary school it was the Apex Club who ran the dangerously fast merry-go round at the school fete, did the sausage sizzles at every community event and whose logo adorned parks and barbecue shelters around town. When I was in my teens, one of the local Apex Clubs sent me on a youth leadership program, the Lions Club awarded me prizes for public speaking, and Rotary sent me to the National Youth Science Forum. I've spent most of the last twenty years trying to repay my good fortune through my own Apex membership, hoping to give more young people the opportunities I had. What's happened along the way is that I've been given more opportunities, making great friends and seeing the positive influence my actions can make.
Service clubs are just another casualty of social progress but their absence will be keenly felt, especially in the small towns like the one I grew up in. I have no doubt they will be replaced, there is still no shortage of people who want to help others, but I fear that we may forget the most important thing that service clubs could teach us, that helping others isn't some onerous duty, it can be enormous fun.