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Center on Philanthropy

Last modified: Wednesday, October 19, 2005

IU study finds involvement down in veterans groups, fraternal organizations and civic clubs

Oct. 19, 2005

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Traditional membership organizations have seen a drop in the number of members as well as stagnation in demands for services in recent years, while other newer membership organizations are growing, according to a new report from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The report is available at

"The landscape is changing, especially for mutual benefit groups, such as fraternal societies or veterans groups, and civic associations, such as community service clubs or homeowners associations," noted the study's senior author, Kirsten Grønbjerg, a professor of nonprofit management in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington and the Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

The study showed that traditional membership organizations, such as veterans groups, fraternal organizations and civic groups, have seen the largest declines in membership. Almost half (47 percent) of mutual benefit groups, including the veterans and fraternal organizations, reported a decrease in membership over the three years prior to the survey (completed in 2002), as did almost a third (32 percent) of civic associations and recreation groups.

Only 6 percent of mutual benefit groups reported an increase in membership, which is significantly lower than the average for all membership organizations (26 percent).

One reason for such stagnation may be related to how long a group has existed. Most mutual benefit or civic associations were established under community conditions that were radically different from what they are today. For example, 80 percent of mutual benefit organizations were founded before 1960 and 51 percent before 1930.

"In some respects, it's easier to start a new organization than to change an existing one," Grønbjerg said. "Older organizations tend to have well-established traditions and may find it difficult to make significant changes to their operations or focus, even if doing so would help them recruit new members and/or retain current members."

The study found that mutual benefit groups, civic associations and recreation groups are less likely than the three other types of membership organizations (religious congregations, occupation/industry groups and other membership organizations) to be aware of changes in community conditions or government policies, to be involved in collaborations or networks, and to consider themselves in competition with other groups.

Their smaller boards, fewer paid staff, less reliance on volunteers and fewer management tools in place compared to other types of membership organizations may help explain this evidence of isolation or decline, noted Grønbjerg, and may further limit their incentives for change or even awareness of the need to change. Indeed, they are less likely to report facing management challenges than other types of membership groups.

The survey of 2,206 Indiana nonprofit organizations, including charities, congregations, advocacy groups and membership associations, showed that the great majority (75 percent) of Indiana nonprofits have participating members. The study grouped these into six types of membership organizations that are distributed as follows:

Religious congregations - 29 percent
Civic organizations - 18 percent
Mutual benefit groups - 14 percent
Recreational groups - 9 percent
Occupation/industry groups - 8 percent
Other member groups - 22 percent

Other key findings:

-- Three-fourths of membership groups depend mainly on membership dues and fees to sustain themselves, including occupation/industry groups, recreation groups and civic associations. Religious organizations, on the other hand, depend almost entirely on donations from members and outside sources.

-- Most membership organizations have relatively few members. Of those surveyed, only 20 percent of nonprofit groups reported they have more than 500 members while 30 percent have 50 or fewer members. Recreational groups lead the list of those with more than 500 members -- 30 percent of their organizations are above that mark. On the other hand, civic associations are more likely to be smaller, with nearly 50 percent of them reporting their membership count at less than 50.

-- There is a great variety of membership organizations in Indiana. Each of the six major types of membership organizations includes several sub-categories, which differ from one another in some characteristics despite their overall similarities. For example, among religious congregations, Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical congregations differ on several indicators, as do chamber of commerce organizations among industry and occupation organizations, or fraternal beneficiary societies and veterans organizations among mutual benefit groups.

Most prior studies of nonprofit organizations have focused mainly on charities registered with the Internal Revenue Service, thereby excluding most of the membership organizations included in this study. "While we have learned much about the incredible richness and variety of Indiana's membership organizations from this study," said Grønbjerg, "we have only begun to scratch the surface."

The new report is part of the ongoing project called Indiana Nonprofit Sector: Scope and Community Dimensions, which was begun in 1999 to examine the size and composition of the Indiana nonprofit sector and the critical role that Indiana nonprofits play in communities. The project is funded through support from the Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy by The Indianapolis Foundation, an affiliate of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, and the Center on Philanthropy's Indiana Research Fund, supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc.

The IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, located on eight campuses, is committed to teaching, research and service in areas such as public and nonprofit management, public policy, environmental science, criminal justice, arts administration and health administration. The school maintains continuing relationships with a large number of public agencies at all levels of government; public and private hospitals and health organizations; and nonprofit organizations and corporations in the private sector. SPEA has earned national distinction for innovative educational programs that combine administrative, social, economic, financial and environmental disciplines.

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, a part of the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, is a leading academic center dedicated to increasing the understanding of philanthropy, improving its practice, and enhancing engagement in philanthropy through research, teaching, public service, and public affairs programs in philanthropy, fundraising and management of nonprofit organizations.