Joining the Service

REGION – Gen Netxt is not a typo. It's a service and networking group sort of like Kiwanis and Rotary, but mostly for people in their 20s and 30s.

The Leelanau group's name tells that its members communicate mostly by texting and Facebook in organizing food drives and other benefits, or networking events.

"We're the next generation of community service," said Jessica Carden, 34, one of the founders of the group.

The group of 20 and 30-somethings formed in an era when traditional service clubs – Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks, Zonta – are aging on a national basis.

The local membership curve also tends upward, area club leaders said.

Many join after retiring, like Gary Carlson, who joined Kiwanis Club of Traverse City in 2005 and is now president.

Carlson, 65, had always wanted something like this, but split his time between Livonia and Ypsilanti for years. He never completely knew which town was his.

"It's difficult to get really involved in your local or work community," he said.

Carlson's situation is more common within service clubs than is Carden's, though there are a lot of members between the two ages.

"We're still getting quite a few people in the late 30s-to-early 50s range; but not so much in the 20s and early 30s," Carlson said.

Cost is one reason.

Membership, donations, lunches and other activities can add up to $1,000 a year for Rotarians, said Beth Karczewski, Rotary Club of Traverse City president.

In the current economy, that can be a big factor.

"People just aren't feeling that comfortable and secure in their jobs these days," Carlson said.

Also, employers are less likely to kick in for some of the tab than they once were, he added.

Time can be hard to come by for younger adults, as well. Obviously, retirees are more able to spend the time it takes to conduct the projects the service clubs are known for.

"Membership is expected to participate," said Cheryl Follette, Zonta Club of Kansas City president.

"If you're raising a family, it's hard to give 50 to 100 hours of your time to a project," she added.

Some clubs have mixed up their meeting times, offering different gatherings for different schedules. Others have introduced on-line memberships offering people another way of keeping in touch.

They've also addressed other obstacles.

For one thing, clubs are less likely than in the past to require that members be in management or own a controlling interest in his or her business.

While Zonta maintains that requirement, Rotary scrapped it about 10 years ago and has seen an increase in younger members since then.

"We're trying to be relevant to all ages and we have a very diverse group," Karczewski said. "You still have to be invited by another Rotarian, but we do not exclude people based on their positions."

It would seem service clubs are an ideal place for young professionals to meet people who can advance their careers. That may happen, though blatant self-promotion is frowned upon.

"We don't encourage networking at meetings," Carlson said. "But if people need a lawyer, they're likely to call on a lawyer they know from the club."

Gen Netxt, on the other hand, has the dual purposes of networking and community service.

Gen Netxt recently organized a speed-networking event. It was similar to speed-dating but for the purpose of quickly meeting people who might benefit an attendee's career.

Traverse City Young Professionals is a similar group, which like Gen Netxt was organized by the local chamber of commerce.

"Our number-one focus is recruiting and retaining young professionals in Traverse City, for the growth and stability of the community," Beers said.

Many of the 21- to 40-year-olds in Young Professionals are also members of Elks, Rotary, Zonta or others, said coordinator Allison Beers who is also a Rotarian.

Beers is pleased with her membership in both organizations, but believes the more established groups can improve their outreach to younger members.

For one thing, the noon Rotary meetings include piano-accompanied sing-alongs that may be a tough-sell for the i-Pod generation.

"They can't sing a song from 1940 and expect young people to be excited," said Beers, 32.

The group is trying to modernize its song selections, and that ritual has endeared her in the five years she's been a member.

"I can see there's great camaraderie in the room," she said.

In fact, the friendships Beers has made and the works the group does have bridged any generation gap there might be. She recommends the group to her friends, regardless of age.

"It's the one organization I'm most proud of belonging to," she said.