Kiwanis Club of North Gwinnett President Barry Sanders isn’t afraid to say what other civic organizations are trying to deny.
Outsiders, he said, sometimes perceive civic organizations — such as Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis clubs — as groups of old, white men with buzz cuts and horn-rimmed glasses. That can’t persist, he said, in order for clubs to continue serving their communities.
“That model is reminiscent of Sears,” Sanders said. “I relate more to Amazon.”
Sanders is described by colleagues as a bull in a china shop. He always has a metaphor at hand and isn’t afraid to speak his mind, even if the truth can sting or cause other North Gwinnett Kiwanis members to cringe.
Membership of civic organizations has been steadily declining since the height of their influence roughly 50 years ago. Membership plateaued in the 1980s when Kiwanis and some other organizations started to admit women as members. Fifty years ago, weekly and monthly meetings were a way for people to network and for residents and business owners to give back to worthy causes. Social networking has assumed some of the functions Kiwanis Club of North Gwinnett, chartered in 1938, used to serve.
Kiwanis International, a network of community clubs that organize volunteer events with the goal of improving the lives of children, released a fact sheet in 2007 that reported 600,000 total club members. In November 2013, Kiwanis International said its total youth and adult membership — which comprises high school-sponsored Key Clubs — was at 582,272. The most recent fact sheet release in January 2019 reported 551,051 adult and youth members.
While some local clubs are struggling to stabilize their membership numbers, North Gwinnett’s Kiwanis club is gaining ground. According to a June membership report, the North Gwinnett Kiwanis club has experienced a roughly 84% increase in membership since September 2018. That percent change is the highest among Georgia clubs during that nine-month period.
Sanders went to his first Kiwanis lunch meeting three years ago and became president last year during a dire straits time in the organization’s history. Its numbers had dwindled to roughly 30 members and the club was losing 15 to 20% of members annually.
“I felt like I was becoming the CEO of Sears in an age of Amazon,” Sanders said. “I said when I became president, ‘Not having this wealth of experience growing up as a Kiwanian, I’m going to ask a lot of stupid questions.’”
It turned out, the club was sometimes getting in its own way with regards to retaining members. One of the questions he asked was: What do member want from their club experience? Overwhelmingly, the answer was: fewer meetings, more opportunities.
There was also feedback in regard to the types of activities that the club sponsored. Historically, the Kiwanis Club of North Gwinnett provided scholarships to Buford and North Gwinnett high schools and sponsored local academic and youth sports activities in the area. Its primary fundraising activity was a horse show and a Vidalia onion sale in the spring. A traditional Kiwanis fundraiser is to provide dictionaries for elementary school students.
“We don’t exist to hand out dictionaries,” Sanders said. “We exist to help out the community.”
Those old-school events are starting to be replaced with more engaging activities for youth. North Gwinnett club member Dale Thomas is the owner and operator of Hamilton Mill and Suwanee Code Ninjas, a center where kids can subscribe for lessons on coding. Code Ninjas in Hamilton Mill recently hosted a Toys-For-Tots drive and a free coding clinic where children could learn the basics of coding.
“By inviting people into our center and opening our doors to the community, they get to see what we do,” Thomas said. “Working around people like Barry, who is more passionate about working with children than anyone I’ve ever seen, it helps my business grow, but it also helps us contribute.”
Thomas is a fairly new member of the club since he joined in December 2018. Jonathan Chang, a co-owner and dentist at Sweet City Smiles in Sugar Hill, is another new member, having joined roughly two months ago, and he is already making an impact with regards to the club’s service mission. His business is partnering with North Gwinnett Kiwanis and Wellroot Family Services to donate a backpack to a foster child for every new patient his office sees.
“What keeps drawing me back (to Kiwanis) is I think deep down we all want to build a legacy,” Chang said. “I thought my legacy was. ‘I’m going to be a successful dentist.’ But how boring is that? It’s not unique. Now my legacy, I want to be know for the meaningful relationships I created and the people I helped.”
Though it took some time, other Kiwanis districts and local clubs are adapting. North Gwinnett’s club had a hard enough time committing to some of the day-to-day changes, such as rearranging chairs in their meeting room. At the district and state level, these new ideas can also be tough to receive.
Steve Goins, a 14-year veteran of Kiwanis and 10-year member of North Gwinnett’s club, said he and Sanders are proposing some radical ideas to members who have been used to hearing a public speaker at lunch and participating in three fundraisers per year.
“I think we’re giving talented people the opportunity to use those talents and not leave their hat at the door,” Goins said.
That means getting out of the comfort zones of some members.
The club is not only gaining new members but also retaining them. Now, North Gwinnett’s club has a waiting list for new members. Sanders looked around the room during the June 11 club meeting at the Buford Community Center and welcomed back some familiar returning faces. By recognizing the club members’ common interest — “a heart to serve” as Sanders puts it — and staying out of the way of new ideas, North Gwinnett’s club is presenting a counter culture to the traditional nature of civic organizations.
Thirty years ago, Gail Peachey would have been prohibited from joining Kiwanis’ men-only club. Now the self-employed life coach said she hasn’t missed a meeting she’s been in town for during the two months she’s been a club member.
“If you come, you’re probably going to stay,” Peachey said. “We have built it, they will come, so to speak.”