Dear Dedicated Members for Change,
In 1853, the Grand Lodge of California began to record statistics on the number of members in our Order. The number of members in 1853 was 985. Next to that number was the number 780, showing the net gain from the prior year. So, apparently, the starting point for statistic compilation was actually 1852 when the Order counted 205 members in California. The Grand Lodge has continued compiling these statistics for every year from 1853 to the present, showing either a “net gain” or a “net loss” for every year. A “net gain” is the increase in membership year-to-year when the Order has admitted more members than have been lost; a “net loss” is the decrease in membership year-to-year when the Order has lost more members than it has admitted.
The view of these statistics is nothing less than fascinating. And it shows certain cycles.
In the first cycle – which stretched from 1853 until 1893 – a period of some 40 years – the Order grew rapidly, year after year showing a net gain on occasion as high as 10%. In 1893 the membership number statewide was 30,741. In 1894 there was a momentary retrenchment for four years – showing net losses in those years, but then the Order snapped right back to show a steady stream of net gains from 1898 until 1913. In 1913, the membership stood at 46,099. The years of World War I showed an unsurprising shrinkage in membership as young men went to war. The years 1914 to 1918 showed net losses, except for a small net gain in 1917 (presumably as some young men started coming back home). From 1919 to 1928, with the exception of just one year, the Order had net gains every year. In 1928, the membership was 58,820. That number of 58,820, by the way, is the high-water mark of Odd Fellowship in California – a very large number considering the entire population of California at the time was just a shade over 5 million.
And then the Great Depression hit.
Membership dropped in 1929 and then continued to drop until 1942, with steady declines year after year. In some years, the net loss exceeded 10%. In 1942, the number of Odd Fellows in California had fallen to 25,567. From 1943 to 1947 – around the time of World War II – the membership increased with net gains every year. This was the last period of sustained growth in our Order in California. In 1947, the membership had increased to 30,739 as young men came back from war searching to reintegrate into society. Then, in 1948 the Order saw a net loss, and those net losses continued for 67 years (with the exception of 2002 when there was a small net gain) until 2015. This sustained period of net losses brought our membership down to 4,075 dues paying members in 2015. A statewide membership number of 4,075 is anemic in light of the overall population of the state which had skyrocketed to 40 million. There are several high schools in California which have more students than Odd Fellows have members.
The drop is breathtaking. In 1928 we had 58,820 members and in 2015 we had plummeted to 4,075 members – a descent of some 93% in our membership. Statistically, if this trend were to continue, the Order in California would number only in the hundreds in less than 20 years. These net losses are especially troubling in light of the fact that California, from 1850 until the present day, has experienced rather huge net gains in population. In some decades (particularly the 1950’s and 1960’s) California’s net population gains exceeded 5% per year. So, while California’s population was increasing, the population of Odd Fellows was in steady decline.
But then, in 2016, a remarkable thing happened. Statistics for Calendar Year 2016 showed a small net gain in the membership in California. And then for Calendar Year 2017 the statistics showed a small net gain for the second year in a row. The fact that the net gains for those years was small is of little consequence. The fact that California has finally stopped the tide of year-after-year net losses is of consequence. Because reversing a trend takes two steps: First you have to put the brakes on it, and second you have to move in a different direction on a consistent basis. We have entered phase one of this important process. We have finally put the brakes on decades of net losses. As if in a fraternal stupor, we had seemingly grown accustomed to year after year after year of membership losses. And now – in 2016 and again in 2017 – we are hopefully starting a new paradigm of membership gains. If it continues in 2018, we can truthfully say that we have reversed the trend and are starting a new trend of net gains.
How did this happen?
May I suggest that the creation of Dedicated Members for Change (DMC) at the end of 2010 was a significant factor in reversing the trend of declining membership. For the last eight years, DMC has focused the Order in California on the reality of membership losses, and more importantly, has suggested proven ways that Lodges can reverse the trend. While most Lodges continue to lose members, there are some Lodges that continue to show net gains in membership. So, by analyzing what the membership-gaining Lodges are doing, we can provide suggestions of “what works” to all Lodges. And more and more Lodges are starting to get it. A focus on ritual alone will not grow Lodges. To grow in the 21st Century, a Lodge cannot be so one-dimensional. Instead, growing Lodges expand their focus on good works in the community, and also on fun social activities for the members.
Without question, Odd Fellowship is relevant in the 21st Century and Odd Fellows Lodges can grow and prosper. We have proven it in California.
F – L – T
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California