Saturday, September 01, 2007

Dreaded Doomsayers of Dues


Over on MasonicMinute.com, there is a discussion over the dreaded dues question in Masonry. Overall, the MasonicMinute host is on the right track. I strongly suggest having a look at Wbro. Nathan Brindle's paper, "Dues That Don't Anymore." It is an outstanding analysis about the irresponsibility and dangers of keeping Freemasonry cheap. The fraternity has made a horrible miscalculation by freezing Masonic dues at its 1960's level.

In the comments section, Brother Mike said: "And what would raising dues sharply in blue lodge do to membership in the York Rite, Scottish Rite, Shrine, and so on?"

With all due respects to Brother Mike (whom I do not know), that made something go snap in me. Those words have ZERO bearing on a discussion on the merits of Blue Lodge dues levels.

We choose to belong or not belong to appendant bodies, but they are nothing without the Blue Lodge. I spend close to $800 a year on Masonic organization dues to belong to a raft of appendant groups. By comparison, the average Mason in 1900, when the numbers are adjusted for inflation, spent close to $3,000 a year in dues, regalia, conventions, etc.

My Shrine and Scottish Rite dues are over $100 each, and they are both able to draw on a region of literally tens of thousands of Masons for their membership. I choose to belong to them. But my membership in all of those groups should never be at the expense of my blue lodge (or three of them, in my case). My York Rite dues is unconscionably low. And all three of my lodges aren't charging even close to what they should be. A strong argument needs to be made that the blue lodge, because it has a much smaller membership base to draw upon needs to by considerably higher than the appendant bodies.

One of my three lodges was started five years ago, and began with high dues. Inflation has caught up with us, and we need to raise it. My mother lodge has stumbled and struggled up to a responsible level, but it took about 8 years to do it. But my third continues to wallow in the grips of miserliness, at its own peril. It resides in what may be the most beautiful lodge rooms in the state, built and completely paid for and donated by a successful family in the 1920's. But because they failed to plan for the future, they sold the building to an outside group, while retaining a toehold on the top floor. Now, they have burned through their nest egg after using it to pay utility bills, and they want to try to abandon this magnificent facility completely. Simply because they refused to make responsible fiscal judgments over the last 40 years. They are murdering their own posterity, because they refused to expect their members to pay for the value of their irreplaceable facility.

What always offends me is that during discussions of dues, there's always one brother who, like a game of Whack-A-Mole, pops out of his seat to shriek that he's on a "fixed income." But what have we done to our lodges since the 1960's but to put them on a fixed income? Heat, water, air conditioning, gas, insurance – it's all skyrocketed for all of us in our homes and businesses. What makes us believe the same is not true in our lodges?

Worse, in many jurisdictions, including my own, we set aside the dues of 50 year members. Indiana did this just after WWII (hardly "time immemorial"). It is a noble gesture, and an honorable one. But the WWII generation swelled in size, and robbed lodges and grand lodges of crucial income at a time when membership numbers on the whole plummeted. Now we are paying the price. At the very least, if lodges were required to pay Grand Lodge assessments for ALL members, not just dues payers, dues would have to be raised accordingly. But when GLs simply wipe the 50 year men off the dues rolls, the grand Lodges suffer, and the lodges don't have to do anything to take up the slack. If a lodge wants to remit the dues of a 50 year Mason, that's fine. Charity should begin at home, and the lodge should have to pony up for it. But Grand Lodge should not be forced to suffer for it. Those members still use the facilities, receive the magazines and want to have Masonic retirement homes waiting for them. If we still want these things, they need to be paid for by someone.


The flip side of the dues discussion is that if we fight for increases in dues to a higher level, lodges had better be providing an excellent lodge experience for that extra coin. Freemasonry is a whole package - not just fellowship and some bucks tossed in a box for charity. It is a lodge room and building that reflects the heritage of the fraternity, as well as the history and love of the members within these individual neighborhood homes of Freemasonry. It is programming that leaves a brother feeling more enriched when he leaves than when he walked in. It is teaching lessons and understanding symbolism. It is the warmth and welcoming feel of its social areas that make men want to come and stay, instead of meet and flee, or not come out at all. It cannot just be a grey meat sandwich, Sam's Club pop and a card game.

Any organization that is cheap to join and belong to requires little sense of commitment, pride or belonging from its members. Any organization that is easy to join is also easy to walk away from. The act of joining the world's oldest, greatest gentleman's fraternity should be an achievement and require certain ongoing responsibilities. Instead, we tell EA's that their presence at our meetings is not required. We keep dues levels irresponsibly low. The appendant bodies are stumbling all over themselves to come up with cheap come-on deals, instead of examining their ongoing mission and programming. In short, the old advertising model of membership on the cheap needs to be taken out behind the barn and shot. If we honestly think that the appeal of belonging to Freemasonry is that we can get it for you wholesale, we might as well shut down tomorrow.

Conversely, if you joined a country club and paid a $10,000 application fee, and they charged you $175 a month in dues and food fees, whether you ate there or not, you can bet YOU"D GET OUT THERE AND PLAY GOLF AND EAT! You'd do it three nights a week, plus the weekend, to get your money's worth and the value of your membership. No I am not suggesting that Freemasons charge $10,000 a month or $175 a month. But I'm saying we have to believe in the greatness of ourselves and our lodges again, the way our forebears did.

11 comments:

Michael said...

Brother Chris, Brother Mike here. I raised that point about appendant bodies simply because I hadn't seen that point raised, and I like to consider everything. I don't have a problem with raising dues, but every time I see that issue brought up on line, no one brings up numbers beyond saying the current dues are too low, and the sky is going to fall: the tone of the rant then makes it appear that people want to raise dues 3-400 per cent. I agree: dues are too low. Average dues in Illinois, where I live, are $39. At my lodge they're $35. I'd be happy to see our dues at $75 next year; I can certainly afford more, but raising things incrementally is more likely to be successful. Also, there's a bit of a catch-22 involved. A healthy lodge could, generally, raise dues a lot without much serious opposition, because members see what they're getting. An unhealthy lodge, conversely, couldn't raise dues as much as it needs right away because members aren't getting anything beyond bare membership. (I know: they would be if they'd participate, but if they did, the lodge would be healthier.) It has to be a two-pronged movie: make lodge membership more attractive to current members and raise dues rationally over time. The one won't work without the other.

My lodge is economically healthy (if we weren't, I wouldn't be suggesting that we buy fifty copies of FMFD), but programatically shaky. It's a better situation than if it were reversed, but it carries the risk of complacency. We'll get where we need to go: all it takes is a few good old men and a few good new ones.

I'd love to talk this over with you some time. The next time I'm in Indianapolis (my wife's brothers live there, and we live in east-central Illinois), let me buy you lunch at Bazbeaux (I like the Tchoupitoulas); I'd say it won't cost more than a year's dues. ;-)

Traveling Man said...

W.B. Hoadapp:

You framed the issue perfectly.

I have no problem with higher dues as long as there is something more at Lodge than opening, paying bills, and closing.

I know we have interesting Masonic speakers in my jurisdiction I see them all the time at my Research Lodge. Heck, even our Grand Officers have, in their ranks, folks I would drive an hour or two to hear speak about Masonry, but for some reason, it just isn't done in our Craft Lodges all that much. We have Brethren in my Lodge that have been members for upwards of 30 years. One night a Past Master started telliing us about the history of our Lodge. Us new Masons were on the edge of our seats.

My mother Lodge started trying to have some sort of program every stated communication when there was not degree work or a *lot* of business. We also started trying to serve *real* food at every stated. Attendance is inching up and the Brethren are more motivated.

Bottom line: raising my dues is fine, I understand that we have to keep up with the times. Just give me something for my money.

Be Well,

Traveling Man

Nathan said...

Nicely stated. One of the problems with my paper is that I harp more about the financial side of things than I do about the "social" side.

In my opinion, if you are only raising dues to cover increased costs due to inflation, you're still missing the point. Dues need to be raised to cover inflation AND to help provide the quality experience that members are going to expect when dues are raised.

The young men of today are interested in Masonry because they perceive it as mysterious and out of the ordinary. At the same time, they want value for their money. If they don't get what they came for, eventually they'll disappear to the appendant bodies or (more likely) simply demit or let themselves be suspended NPD.

As I point out in the paper, NPDs are a bigger problem than deaths right now, and the NPD rate is climbing while the death rate is actually on the down side of the curve. Unfortunately, a lot of the NPDs are young men. Now, young men aren't NPDing because they don't have the money. They're NPDing because you didn't keep them interested.

We know how to fix that problem. But do we have the will to fix it?

A.C. said...

Not that I'm about to say anything new, but I was shocked when the secretary told me that dues at the lodge I'm petitioning were $50 a year... I was expecting it to be at least $100, and even that would have seemed on the low side.

Even if they have 200 paying members, that's only $10,000 of revenue per year, minus whatever gets kicked up to the Grand Lodge and sent to the GW Masonic Memorial. It absolutely doesn't seem sustainable, even if the lodge owns their property outright. I was glad to hear the secretary say that dues are likely going up to $100 in 2008.

The question of 'bang for buck' is an interesting one. Were I paying $300-400 per year, I would definitely want dinners to consist of something a little nicer than potluck casserole on paper plates - but I also recognize that such a shift in attitude could take a matter of years to happen, even if people get used to the idea of higher dues first. ("We didn't raise dues just to waste it all on fancy meals!") It will take a certain amount of conscious initiative on the part of the new wave of members to steer the ship onto a new course like this.

"New direction" and "restoring the blue lodge" seem to be very common themes of online Masonic discussion among newer/younger Masons, and that's encouraging. I'm looking forward to seeing what the realities are at my lodge so that I can get a sense of what it might take to turn talk into action.

John said...

Hmmm..this discussion seems to be ignoring a very important fact. On average in most jurisdictions in the US only 1 in 10 members of a lodge are 'active'. And, by active, I mean ever show up to a single meeting the entire year.

So, sure, for those of us who are active it seems completely reasonable to have higher dues as we are still drawing so much pleasure from being involved in the Fraternity.

However, for the 90% of those who are members but are not active, they view their annual dues as a 'bit of charity' and pay it mostly so they can still say they are a Mason and get a Masonic funeral and, perhaps, a 50 year pin some day.

Even if you can get the active members to accept higher dues, as they should get value for their money, the 90% of inactive members would simply refuse.

Now, I never felt it made sense than 90% of the members are non-active, but that is the fact of the matter. And, each year, we seem to pile up more and more demits from those guys who got raised just a year ago because 'they got bored with it' or their fundamentalist relative spooked them.

The struggle the secretary goes through to collect the dues of the inactive members is painful to behold.

That's just my two cents on the topic.

John

Traveling Man said...

I pay a rather modest fee to belong to the Philosophic Lodge of Research here in Connecticut. But, the charge for meals is about $20.00 per person on average.

For the meetings I have been to, there have been interesting speakers, and good fellowship.

There's no reason on earth why the Craft Lodge can't have some sort of program when there is no degree work.

Worshipful Masters need to roll up their sleeves and get to work though. First they have to plan a program, then they have to inform the Brethren of what the program is going to be before the Stated Communication.

As to what that program is, it can be anything Masonic. Even a Master who does not have a great deal of imagination can build one around a series of the Short Talk Bulletins. Send out the STB with the Trestleboard and then include an article that it will be discussed at such and such a meeting.

The point here is that you have to give the Brethren a reason, a *Masonic* reason to attend.

Just another $0.02 - with the low dues, I can afford it. (grin)

Traveling Man

Chris Hodapp said...

Brother Mike,
Aw, I didn't mean to take it out on you. And of course now that I find your lodge is buying 50 copies of Freemasons For Dummies, whatever you say goes double for me... LOL. Email me the next time you are in Indianapolis.

Brethren, something that has been brought up is the fear that raising dues will mean mass defections of men who would rather be cheap than be Masons. The argument goes that the 90% of Masons who stay home and never participate (which frankly is true of almost EVERY organization) will rise out of their Barcaloungers and La-Z-Boys just long enough to fire off a demit.

The fraternity has shirked making changes that have been needed for a half century, and the financial ones are the most crushing. We can no longer run a 21st century organization on dues levels from the 1960's. Go to an inflation calculator and plug in the dues your lodge charged in 1900 or 1920 and see what it's worth today. You will, in most cases, be shocked.

There will always be an overwhelming majority of members in any voluntary organization who want a card in their wallet, or joined because Dad and Grampa did, or who are scared to death of showing up because someone will make them an officer. It's been true in every group I've ever belonged to, starting with a railroad museum I joined as a teenager. We had 200 members, and never saw more than 10 of them. Just in my own life, it's been true in study groups, book circles, science fiction clubs, historic preservation groups, neighborhood associations, and film festival organizers.

Lodges that have bitten the bullet and made the hard choices about raising dues will tell you time and again, there are no such mass resignations. Yes, there are a handful, but they are more than made up for by the increased income by the lodge. And every lodge has the option of remitting the dues of any member who is truly destitute, just as any brother has the option to the pay the dues of his friend if he so desires. But dues increases do NOT result in waves of resignations, no matter what the Whack-A-Moles who leap screaming to their feet contend.

Just remember, your lodge has got to give more in return. Depending on the desires of its active members, that might mean lavish dinners, out of town guest speakers, bus trips to Washington (or Las Vegas - your call), or erecting a new building. I don't know or care, as long as it improves the experience of going to lodge, being with brethren or any other aspect of being a Freemason. But remaining criminally cheap is irresponsible and only erodes the fraternity spiritually and physically. A quality fraternity must be paid for. That's not elitism, that's responsibility.

Nathan said...

"A high quality lodge must be paid for -- therefore dues need to commensurate with this."

Gee. Where have I read that before?

Chris Hodapp said...

Nathan,
Just preachin' a little gospel here...

Donald E.Giesemann,PM said...

"Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words." St. Francis of Assisi.
My annual Symbolic lodge dues is about $150,but...I belong to three lodges (chuckle); however, I pay at least $120 annually to my Public Radio station in Iowa City...and I should pay more(hanging my head). My church has this same stewardship problem...we do not appreciate the value of that which is in our hand.
Graalguy (an old altar boy)

KnightOfThe VetusOrdo said...

As a member of AMORC (not Masonic, obviously), I can tell you that $39-$100 sounds incredibly low. Members of AMORC can choose to receive monographs digitally and have access to Lodges and member activities for $150 annually or they can choose full membership which allows the member to receive hard copies of the monthly monographs as well as access to Lodges and activities etc. which costs $400 annually.
Now for my anecdotal opinion: From what I have observed of modern Freemasonry, it appears as though it has lost its "sparkle", so to speak. From the days when Albert Pike joined and the Scottish Rite had a mere 1000 members to the current times when Freemasonry nationally boasts a membership of 3 million members (you're almost up there with the Jews!), it's apparent that not all members are expecting Freemasonry to be much more than a subtle fraternal body of men who gather together for fellowship and charity.
I'm not convinced that raising the price drastically would fix this, but perhaps more rigorous and strict membership requirements i.e. requiring members to display an adequate level of knowledge on Masonic history, philosophy, symbols etc. I'm not saying to only admit those of the caliber of Manly Hall or anything, but at least make sure they know who the man is!
Just my 2 cents.
With Peace Profound
Romanus Augustus XIII