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In the words of its mission statement, the Kiwanis Club is an international organization dedicated to "service" and the "advancement of individual, community, and national welfare…." It pro motes a strong spiritual life for its members, a high standard of living, and the idea of citizens' civic obligations to others. The organization was founded on January 21, 1915, in Detroit, Michigan, by Allen Simpson Browne, a Moose Lodge organizer, and Joseph Prancela, a tailor. The name drew from a Native American phrase which can be interpreted differently to mean "we have a good time," "we trade," or "we advertise." By the late 1990s the organization had 300,000 members in more than 8,000 clubs in 82 countries. Made up predominantly of business people and professional men and women, the organization gives approximately $70 million a year to charitable organizations and individuals as well as seven million hours of direct community service. Perhaps best known for widely posted signs that feature a circled K, the Kiwanis Club symbolizes a commitment to the biblical Golden Rule—doing onto others as you would have them do unto you.

Drawing its membership largely from American business persons (the organization began as something of a networking club for local merchants and salesmen to make contacts with prospective clients), it came to symbolize certain features of modern middle-class life. Cultural critics of the 1920s poked fun at its conformist, self-congratulatory, and boosterist elements. Spurred on by H. L. Mencken's antagonism to the "booboisie," Sinclair Lewis drew up a scathing portrait of small-town businessmen in his novel Babbitt. Lewis mocked his central character's membership in local civic organizations that seemed more concerned with providing stability and making connections than with actually doing good works. In response, Kiwanis magazine called for continued "boosting" against the negativism of critics like Lewis. Nonetheless, Lewis's portrait of simplistic spirituality wedded to pragmatic materialism remained a popular image of the Kiwanis.

The Kiwanis Club grew out of a variety of voluntary organizations that Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in Democracy in America, his classic analysis of nineteenth-century American culture. In fact, many early members of the Kiwanis Club were originally Moose and Elk lodge members. The Kiwanis Club became part of a modern set of mainstream service organizations, including the Rotary and Lions clubs. Fostering the belief that citizens can solve social problems through local and voluntary activity, the Kiwanis provide opportunity for and examples of middle-class philanthropy and service for societal good. As Jeffrey Charles argued in his book Service Clubs in American Society, the Kiwanis have tried to bring together traditional values of community and compassion with the modern system of corporate profit and competitive individualism.

The emphasis on voluntarism, some may argue, symbolizes the more conservative element of the Kiwanis. This voluntary spirit became identified with Herbert Hoover's distrust of the federal government during the early years of the Great Depression. The Kiwanis then became closely associated with anticommunist campaigns during the 1950s and conformist culture that social critics mocked in books like William Whyte's Organization Man and C. Wright Mills's White Collar. Not surprisingly, it was during the 1950s that the Kiwanis spread internationally in larger numbers, building upon America's rise as a world super power.

Like other civic organizations, the Kiwanis have experienced a decline in American membership during the mid to late 1990s. Reporting on these general losses of voluntary group membership, Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, argued that this trend reflects a wider loss of civic engagement in America and the passing of Tocqueville's ideal of America as a voluntarist republic. Nonetheless, the Kiwanis Club has had a great impact on the civic and social identity of many middle-class Americans, and, for better or worse, has played a significant role in American culture.

—Kevin Mattson

Further Reading:

Charles, Jeffrey. Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Hines, Thomas. "Echoes from 'Zenith': Reactions of American

Businessmen to Babbitt." Business History Review. Summer, 1967, 123-140.

Kelly, Dan. "Blood and Pancakes: Service Clubs at Century's End."

The Baffler. 11, Fall, 1998, 35-45.

Kiwanis: A Magazine for Community Leaders, Special Issue on

Kiwanis History. November/December, 1998.

Putnam, Robert. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." Journal of Democracy. January, 1995, 65-78.

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