What Have I Gotten Myself Into?
Confessions of a new club president
by Stephanie Kadel Taras
"Just paint 'sucker' across my forehead," I told my husband. I had just agreed to be the fifty-fifth president of the Ann Arbor City Club.
It's going to be a lot of work, for no pay, for twelve months starting April 30. I've already warned my elderly mother-in-law in Florida that she can't get sick all year.
So why did I agree? Believe me, I keep asking myself that question. But the answers come rushing in: I'm going to learn so much--about leadership, delegating, negotiating, communicating, fundraising--skills that will help me the rest of my career. It will raise my visibility as a personal biographer, which is the reason I joined the City Club in the first place. And I was flattered to be nominated. At forty-five, I'll probably be the youngest president in the organization's history.
I needed those selfish reasons to justify saying yes. But there's a bigger agenda at work here, too. I believe in this organization, and I want to be part of its future.
In the ten-plus years I've been involved, I've watched membership drop steadily while the wise remaining members scrambled to make the club more welcoming. Founded as the Ann Arbor Women's City Club in 1951, we dropped "women's" from the name in 2008 so that men (who had long been allowed to join) would feel more comfortable. We created a domestic partner membership to parallel the spousal membership and shorter-term memberships with reduced dues. We invested in a significant renovation to add an elevator and bigger bathrooms, update the decor, create a cozy pub in the lower level, and expand the ballroom to attract more weddings and other events. And we hired a superb general manager, Greg Fleming, who has put together a creative, dedicated staff.
As a result of these efforts, more people are coming into our building for meetings and events, awareness of the club has improved, and there's more energy in the air. We're doing more charitable work, hosting more
dynamic speakers at our public lunchtime lectures, and taking better care of the nonprofits that meet here, like the Ann Arbor Thrift Shop, the Junior League, and the Washtenaw County Medical Society.
Our membership nearly held steady this year, at around 400. But we continue to swim against the social tide. I could enumerate the causes for the decline of all social and service clubs--from women in the workforce to Netflix and Facebook--and I understand. Each year, I've weighed the cost of the City Club's dues (now around $1,000 a year; it could be less if we had more members) against my thin budget and other priorities, but I always conclude that I get much more out of it than it costs.
"I've been a member of many nonprofit groups since my retirement twenty years ago," my predecessor, Susan Smith Gray, told me, "but none has given me the pleasure and friendships I've found at the City Club. I really believe this is a unique meeting place in our community." Susan, who was an actuary and benefits consultant, is so committed to the club that she agreed to serve two years as president.
Susan and I have a lot of friends outside the club, and we can do other fun stuff elsewhere. But the benefit is not in the doing, it's in the connecting. Seeing the same people each week creates a shared commitment that feeds the soul. I helped start a poetry group, and we've grown so devoted to each other that, when one member moved away, her last meeting was like a wake. When I did a book reading at Nicola's in February, many club members were in the audience. And I would bet you any amount that if my husband or I got sick, club members would be the first at my door with a casserole.
"The friendships I've made at the club are more meaningful than in other social groups I'm in," says one of my friends in the poetry group, Kathleen Fitzgerald. A local investment professional, Kathleen faces plenty of time pressures but says that involvement in the club enhances her life. "There's a lot of wisdom and know-how among the younger and older members. They are a source of ideas, information, creativity, and encouragement, and it's easy to access that know-how when we come together at the club."
Past president Barb Pomey, who now heads up our community outreach activities, taps that know-how when deciding what nonprofits we should support each year (we make a financial contribution to one and encourage members to volunteer with others). "I like the process of people coming together to learn about what's going on in the community," Barb says. "We hear about issues and efforts we weren't aware of. Writing a check is nice, but working on a project together with people you like and respect adds another dimension."
"The benefit for me is staying intellectually engaged," says Tom Kenney, a retired Ford research engineer who is currently the club's treasurer. Looking at Tom's financial analyses has been like a business course for me. During his career, he assessed the financial implications and functional benefits of new vehicle technologies, and he's pleased to apply some of that experience at the club.
When I see our members pore over the bookkeeping, watch them organize an annual public event like our home tour or flea market, or see the care they take in maintaining our historic building, I'm awed at their talents and intelligence. I can't believe how fortunate I am to work with them. I do know that I wouldn't have met these people otherwise; our occupational circles wouldn't overlap.
And, yes, I've gotten many clients through my connections there. Why more businesspeople, nonprofit executives, development officers, and freelancers of all sorts aren't joining these kinds of clubs dumbfounds me. This intense networking is a kind of marketing that takes time, but the potential rewards are great, and it's much more fun than buying ads or posting to LinkedIn.
Clearly, I'm not going to change society in my one year as president of one club. But the reasons these clubs were created--to connect people across the community, to build friendships and business relationships, to organize and fund charitable activities--are all still needed, perhaps more than ever. And I can tell you from experience that our and other longstanding clubs know how to do this. We just need more people.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]