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Guest Contribution - Education Over Membership: A Business Case Study

R.H. Johnson


*The views and opinions expressed are the authors and in no way represent any Grand Lodge or Grand Lodge Committees.*


Every year there is some kind of article from a national news source shining a light on Freemasonry. Sometimes it’s a piece aimed at demystifying our practices, such as the SKY1 documentary. Other times it’s an essay about the seeming juxtapose between the world of the 21st century and the antiquated nature of Freemasonry. Others have even addressed inequities in member qualifications.


Our PR is really never that great.


Recently two articles had come out, ostensibly unrelated. The first from NPR--Freemasons Say They're Needed Now More Than Ever. So Why Are Their Ranks Dwindling? Dealt with much of what I wrote above. The second article was published by the Washington Post--No game days. No bars. The pandemic is forcing some men to realize they need deeper friendships. This piece was not about the Freemasons, except, maybe it was. The article makes the case that men are depressed and that we need connections. The report made some waves in Masonic groups who began talking about how Freemasonry could be the perfect place for these men. I maintain--that it could be a disaster.

We’re at the mercy of the public, and the whimsical interest of a reporter who reads a Wiki article and reaches out to a nationally known Freemason for comment--somehow giving their report the air of authenticity and credibility. These articles are likely not read by too many folks; instead, they’re probably most read by Freemasons themselves, as evidenced by my earlier remarks. Often, the reports serve purposes not original to their intent. That is, they shine a light on problems or issues that we as members of the Craft, must face. Or maybe, it’s like the doctor looking at an infirm patient saying, “Look, you’re old. It’s time to die.”


Looking at our most significant issue.


The proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand is a good way to look at Freemasonry these days. Not that we hide from the issues these articles are pointing out, but rather, we maintain that these are NOT issues. How dare anyone suggest that as a fraternity, the world’s oldest and best--has problems. Harumph! The only people allowed to say we have problems are the kings...err...the Grand Lodge Officers, and then only in the quiet of their chambers. But why? There’s a line in many Masonic books, “...It’s No Secret.” And it’s true. It is no secret that we’re an institution that is thirsty for members and driven by fear. Thirsty for dollars and driven by upsetting tradition.


Of course, we’re thirsty for members, but why? So we can retain our place on the top pedestal as the world’s oldest and best Fraternity? Is that still a thing? Members equal dollars. And that is the gist of the membership issue.


Freemasonry, with its various camps, has never decided on what it is, other than the old descriptive platitudes. Sure we take good men and make them better. Every Masonic blog out there has asked the question, “How do we do that?”


Well, that’s for the individual lodges to figure out, not the fraternity as a whole. The Lodge’s job is to empower a member to become better, but also, that member gets out of it what he puts into it. Do you start to see what’s going on here? It’s just kicking the can down the road.


Why do we need cash?


Freemasonry as an organization needs members to collect money, which allows us to continue our mission of...whatever it is we do. The per capita (a portion of the lodge dues that goes back to the Grand Lodge of each state) pays for many things. Various committee expenses, Grand Lodge officer and office staff, trips, publications, website, web resources--the list is endless. We’re a big institution. We need funds to keep it going.


We also need funds to add to our charitable coffers. Our charity to the profane world has become the hallmark of our existence. Where we once stood for Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood of Man, we now write some big checks--seemingly the only way to get noticed anymore by the outside world. But then again, are we noticed for our giving?


Returning to the various articles and television exposes created, written, filmed, etc., they all have something in common. They all harp on our membership and how it’s shrinking. And we know this is the primary concern of our Grand Lodges.


Course corrections


I contend that we can make Freemasonry the hallmark it was once, albeit in a more discrete and professional way, by focusing on our existing membership and being selective about who we let in the door. Please do not think I am going to go into a rant about the West Gate. I won’t; I’ve done that before. Freemasonry in the United States comprises some 1.1 million people--probably less. There is a sizeable number of our members who, for reasons of their own, never return after being initiated. Others die. We lose them, and this is attrition. While we cannot control death (although we could probably serve healthier meals in our lodges), we can control men leaving.


How can we do this? By focusing on the things that matter. In the recent articles published by NPR and the Washington Post, we get two perspectives that we’re trying to reconcile. Men don’t want to join Freemasonry because we’re antiquated, stuck in tradition, male-only, pick a reason. And Men are craving a connection. Freemasons know that the Craft would serve these men well. But how do you get them? Marketing? Not even close.


Stick with this crazy writer; it pays off.


Every member of every recognized Grand Lodge in the United States (to my knowledge) should have access to their Grand Lodge budget--line item details. I’m sure by doing so; you will see some interesting things. If you can, request a copy and inspect it. Why? Because you deserve to know how much and where, and have the dollars spent according to your interests. Full stop.


How much money is spent on your Leadership Committee? Your Membership Committee? Your Public Relations Committee? Your Marketing Committee? Now, what about your Education Committee? Notice a disparity? Sure, Membership Committees need money--presumably to research and reach out to potential members. Sure we need money for leadership. Don’t they need to hold workshops and teach grownups who are already good, how to be a leader? (some sarcasm here). And what about PR? We have to look good, don’t we?


“It is absurd to think that a vast organization like Masonry was ordained merely to teach to grownup men of the world the symbolical meaning of a few simple builders’ tools.” ~ W.L. Wilmshurst


Grand Lodge budgets vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. They can be hard to discern. In some, Masonic Education is listed with a number relative to the dollars they’ve budgeted for. In others, Masonic Education appears as an umbrella under which various expenses are recorded. In some, Youth organization donations are contained. In others, District Deputy Mileage is listed. In others still, you’ll find the printing of ritual manuals. To be sure, these all have a place in a budget, but in my research for this article, I made some calls I’d like to be upfront about.


I subtracted the expense of youth organizations from Masonic Education, and I did the same for District Deputy Mileage expenses in jurisdictions that utilize a district educator role. I kept printing of ritual work because it qualifies as a tool to teach. I made similar calls in the different budgets I was allowed to peruse.


I also wish to say that studying the budgets that were available to me, AL, CA, FL, ID, IL, IN, KS, MA, MN, NE, NJ, VA, WA, and WV, was extremely eye-opening. What Grand Lodges consider to be Masonic Education expenses varies far and wide. And what some Grand Lodges are paying for certain things was an eye-opener when compared to their Masonic Education. One jurisdiction leases a copy machine, which costs them an annual $6000.00 more than what they spend on Masonic Education. Let that sink in. Where am I going with all this budget stuff?


The issue and the promise. Education is by far the lowest line item on the budget when we adjust it for what qualifies as Education, and what’s insane is that it’s the one line item that matters most. Masonic Education is what we promised, and it’s the reason to continue to come to a Lodge at all. It is the fulfillment of the commitment we made, but it’s also the can we kick down the road or the shit that rolls down the hill.


Before you’re a member - “We make good men better.” After you’re a member - “You get out of it what you put into it.” Wait a second. So “I make myself better? What the hell did I just join?”


A mentor once made an excellent analogy, he said, “Robert, it’s like scouting. We’re molding these kids into better people. But we’re not doing it through tying knots. It’s the conversations that we’re having while tying those knots.” And I have to agree. But these are seemingly life-altering conversations where values, morals, and life lessons are dispensed. In a Masonic lodge, this isn’t happening in the lodge room. It’s happening at dinner tables before the lodge meeting or after. It’s happening in the parking lot. It’s happening in Education Book clubs and meditation circles.


The logic is coming full circle.


Doesn’t it make sense to spend the most money on the thing that you promise to offer? Does a Grocery store spend most of its money on advertising or its product?


In 2015, Apple Inc. increased its global advertising budget to $1.8 billion. It spent $60 billion on product manufacturing. It earned $215 billion in revenue, of which $84 billion was gross profit. This is just one example of what real-world know-how exhibits regarding operational success. If we make good men better, then those better versions of ourselves are the product. That $84 billion in gross profit? That could translate into more members or, at the very least, better informed and active membership. Are we spending 3,233% more on Education than on Marketing or Leadership, or Membership? If not, then we have some P&Ls to adjust.


Such shifts could mean head-spinning changes in how our Grand Lodges operate, and committeemen will need to get on the same page. We have a lot of siloed organizations under our Grand Lodges, and many of them are working on similar projects which may or may not have real value to the overall goal. Have you ever worked in a place where the job was described to you in this fashion?


“There’s the way we do it, and then the real way we do it.”


Right now, our real-world concern is membership with the underlying mission of gathering funds. No one will say that out loud. The traditional position we have is to make our good men better. It sounds better than, “We need cash. Please.” But we all know it. What if the product’s investment will equal an increase in revenue--just like in the real world? This is a game-changing philosophy for Freemasonry.


The message.


What I am hoping to convey is that until our Grand Lodges decide that the production of these good men should cost more than getting them in the door, we’ll not see the growth that they want, or for that matter, growth that we want. Of course, there will be those who say, “It’s up to the lodges to do this.” There are multiple problems with this retort. In the first place, can you say the same for the PR, Marketing, Leadership, and Membership Committees? If not, why? Second, this is again kicking the can down the road-- an obvious shirking of responsibility. And third, it’s looking the other way again. We don’t care because...pick a reason.


The future.


As we enter 2021, organized Freemasonry enters its 300th or so anniversary. We’ve been massive, and we’ve been small. In fact, we’ve been smaller than we are right now. Projected cold data shows the end of Freemasonry within the next 40 years. Of course, if you’re still alive in 2060, then Freemasonry isn’t dead. All this to look forward to...if it doesn’t change.


But what if it does change? Freemasonry, as an organization, has a challenging time with change. Partly because of the misconstrued or misunderstood rules of our organization, we cling to the way we’ve always been in order to stay “traditional.” Well, a global pandemic has changed us. It’s shone a light on things like the education of members. Countless lectures and meetups being done online, untiled, and people are getting more value from this than they ever did in lodges. Yikes! The issue here should be obvious, especially to anyone who understands the concept of voting with your feet.


When Freemasonry invests in its means of production (Education), it will sell the product by the way those products are being deployed in the real world--no one uses a Blackberry anymore, guys. People saw the iPhone they switched. Secondly, the other committees will bolster those products (our better men). The message will shift from, “Look at this company which does stuff.” to, “Look at these people who do stuff. By the way, they’re builders. I think they’re….Freemasons.”


If all these men out there today need Freemasonry, then we better be damned ready to make it what they need. We cannot just show them a fancy ad, put them through a festival, and hope the local lodge picks up the slack.


Freemasonry is a lot like that Fyre Festival. Marketing, promises, collecting the money, and leaving people stranded on a beach. We can’t do that anymore.


As new men enter the Grand Lodge line, it is elementary to suggest they will be progressively younger in age. Younger age means they are in no doubt more in tune with the current world perspectives. This means that ideas that influence them will necessarily affect the way they operate in the Grand Lodge. I can only hope for the future of Freemasonry that they see the solutions. Solutions that the world’s most successful companies have already deployed, and that worked to make them industry leaders.


Does Freemasonry make better men than Toast Masters does? Then the Scouts do? What about other college fraternities? If you’re screaming at me right now that Freemasonry is different, well, maybe it is-- but the world doesn’t care. If we want to stand out, we need to invest in our product line--our initiates. By focusing on other committees as your top dollar expenses, what you’re going to get is an influx of membership and money for a year or two. Do we want 30 people to pay you $15 for two years? Or do you want ten people to pay you $15 for 20 years? And if we’re firing on all cylinders, it could be even more. Oh yeah, and Freemasonry will fulfill the promise we make to every candidate. Isn’t that worth it?


Invest in Education or keep sucking wind, boys.



Citations:

Blank, Christopher. “For Freemasons, Is Banning Gays Or Being Gay Un-Masonic?” NPR, NPR, 22 Mar. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/03/22/471414979/for-freemasons-is-banning-gays-or-being-gay-un-masonic.

Ellyatt, Holly. “Freemasons See Young Blood as Key to Survival.” CNBC, CNBC, 5 Mar. 2015, www.cnbc.com/2013/11/19/see-young-blood-as-key-to-survival.html.Gwmnma. “The Masonic Digital Archives.” GWMNMA, gwmemorial.org/pages/archives.

“Masonic Membership Statistics 2016-2017.” Masonic Membership Stats, www.msana.com/msastats.asp.

Schmidt, Samantha. “No Game Days. No Bars. The Pandemic Is Forcing Some Men to Realize They Need Deeper Friendships.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Dec. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/road-to-recovery/2020/11/30/male-bonding-covid/?fbclid=IwAR11bkLf8sLw6eihFI4nr9s_jisO6CfZf6LOoCKPJ-f_Jo2GrVK62AdMyZU.

Silva, Christianna. “Freemasons Say They're Needed Now More Than Ever. So Why Are Their Ranks Dwindling?” NPR, NPR, 28 Nov. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/11/28/937228086/freemasons-say-theyre-needed-now-more-than-ever-so-why-are-their-ranks-dwindling.


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