How the Kiwanis Club Works

Kiwanis Club is an international organization that's based on the Golden Rule.
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Mom always told you to observe the Golden Rule, so how about joining a club that's based on doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you? Kiwanis International is an organization based in Indianapolis, Ind., with more than 260,000 adult members and 320,000 youth members who try to improve the quality of life for children around the world.

Founded on six objectives -- including applying the Golden Rule to all human relationships -- it has 8,000 clubs in cities across the globe. These clubs raise millions of dollars to support 150,000 service projects each year. Those projects include building playgrounds, stocking school libraries, raising money for scholarships and preventing iodine deficiency disorders in children [source: Kiwanis International].


The organization was originally called the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order of Brothers. But the first members turned to Detroit's historian to come up with a new name after getting tired of belonging to an organization known as "BOB" [source: History Bulletin on Kiwanis]. Kiwanis, taken from a Native American phrase "Nunc Kee-wanis," means "we trade" or "we share our talents" [source: Kiwanis International].

Members include mayors, councilmen and local businesspeople who meet every week to discuss community affairs, business and politics as well as to raise money for its projects. Some clubs host their meetings over breakfast, others over lunch or after work. A handful even meet online.

Read on to find out how the organization got started.


History of Kiwanis

Much like Rotary International and the Elks Club, the Kiwanis Club started out as an organization for men. Kiwanis was founded in 1915 in Lower Michigan [source: Britannica]. Two Detroit businessmen, Allen Browne (a professional organizer) and Joseph Prance (a tailor), started the club to serve the poor and help young professional men exchange business services with each other.

Within the first six months of its founding, the Kiwanis Club drew 200 members, who each paid a $5 fee to join [source: History Bulletin on Kiwanis]. By 1916, there were already Kiwanis clubs in Cleveland, Rochester, New York City, Chicago and Boston, as well as one in Canada --establishing Kiwanis as an international organization. In 1919, the young club had its first identity crisis: whether it should focus on business networking or community service. The service advocates won the debate. Since then, helping the poor -- particularly children -- has been its mission [source: Detroit Kiwanis Club #1].


Until 1962, Kiwanis membership was limited to the U.S. and Canada. But after the membership approved worldwide expansion, the organization spread across the globe, with clubs in 96 countries [source: Kiwanis International].

In 1987, Kiwanis International underwent another significant change: admitting women. For 72 years, it had been a men-only organization. But that changed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in May of that year that Rotary Club International could not exclude women based on gender. Rather than face its own legal action, Kiwanis International voted in July 1987 to become co-ed, incorporating its auxiliary "Kiwaniannes" clubs, which comprised the wives of Kiwanis members, into the general membership. Within the first six months of the rule change, more than 3,000 women joined [source: Detroit Kiwanis Club #1].

Read on to find out what Kiwanis do at home and abroad.


Kiwanis at Work

Kiwanis International has four main service projects: the Worldwide Service Project, Read Around the World, Young Children Priority 1 and Kiwanis One Day.

The Worldwide Service Project is one of Kiwanis' best-known programs. Its mission is to eliminate iodine deficiency disorders in the developing world -- the leading cause of preventable mental retardation [source: Kiwanis International]. Iodine deficiency disorders are common in rural areas of countries like China, India, Java, Mali, Bhutan, Bolivia and Paraguay, where the soil is depleted of iodine. The plants grown on that land don't absorb iodine through their root systems, leading to a lack of iodine in the villagers' diets.


Without iodine, the thyroid gland can't produce the hormones the body needs to regulate crucial functions of the liver, kidneys, muscles, heart and brain [source: ICCIDD]. In severe cases of iodine deficiency, the person can develop mental retardation [source: Kiwanis International]. There's a simple solution: increasing the amount of iodine in people's diets. Through the Worldwide Service Project, Kiwanis has spent more than $80 million working with salt companies and local governments to provide villagers with iodized salt and to educate them on the need for iodine in their diets.

Read Around the World is a month-long program that takes place in February, during which Kiwanis clubs around the world promote child literacy in their communities. Events include holding book parties, distributing literature to school children and staging theater productions that promote reading [source: Kiwanis International].

Young Children Priority 1 is an ongoing program that encourages Kiwanis clubs to carry out at least two community service projects a year that address maternal and infant health, child care and development, child safety and pediatric trauma. Examples include distributing information on issues like shaken baby syndrome and lead poisoning, and delivering hospital trauma dolls to children undergoing medical procedures. The hospital dolls are made of plain beige materials that allow children to draw on them for entertainment. Doctors and nurses can also draw on the dolls to explain the surgery or medical procedure to their young patients [source: Kiwanis International].

Kiwanis One Day takes place once a year when Kiwanis clubs and their youth affiliates spend the day working on a community project like cleaning up a local beach, fixing up a playground, taking pets to a senior center or holding a book drive [source: Kiwanis International].

Read on to find out how to become a Kiwanian.


Becoming a Kiwanian

Kiwanis Club is open to men and women of good character. To find a club in your town, put your city name or zip code into the search field on the Kiwanis Web site [source: Kiwanis International]. Depending on the size of your town, a list of meetings, locations, times and contact information will pop up. Call the contact number of the meeting that works best for you, and arrange to meet with a club officer or member.

The best way to find out if Kiwanis is for you is to attend a meeting. You can come as an observer or offer to speak on a topic such as the industry you work in. That will allow you to get to know the other club members and give them a chance to get to know you.


If you have any trouble getting in touch with a local club, you can call Kiwanis International headquarters at (800) 549-2647 (extension 411). Before joining a club, you'll need to fill out a brief application, which you can download from the organization's website [source: Kiwanis International]. Annual dues are $100 to $200.

Once you're a lapel-pin wearing Kiwanian, you'll attend weekly meetings and volunteer a certain number of hours a month to your club's service projects.

Read on to find out what kind of projects Kiwanians do.


Kiwanis Service Leadership Programs

In addition to its adult programs, Kiwanis has seven membership programs for children of all ages: Circle K International, Key Club, Key Leader, Builders Club, K-Kids, Terrific Kids and BUG.

Circle K International (CKI) is the college-age version of Kiwanis. On more than 550 college campuses throughout the world, students carry out service projects based Kiwanis' mission to save the world one child at a time [source: Kiwanis International].


Key Club is the oldest and largest service program for high school students in the world. With 245,000 members in 24 countries, Key Club high school students work on projects to eliminate AIDS in Africa and reduce premature birth as well as advocate for the rights of children in their communities [source: Kiwanis International].

Key Leader is a program of workshops for high school students involved in leadership. During the seminars, students receive adult mentoring and participate in presentations on how to motivate others and set a good example.

Several of the programs focus on younger kids. Builders Club comprises nearly 40,000 middle school students in 18 countries. Builders Club members carry out service projects in their communities like hosting recycling drives and cleaning up parks [source: Kiwanis International]. K-Kids is a club for elementary students that teaches them the value of helping others through working on community service projects. Terrific Kids is a student recognition program in which elementary students work with their teachers to establish goals to improve behavior, peer relationships, attendance or schoolwork. Bring Up Grades (BUG) is a program designed to recognize elementary students who raise their grades to an acceptable range and maintain or continue to raise them.

Kiwanis has leadership and service actives for interested people of virtually any age. For more on Kiwanis International, see the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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  • Detroit Kiwanis Club #1. "History of Kiwanis." (Accessed 5/24/09)
  • Fields, Jason. "Kiwanis, Rotary clubs struggle to survive." The Riverdale Press. April 23, 2009. (Accessed 5/27/2009).
  • Freep. "Get involved: Kiwanis to stage free bike rodeo for kids." Detroit Free Press Online. May 27, 2009. (Accessed 5/27/2009).
  • History Bulletin on Kiwanis. "Kiwanis: The Beginning to the Present." (Accessed 5/24/09)
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