Story: Men’s clubs

Page 6. Service clubs

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Service clubs originated in the American Midwest. Like other male clubs, they offered fraternal socialising, free of political opinions and religious beliefs – and added a primary focus on community service. Service clubs boomed after the Second World War. By the 1970s it was claimed there was a higher per-capita membership of Rotary, Lions and Jaycees in New Zealand than in any other country. Membership declined from the 1980s as alternative entertainments emerged, and expectations of shared parenting made it less acceptable for men to spend their free time on male-only projects.


Rotary was begun in Chicago in 1905 by Paul Harris, a lawyer. New Zealand politician George Fowlds’s visit to North America, where he attended a Rotary meeting, led to the first clubs in Wellington and Auckland in 1921. By 1930 there were 23 clubs in the larger towns, with over 1,000 members. From 1938 Rotary spread to small towns. By 1970, after spectacular growth, the movement had 175 clubs and almost 10,000 members. In 2015 there were 265 clubs in six districts, with 8,530 members (a drop of 3,000 from 1980). Members were usually in late middle age and worked in senior management in business or the professions.

The monthly meetings involved a lunch (or dinner in small towns), business and a visiting speaker. Members were ‘fined’ for small misdemeanours to raise funds. Rotary focused on three kinds of service:

  • vocational guidance and education for young people
  • local community amenities such as playgrounds, pensioner housing or hospital equipment
  • international projects, especially in the Pacific.

Fraternal activities included golf tournaments, barbecues, theatre visits, champagne breakfasts or visits to other clubs.

Efforts were made to attract young men, with Interact clubs in schools and Rotaract clubs for those aged 18–28. In 1974 the first Probus Club was formed in Kāpiti to offer lectures to retired professional and business men.

Women had a separate club, the Inner Wheel, which began in New Zealand in Napier in 1936. However, from 1989 Rotary allowed women to become full members. In the early 21st century, 20 of the 150 members of the original Wellington club were women.


Lions began in Chicago in 1917, and reached Auckland in 1955. They grew fast in the 1960s and 1970s, reaching a peak in 1994 with 539 clubs and 15,639 members.

Lions were broader than Rotary in the occupations of its members, but shared the commitment to projects for improving the local community. In 2016 there were 389 Lions clubs and almost 11,000 members, making it the largest service organisation in New Zealand.

Lions also initiated special clubs for different age groups – Leo clubs for those aged 15–20, New Century Clubs for those aged 18–34, and Pakeke Lions for those 55 and over. There were Lioness Clubs for women from 1976 – but in 1987 the international movement changed the constitution to allow women to become full members. In 2004 20% of Lions were women.

Rotary versus Lions versus Jaycees

Despite the similarities of the three major service clubs, there have been several efforts to define their differences. One view was: ‘Rotary members owned the town; the Lions membership worked the town; and the Jaycees played the town’. Another view was: ‘Jaycees thought and sold it; Lions built and operated it; Rotary paid for it.’1


Jaycees (an abbreviation of ‘junior chambers of commerce’) differed from other service clubs in having an age restriction (18–40), and placing as much emphasis on educating young leaders as on community service projects.

The movement started in St Louis, US, in 1915, and began in New Zealand as an off-shoot of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. There were five chapters and 860 members in 1944, and then the movement took off as young men starting white-collar careers sought to improve the infrastructure of their suburbs. By 1970 there were 164 chapters and 6,367 members.

Jaycees were committed to a belief in God and the value of free enterprise. They provided significant training in meeting procedure, debating and project management. Initially they supported local amenities such as parks and playgrounds, and later promotional ventures like industry fairs or tourist brochures.

Jaycees spawned informal women’s auxiliaries, sometimes called Jaycettes, to assist their partners. From 1973 some chapters began admitting women – which was formally accepted nationwide after some debate in 1977. By the 2010s there were few active clubs left.

Other service groups

Other male service groups included:

  • Kiwanis, which had an emphasis on projects assisting children, young people and their families. Members preferred to do, built or participate rather than just provide funds. This service group now includes women and well as men. In 2016 there were 22 clubs.
  • Round Table New Zealand offered membership to men aged 18–45 who were primarily interested in socialising and fun. The clubs organised activities such as parachuting or scuba diving. They also raised funds for community benefit. In 2016 there were 14 clubs.
  • MENZSHED New Zealand provides places where men can meet and spend time with other men working on practical tasks, especially carpentry projects. Sheds (groups of men with registered membership) often take on community projects such as building playgrounds. Some Menzsheds give women opportunities to develop skills in carpentry, tool use and home repairs. Most members are middle-aged or retired. Isolated sheds began in the 2000s and a national organisation was created in 2013, when there were 35 sheds.  By 2018 there were over 100.
  1. Quoted in Graham Butterworth and Susan Butterworth, Jaycee: developers of people, builders of communities. Wellington: Ngaio Press, 2007, pp. 6 and 18. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Men’s clubs - Service clubs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 February 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018