Fredheim SON Lodge: A modern-day Lazarus
While many Sons of Norway lodges suffer from diminishing numbers, this one turned the trend around
Many Sons of Norway lodges across the country have been suffering from diminishing numbers. However, in Staten Island there has been a tremendous success story. Fredheim Lodge’s membership was down to 59 in February 2011, but currently boasts a membership of 163. They won the recruitment retention challenge in Sons of Norway and are the first lodge to effectively connect to the 24 -55 year old demographic in a decade. How did they do it?
First, a little about the lodge. Fredheim was established in 1923 and survived the Depression. Through the generosity of two members, they were able to have their own club building, “Norway House,” which served as their quarters from 1939 to 1987. First Inga Hartman lent money for the property’s down payment, then Knut Petersen donated much of the labor (an extensive job, as in its prior incarnation the building had been a store) and materials to turn the space into Norway House. Norway House provided a home for the lodge and generated income as a rental space.
This lodge developed a program for children in 1942, which later served as a model for the SON Junior Lodge program. Understandably, membership declined following WWII, as emigration from Norway dropped off and people had more pressing matters with which to contend. However, through a determination to increase membership and a monetary contribution from Knut Petrersen, the lodge flourished for the next three decades, from the 50s to the mid 70s.
The era was also a time for great cooperation and interaction between lodges. According to the History of Fredheim, written by Christine Twaite Thorsen, “It was also common in those days for the lodges in Brooklyn, New Jersey and Staten Island (who were in relatively close driving distance) to attend one another’s meetings on a regular basis. Visitations by District and Supreme (now International) officers were also a frequent happening. It gave an opportunity for a wide range of information and ideas between lodges and the SON Boards…”
A decline occurred through the mid 70s to the 80s. Telly and Joan Tellefsen, Associate Members, have been credited with the lodge’s continuation. An injection of new members in the 1980s revitalized the lodge. One project that galvanized the lodge was the purchase of a Viking ship “the Fjord Warrior,” that could participate in the SON Viking ship regatta held in Jensen Beach, Florida. This also connected the lodge to lodges in Florida.
Even though there was an influx of new members, Norway House had become a burden, due to the cost of upkeep, city bureaucracy, and the sheer amount of work it took to maintain the property. It was sold in 1987 and the profit utilized for the good of the order. The lodge began to meet at the Hungarian Church, and as membership declined further they did not see the wisdom in paying for a rental space and began to meet in member’s homes.
By 2000, much of the old guard had retired and moved out of state. A new board was formed and made recruitment their priority. They reached out to Dave Thorsen who had a track record in this matter. Dave joined the group and as a result Fredheim Lodge has won the title in the Third District SON with the most percentage member growth for the last three years. The lodge celebrated its 90th year in 2013.
I had the opportunity to interview Dave Thorsen about his relationship with SON and the strategies he used to turn the lodge around.
Victoria Hofmo: How did you get involved in SON?
Dave Thorsen: I have actually been involved in Sons of Norway (SON) since birth. My grandfather on my father’s side was the first to join (Lodge Brooklyn #3-243) shortly after arriving from Norway to Brooklyn, NY in 1926. He and my grandmother were active members of Brooklyn Lodge until they moved to Staten Island in the late 1930s and transferred to the newly formed Nansen Lodge #3-410. My grandparents on my mother’s side were also early members of Nansen Lodge, so both of my parents were brought up in the Lodge and that is where their courtship took place. My sister and I were also raised within the family of Sons of Norway. We both held officer positions within Nansen Junior Lodge and naturally grew into our membership in Senior Lodge.
VH: Is SON still relevant today? If so, why?
DT: That is an interesting question to ask. While attending various non-Sons of Norway Scandinavian functions within the mid-Atlantic East coast region over the past three years, I have noted that our organization is viewed in the eyes of many as having become a preservation society which is not really relevant in today’s world. (These groups are often surprised to see a representative from SON in my age group.) In one way, this is true. Where once we were an organization of working-age members with children, we now have a majority older demographic. We have not been able to attract the recent generations to grow our organization to its potential. I believe that SON is relevant to today’s younger generation (ages 24 to 55). I have found in my travels up and down the east coast and with discussions with a number of lodges on the West coast that many people are looking for what we have to offer. Especially in today’s stressful world, potential members are looking for a place to join where they can participate as a family and share memories, traditions and the rich heritage of our Norwegian heritage. We are a unique organization which allows both young and old to gather together in a social atmosphere while at the same time nurturing the interest of the youth in the Sons of Norway of the future.
VH: Does SON have to transform to survive? If yes, how so?
DT: Yes and no. Having had the experience of generations within my family serving in leadership positions, I have had a wealth of historical information to review. The issues of membership and recruitment are not new to Sons of Norway. While today we say “there are NO new Norwegians coming over” that in and of itself is not the only reason we are fading. We are failing to connect to the five plus million Norwegian Americans in this country. In its past, Sons of Norway had a period (in the 1930s) that it was failing as well. At that time it was decided not to open new lodges but to focus on making our existing lodge healthy. The revitalization of the existing lodges ultimately strengthened the order. What Sons of Norway needs and is trying to do is to connect with the 2nd and 3rd generation Norwegian Americans. This is actually an opportune time because many people in this age group (of which I and my sister are part of) are looking for what SON has to offer. We as an organization need to focus on offering a formal organization for the children to learn about their Scandinavian roots and identity. At the same time we need to make the lodges more reflective of modern Norway and being a “social” group again as well as preserving our past. A motto that we use locally is “honoring our past and embracing the future.” So in short, the answer is YES—we need to transform BACK to what we used to be and employ the systems that we previously used to recruit and retain members.
VH: Why do you think Fredhiem has been successfully turned around?
DT: The success of Fredheim lodge is based upon a number of things. Fredheim was a lodge that had a long and storied history. In recent years it had been winding down, and was facing the possibilities of folding. The President, Dorie Marrone, who also comes from a long time Sons of Norway family with a tremendous history of leadership, was very open to trying the new recruitment plan that I presented to the lodge. What we did was use the old “Lodge Organizer” method based on Ivor Thorson’s work in the 30s and 40s. (Lodge Organizers were a paid position in Sons of Norway years ago. Today we would call them “head hunters.”) First we aggressively sought out people with Scandinavian names. Then we used word of mouth and made great use of “social media” platforms to advertise the lodge. That was step one for recruitment. The next step is retention. When my father was a 3rd District Cultural Director, there was a push to remove the positions of junior lodge, sports and cultural directors as district officer in order to reduce expenses. In a letter to the District President at that time (Charlie Gardner) my Dad stated that “No organization can survive on a diet of diminishing activities.” So with that in mind, we set about reconstituting Fredheim’s Junior Lodge. We made allowances to have Junior Lodge meet on the same night as Senior lodge, thus removing some of the time conflicts that many parents these days face. We also took note that the “informal” style of meeting that many lodges had started to use were actually a turn-off to members 50 and under as it seems a little “too relaxed.” So we blended Fredheim’s lighthearted approach to meetings with the formal meeting format where all members have a voice and vote on decisions of the lodge as versus having a small group of people (executive board) handle most of the business of the lodge. By using the “old ways” blended with the new, we have created an atmosphere very similar to the 1960s lodges where all the different age groups came together for meetings and parties and are helping to pass this on to the next generation. As an example, when we started in February 2011 there were 59 members on Fredheim’s membership list. Today we are over 163 members with 40 members in Junior lodge. Our average age is in the 40s. To make this simple, we have to look at membership as a business and membership directors are selling a product. As an organization we needed to invest money and time into reaching our target demographic and we needed to be sensitive to the changes in our target market and make the necessary adjustments to stay relevant to this group and our original core group at the same time.
VH: What advice would you give to other lodges?
DT: My advice to other lodges is simple. Honor your history—share your history—don’t live in your history. Sons of Norway is a living entity and as times change we should change with them. Today’s generation of parents face greater time challenges then did my parents’ generation. If your lodge can be sensitive to that and make allowances (don’t have midday meetings during a work week, for example) you will have a chance. In addition to that, you must offer a product that this generation is looking for and that is a formal group for the children and a social one for them. Listen to them and adapt to them, Growing together with new members is better for our organization then just giving the new members an option of “our way of the highway.”
The growth strategizes that Fredhiem applied to turn their organization around could benefit more than SON Lodges—churches, social, and cultural organizations could benefit. In fact any organization that has survived for decades needs to reinvent itself. It is not a new challenge, nor is there a new solution. As Throsen said, we have new tools that are effective, such as the internet. However, as he also stated, this does not mean that we negate the connection to the past and our core values.
These thoughts led me to think about another interesting story of incarnations and transformations. It involves Bethelship Methodist Church, which was founded in 1840s as a mission church for Swedish and Norwegian sailors in New York harbor, and was housed on a ship. When the shipyards moved to Brooklyn, Bethelship followed. As families replaced solo sailors, the church’s focus became family ministry. Almost 100 years later as many Scandinavian sailors were displaced during WWII, there was need for housing and Bethelship jumped in and right back to their original mission. They bought a house that could provide shelter for the seamen. Today, the church has a large East Indian congregation, reinforcing their original mission of assisting strangers in a new land.
It is wonderful to see Fredhiem reaching backward and forward. This strategy actually exists in much of our Norwegain-American collective history. One needs to see outside the box, or re-shape the box or turn it inside out, but not throw out the box. I challenge readers, as well as myself, to use Fredheim’s success story and ones in our own communities to re-fortify what the Norwegians have built.
This article originally appeared in the Mar. 21, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.