In March the Woman’s City Club (WCC) celebrated its centennial with a wonderful dinner in the Hall of Mirrors. That night they released a new book by Rachel Powell on their history since 1965, Lighting the Fire, Leading the Way, which serves as a companion to Andrea Tuttle Kornbluh’s 1986 Lighting the Way. I was asked to present the keynote address at the dinner.

Preparing for that presentation, I realized that all of the essays I have developed for the Leading Cincinnati series always focused on a person. These essays have attempted to tease out why some people succeed as community leaders and others do not.

That individual focus is the approach adopted by most professionals writing about leadership. But leadership is not always about individuals who break through to energize others; it can also be an organizational activity.

The Woman’s City Club was founded in 1915, when the City of Cincinnati was still in the grips of the corrupt and increasingly inefficient and wasteful Cox/Hynicka organization. It was also before the adoption of the 19th Amendment that recognized the right of American women to vote. And it was five years before the Cincinnatus Association was founded.

At the beginning, the Club was focused on local issues. In 1919 it cooperated with 16 other organizations to form the United City Planning Committee, which oversaw the development of the city’s first zoning regulations, the first Comprehensive Plan and provided the foundation for the Planning Commission.

The club played an important role in the Charter Reforms of 1923-25 and then organized itself to monitor the work of each city department. Later it worked with Charlie Taft and others to make sure that Lytle Park was preserved by lobbying to have Interstate 71 exit the city though a short tunnel.

From the beginning the club was involved in multiple efforts to improve education in the center city as well as ameliorate the impact of racism. In the early years of this century the club was a leader in pushing the Cincinnati Public Schools to embrace sustainable architectural design as it undertook a billion-dollar rebuilding and renovation of its entire building stock.

Throughout its history the club explored a wide variety of challenges and opportunities posed by various phases of the women’s movement—suffrage, women’s liberation and women’s rights. As Rachel Powell’s new study shows, what you might think would be a boon to the club actually proved disruptive, from both an intellectual point of view to the fact that beginning in the 1970s the vast majority of well-educated, middle-class women entered the full-time workforce and were no longer available for volunteer activity.

But beyond all the specifics, the fact that the Woman’s City Club has reached 100 is downright amazing. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1820s, Americans were peculiarly committed to forming voluntary organizations. A small minority were self-conscious activist organizations, like the Woman’s City Club of Cincinnati. Others included PTAs, Toastmasters, VFWs, Disabled American Veterans, volunteer fire departments, Rotaries, credit unions and social organizations like the Lions, Moose, Elk and Eagles. Even softball, golf and bowling leagues played important roles.

Beyond their specific purposes, these organizations brought Americans together to talk about what mattered to them. When an issue bubbled up in a community, this network of volunteer organizations provided forums for neighbors and friends to become citizens or even serve as platforms for action.

But as Robert Putnam documented in his important study Bowling Alone (2000), most of these groups have disappeared in the last 50 years. This shift paralleled the rise of a super-energized vocabulary of individualism and a rewriting of American history that suppresses the communitarian role of voluntary organizations.

So, the fact that the Woman’s City Club has survived for 100 years is an astounding, counter-cultural expression. One of the real values that an organization has over an individual is the potential to endure over decades and across generations and significant cultural shifts. Individuals have limits that are measured in years. Organizations have the potential to span decades, or occasionally a century.

The WCC also shows that mission-based volunteer community organizations might succeed because they are different than businesses. For-profit businesses must be laser focused with clear prioritization of goals. The WCC, on the other hand, has juggled dozens of issues at the same time. Sometimes things moved forward, but most of the time they did not move directly to action. Studies got put on the shelf, only to be pulled off and implemented years later when the environment changed.

Two lessons can be drawn from the history of the WCC. First, straight lines are rare in nature and non-existent in history. Second, the only thing that really matters is that we maintain organizations that allow us to keep talking with each other, and provide support for action when the time is right.

Dan Hurley is an historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.