By:Lurdes C. da Silva
LEXINGTON, Mass. - For many
decades, fraternal societies were among the traditional pillars of the
Portuguese communities in the United States.
They were formed by working people who organized into groups to provide social opportunities, preserve the values and culture of their homeland, assist with the assimilation of new immigrants and provide sickness and death benefits for its members.
The Luso-American Life Insurance Society (LAL), a fraternal benefit society with about 22,000 members scattered across 10 U.S. states, is arguably the largest Portuguese organization in the United States today. But those at the society's helm say that in spite of it being financially and organizationally sound, a robust future can only be assured with increased membership, more competitive products and a willingness to be open-minded to mergers with other organizations.
"Our goal is to keep growing," said LAL President Edite Furtado. "I believe there is strength in numbers. If we had more people working and coming together, you could develop better programs that would be more impactful to the community."
LAL has been serving the needs of its members for nearly 150 years, as the successor to the Benevolent Society established in 1868 in the state of California.
The society has endured organizational changes through the years, mainly due to mergers. Currently, it is composed of three fraternal divisions - the Luso-American Fraternal Federation and the Sociedade Portuguesa Rainha Santa Isabel on the West Coast and the Portuguese Continental Union on the East Coast - and the Luso-American Education Foundation, which has awarded hundreds of scholarships and grants.
Nationwide, LAL has about 200 councils and lodges. There are no membership dues. Individuals become members by taking advantage of its life insurance plans and financial products (annuity plans, IRAs and education savings accounts).
"The vast majority of our membership is Portuguese, but we're not just limited to Portuguese members," said J. Larry Soares, LAL's Executive Vice-President and CEO. "We're always trying to go larger. We definitely want to be aggressive and take the lead."
With practically no influx of new Portuguese immigrants, LAL is left with the challenge of finding ways to attract new membership.
"We're always looking for new products that suit and are of interest to the local Portuguese communities, so that we can attract members," said John M. Dias, LAL's Chairman of the Board. "We have good products that we need to make the community aware of."
As a not-for-profit organization, the proceeds from insurance and financial product sales enable the society to support a variety of programs that help enrich individuals and the community. These include youth activities, donations to local, national and worldwide causes, and programs and events that keep the Portuguese culture and traditions alive in the United States.
Annually, two conventions are held - in the East Coast in June and in the West Coast in August. Of the 22,000 LAL members, about 18,000 reside in the West Coast.
"In the East Coast, we're still developing the program," said Furtado. "We need more kids, more volunteers, more membership."
At the last West Coast convention, more than 400 youth put together a theatrical performance, which lasted about four hours and included plenty of Portuguese dance and singing.
"It is amazing to see these kids on stage really enjoying themselves and coming together, the camaraderie and social skills that they develop," said Furtado.
The West Coast also sponsors youth summer camps.
"It took the West Coast 25 years to get to where they are," said Furtado. "We're in the infancy of developing the program for our youth... but you need people, and need money, and the money for those programs come from the sale of insurance."
Soares stressed that LAL's main focus is its members and youth.
"We're not about profit. It's all about giving," he said. "We have the insurance to keep us going forward, but we donate back."
LAL's president estimated the society gave almost $250,000 to different charities and programs last year.
"We tend to do things on the quiet side; that's actually one of our big faults. We're trying to make an effort now to publicize the good things we do for the community," said Furtado, adding that the society has contributed with more than 500,000 volunteer hours to the communities it serves since the 1960s.
The society also awards about $75,000 in scholarships to deserving students. According to Soares, the Luso-American Education Foundation has surpassed the $1.5 million scholarship mark.
Furtado stressed the society is strong in terms of safety, security and financial strength, with $270 million in insurance in force, $70 million in assets and $8.6 million in surplus. She said the products offered are totally regulated by the Insurance Department and the IRS and the society must file public records annually.
"There is no risk," she said.
But she admitted that fraternal societies are generally struggling.
"There is a lot of pressure," she said. "There is a question if fraternals should continue to exist... mainly coming from the major insurance companies. We are a competitor. And our organization is small in numbers when compared to others like the Knights of Columbus or the Thrivent... They have millions of people, but we are in the same category. We're all part of the National Fraternal Congress of America."
Recently, there were some talks of a potential merger with the four remaining fraternal societies in California, but the efforts fell through as they opted instead to form a new group of their own.
"We continue with our doors and arms open to mergers," said Dias. "Sooner or later, we'll all have to merge to survive. This is also happening with other groups and ethnicities."
When the four societies in California join hands in January 2010, LAL will be one of only two surviving Portuguese fraternal benefit societies in North America.
"There will be some areas they will be larger and there will be some areas we'll be larger," said Soares. "We have more life insurance force than they do, but if you count membership, they may have a little more."
LAL is currently looking to recruit part-time agents to promote its insurance and financial products.
"We're going through a growth period and are looking to increase volume," said Edward Figueiredo, vice-president of sales. "We offer a good commission schedule and we provide training and support."
Furtado said she would love to see Portuguese organizations put their 'bairrismo' aside and come together.
We all have different strengths. If we could just come together and participate in each other's functions, imagine how much we could do for the community," she said. "If we could just share and help each other out, we could all survive. My goal would be to have all these clubs as a family, not giving up who they are and what they do, but just really work together and do good for the Portuguese community and culture. That is my dream."
In the East Coast, LAL is headquartered at 7 Hartwell Ave., Lexington, Mass. For more information, please call 1-800-3780566.
O Jornal, aqui.