Dr. Alfred Durham, a member of Kiwanis, founded The Altrusa Institute in Nashville in 1917. Record numbers of women were going to work during World War I.Dr. Durham saw the need for women’s civic organizations. While he would organize the clubs and collect a portion of the dues, Dr. Durham envisioned The Altrusa Institute as a chain of national clubs where business and professional women could meet and exchange ideas. He organized clubs in Nashville, Louisville and Dayton before he moved to Indianapolis, where he met Mamie L. Bass.
Mamie L. Bass was a partner in her brother’s architecture firm and assisted her brother in organizing a Rotary chapter in Indianapolis. While she admired Dr. Durham’s Institute, she felt that Altrusa could serve a higher purpose. In June 1918, Altrusa held its first convention in Indianapolis and elected Bass as Altrusa’s first national president, and her vision became reality. The Altrusa Institute became a classified service organization for women.
Soon after, Mamie Bass created the Principles of Altrusa, which defined Altrusa as “a builder of women” and an organization based on merit and accomplishment. The Principles were officially adopted in 1921. Since the organization required its members to be working professionals, Altrusa decided to make vocational education for women a national policy.
Altrusa became international in 1935 when Altrusa organized its first club in Mexico. In 1946, Altrusa sent its first representative to the United Nations.
In the 60s, Altrusans began to look to America’s youth as the future of Altrusa. In 1966, ASTRA was established. ASTRA service clubs target young women and men ages 13 to 21 and encourage them in their educations, professions and service to society. Altrusa adopted literacy as its ongoing international service focus in 1977.
In 1962, Altrusa International Foundation Inc. was formed as the philanthropic arm of Altrusa. It provides grants to clubs for their projects as well as contributions to disaster relief efforts all over the world, Camp Safe Haven for children with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and more critical clinical care for similar children in Africa.
Despite issues of international concern, Altrusa is, first and foremost, a community-based, grassroots organization that seeks to solve the problems in our back yards. Busy Altrusans raise money for local charities, volunteer at battered women’s shelters, help runaway teens, build houses for Habitat for Humanity, and so much more. Inspired by Thoreau, Mamie L. Bass put it best: “It is not enough to be good; Altrusans must be good for something.”