The first Kiwanis club was organized in Detroit, Michigan, USA, in 1914. The club received a charter from the state of Michigan on January 21, 1915—the day that is regarded as the birth date of Kiwanis. In recognition of its heritage, the club’s name is Detroit Kiwanis Club No. 1. The club continues to serve the children of Detroit.
Kiwanis was created by a professional organizer named Allen Simpson Browne. His original concept was an organization whose members did business with each other. However, the Detroit club had been organized only a few weeks when the members began their first service project. During the next five years, Kiwanians would debate the basic purpose of the organization: mutual business exchange or community service.
The first name suggested for the organization was “Benevolent Order Brothers.” But Ottie Robertson, a charter member of the Detroit No. 1 club, didn’t like it. “It seems to me,” he said, “that Benevolent Order Brothers is a mighty peculiar name for an organization of businessmen. Who wants to be a BOB?”
The name “Kiwanis” was coined from an expression of the American Indians in the Detroit area. The expression “Nunc Kee-wan-nis” (found in Bishop Baraga's dictionary of the Otchipew language) broadly meant “we trade” or “we share our talents.” As a coined word, however, “Kiwanis” has no meaning except as the name of a leading international service club.
Kiwanis International conventions began when the Kiwanis Club of Cleveland invited representatives of other clubs to meet there in May 1916. At that time, there were 16 clubs with 1,924 members. A Kiwanis International convention has been conducted every year since then, except for limited conferences in 1943–45 due to wartime travel restrictions.