From the Wikipedia:
"A friendly society (sometimes called a mutual society, benevolent society, fraternal organization or ROSCA) is a mutual association for the purposes of insurance, pensions, savings or cooperative banking. It is a mutual organization or benefit society composed of a body of people who join together for a common financial or social purpose. Before modern insurance, and the welfare state, friendly societies provided financial and social services to individuals, often according to their religious, political, or trade affiliations. These societies are still widespread in many parts of the developing world, where they are referred to as ROSCAs (rotating savings and credit associations), ASCAs (accumulating savings and credit associations), burial societies, chit funds, etc.
Before the development of large-scale government and employer health insurance and other financial services, these societies played an important part in many people's lives. Many of these societies still exist. In some countries, some of them developed into large mutually run financial institutions, typically insurance companies, and lost any social and ceremonial aspect they may have had; in others they have taken on a more charitable or social aspect. Friendly Societies in countries such as the United Kingdom were subject to prudential regulation to safeguard the financial interests of their members and secure the benefits promised to them, but the legislation (see for example Friendly Societies Act 1875) was separate from that applicable to insurance companies.
In some cases, especially in America, members typically paid a regular membership fee and went to lodge meetings to take part in ceremonies. If members became sick, they would receive an allowance to help them meet their financial obligations. The society might have a doctor whom the member could consult for free. Members of the lodge would visit to provide emotional and other support (and possibly to verify that the sick member was not malingering). When members died, their funeral would be paid for and the members of their lodge might attend in ceremonial dress—often, there was some money left over from the funeral for the widow. Friendly societies might also organise social functions such as dances, and some had sports teams for members. They occasionally became involved in political issues that were of interest to their members. Others were purely financial, with little or no social side, from their foundation—this was more typical in Great Britain. The first mutual savings bank, founded in Scotland in 1810, was called the "Savings and Friendly Society". Credit unions and other types of organization are modern equivalents.
In the more social type, each lodge was generally responsible for its own affairs, but it was often affiliated to an order of lodges such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows or the Independent Order of Foresters. There were typically reciprocal agreements between lodges within an order, so that if members moved to other cities or countries, they could join a new lodge without an initiation period. The ceremonies were fairly uniform throughout an order. Occasionally, a lodge might change the order that it was affiliated to, or a group of lodges would break away from an order and form a new one, or two orders might merge. Consequently, the histories of some friendly societies are difficult to follow. Often there were different, unrelated orders with similar names. Friendly Society Brasses were the emblems of village Friendly Societies or Clubs common in the west of England between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The use of brasses as emblems was particularly prevalent in Somerset and the surrounding counties." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friendly_society)