Any decline in membership has a serious impact on American Legion programs and diminishes visibility in our communities. When these kinds of slides occur, something desperately needs to be done to solve them. Our intuition tells us that we should just seek out veterans and ask them to become new members. Yet few of us realize that membership declines are not just because we are not enlisting new Legionnaires; it’s also because we are losing existing ones.

We recruit nearly 300,000 new members a year. Unfortunately, half of them drop out after their first year, and more by their second and third years. How can excited new members suddenly become disheartened?

Some say no one contacted them for renewals, or that no one welcomed them into their post. But the issue is often military in nature. In the armed forces, total force build-up encompasses recruitment and retention. To thrive as an organization, the Legion must take on a similar mantra: to recruit, but also retain. While Legion recruitment officers work hard in communities, our retention officers must work even harder by building lasting relationships with the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, reservists, Coast Guard and Guardsmen who join our ranks.

We need a clear strategy and volunteers devoted to retention, and emphasis needs to be placed on building lasting relationships with new members who will ultimately sustain our posts and keep programs and activities productive.

The following section serves as a guide to solve these problems. Useful for post leadership and the average Legionnaire – call it American Legion Membership 101. It will help not only to drive membership, but will also give a clear picture of the connection between building membership and creating a sustainable post in your community.

First, new members must always be welcomed when they join – even go out your way to do so. Legionnaires who feel welcome, comfortable and accepted are more likely to attend meetings and socials and volunteer for activities. Here are some tips:

Create a post welcoming committee. Assign post leadership to facilitate warm and friendly interactions among current and new members. Help them get acquainted with the post. This committee can compile a list of new members and assign them to loyal members for one-on-one mentoring sessions. Mentors should get to know their new member counterparts, understand their needs and wants, get a feel for their schedule, and instill a willingness and desire within them to help the post flourish. Mentors can then introduce new members to the post and other current Legionnaires. They can also help determine how a post can adjust to accommodate the changing needs of new members and schedule activities for Legionnaires of all experience levels. This gives mentors a sense of empowerment, and new members feel connected to the post. The situation is win-win.

Hosting a new member reception gives mentors a great chance to bring new members to the post for the first time. Entire families can also be brought along to let new members know your post is a true Legion family. This is also a great way for Auxiliary detachments to recruit new members, and for youth programs to enlist participants.

Make sure new members are recognized in their first year. Introduce them often and make sure they feel like part of the family. Have them wear a special ribbon so they feel welcome and so existing members feel obligated to welcome them and get to know them.

Second, you must realize membership retention is not about “getting numbers” – this is the goal of recruitment. Retention is about having a thriving program that new members want to get involved in. When involved, Legionnaires find value in their membership, and if they find value, they will take pride in being involved. To accomplish this, here are a few ideas:

• New members should immediately become involved in any way possible. It is essential that this involvement is rewarding and not mundane in any way. We don’t want to test new members’ dedication or resolve; we aim to foster and perpetuate participation. Empower them and make them feel like part of the team. Down the road, when they’re loyal and dedicated, they’ll make good mentors to new members.

• Set up a regular speakers program at post meetings and conduct leadership training as often as possible. Many new members will hesitate to get involved, often because they can’t find time, but also because they don’t know enough about the post to be willing. Educate them on the various roles and responsibilities of leadership, show them the effect they can have on their community and fellow veterans, and give them time to consider. They will volunteer eventually; they have all served and understand the value of leading through service. It’s your responsibility to show them how they can apply themselves.

• It’s always a good idea to send a survey to new members. Leadership can learn what new members are looking for in the post and how they want to get involved. The welcome committee can also contact new members for in-person surveys. New members will feel a personal connection to your post. They will feel more important than their $35 membership dues. 

Active membership involvement sustains and fosters personal relationships, but not all new members will want to get involved immediately. Communication is important to help you develop a close relationship with these new members who are hesitant to become active. Here are some helpful tips:

• Keep new members’ names and addresses current and accurate. Collect their e-mail address whenever possible.

• Make sure these members receive not just a renewal notice, but also post newsletters, announcements and event invitations. It might be expensive to do this by mail, so obtaining their e-mail addresses is essential. Mentors can also hand deliver these items to new members in their area.

• When an important issue surfaces at your post, make sure new members are informed. They will feel involved even if they don’t attend meetings.

• Consider starting a regular column dedicated to new members in your post newsletter. Feature new members who are involved, and mention those who recently joined. List a contact e-mail on the newsletter so new members can send in suggestions and comments. Post them when they have value. When their feedback is solicited and posted, they feel like empowered new members. There is no better way to build and sustain relationships with them.

• Make sure new members know exactly how their dues were used. This information can be published in your newsletter, or in a weekly or monthly e-mail.

Once new members are welcomed, get the motivated ones involved and communicate frequently with the rest. Here are a few helpful tips to handle new members’ first renewal:

• Refer to annual membership dues as donations or rededications of their pledge and loyalty to continued service to the United States. Always show appreciation for dues that are paid early.

• Accept credit and debit cards.

• Make mentors responsible for collecting the first renewal since they have established solid relationships with new members.

• Offer incentives to the first 10 percent who renew (free dinner, etc).

• Acknowledge renewal checks, just like new member applications.

• Finally, always make sure volunteers are rewarded for making calls to new members.

Lastly, be patient. Veterans' experiences are similar to those most of our members once faced. They are two-incomes households, which means time is precious commodity.They are trying to make time for themselves along with active participation in their children's activities, which demands much of the parents' time. We need to reassure a new or renewed member that just being a member is okay. Not everyone will be willing or have the time to be involved in activities sponsored at the local post. Having a physical presence is not the only means to be involved in local, state or even national activities. They accomplish this by simply being a member.