Some Legionnaires attending the organization's annual National Membership Workshop in Indianapolis on July 28 might have expected Michael Phelps to have some all-powerful secret to building the organization's ranks. After all, as Department of Kentucky commander in 2010-2011, Phelps helped the Bluegrass State go from 52nd to first in the Legion's membership race.
"It comes down to hard work, and you've got to pay attention to detail," Phelps told more than 350 Legionnaires during the opening day of the workshop. "If you want the secret, that's it: hard work and pay attention to detail."
Phelps asked all of the current department commanders in the room to raise their hands. When they did, he posed a question to them. "How many have set your goals for this year?" Phelps asked. "In five years from now, whenever people look back on your year as being department commander, what do you want them to remember? That should be your goal, and you should start communicating that from Day 1.
"My goal was membership. I like the Oratorical program. I like Boys State and Baseball, but I thought, ‘What can I do ... to make people say, ‘Oh, I remember Mike Phelps. He had a 100-percent department.'" I was committed to that. And all of you department commanders out there have to be committed. You are the cheerleader. You have to be out there leading your department."
Phelps said he used paper and electronic reports to keep districts and posts in the loop as the membership effort took off, as well as placing a large posterboard in department headquarters that listed national membership goal dates and the number required to meet each goal. "After we made about three of the dates, everybody knew where we stood," he said. "By the third goal, you could start feeling everybody in the department - ‘we're going to be winners.' Everybody wants to be part of a winning team. You could just feel it. We had districts competing with districts. Posts competing with other posts. That's what it took. Everybody in the department got this feeling: ‘We're going to do this.'"
Phelps said his membership team focused on renewals, as well as helping smaller posts get to 100 percent. The department headquarters post served as a valuable resource for both renewals and transfers.
"We all worked together," Phelps said. "That's our secret."
Legionnaires also heard words of encouragement from National Commander Jimmie L. Foster and National Adjutant Daniel S. Wheeler. Foster asked attendees to stay positive in the membership effort, while Wheeler urged posts, districts and departments to make full use of DMS lists available through National Headquarters.
"We have the technology (to create) maps that show where the DMS clusters are in every town in the United States," Wheeler said. "Wouldn't it be great to round up a couple dozen of them ... and form a post with these guys? Give them two mentors from the department. Posts with no mortgage, no bar, no bingo - just a purpose for being. A good purpose. One of the purposes of The American Legion."
Joe Gallagher, deputy director of the Legion's IT Division, updated Legionnaire online membership renewals, which debuted Legion-wide July 1. More than 25,000 Legionnaires renewed their memberships online  in the first 10 days.
Gallagher said that as of the workshop, approximately 3 percent of all renewals were done online; that number is expected to grow to more than 5 percent in 2012.
The workshop also included briefings by Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Director Verna Jones on last winter's women veterans survey and Legislative Division Director Tim Tetz on the flag amendment currently in Congress.
Following the opening session, Legionnaires broke into smaller groups to receive basic and advanced training. Breakout sessions also were designed for district commanders and 2011-2012 department membership chairmen.