As a post-9/11 veteran, Jason Feimster envisioned an American Legion post where he and his peers could bring their families. At the same time, Feimster counted on members of Post 180 in Vienna, Va., to not just support his idea for change but to provide their knowledge of the post, its programs and what has made it an important part of the community.
He joined Post 180 just over four years ago with a vision for change and commitment to service. During his first year as commander, the post became the first large post in the Department of Virginia to reach its 100 percent membership goal.
“We’re very involved, networking ... you’re not just going to join here and become a distant member,” Feimster says. “We’re going to know your kids. We’re going to know when they graduate. We’re probably going to be there and have a ceremony for you and your children.”
That resonates with Dave Wallace, who is the post’s chaplain. His wife, Jana, is in the Auxiliary and his son, Jeremy, is first vice commander of the post’s squadron.
Wallace says the family first commitment needs to start with the initial recruiting. Talk about the Legion Family. Explain how the Legion embraces the veteran’s spouse and children. Notice if a veteran is wearing a wedding ring — there might be another eligible Legion member or Auxiliary member.
“For our generation, if you don’t have the whole family involved, you’re missing something from a membership standpoint,” he says. “If you can’t get them involved, whether it’s the Junior Auxiliary or the Sons of The American Legion, then I think you’re failing the organization as a whole.”
Wallace believes “every (youth) program is a membership opportunity.” By increasing Boys State participation, the post’s SAL membership has grown, as has participation in the Oratorical Contest and American Legion Baseball.
“Kids are going from one to the other, saying, ‘Oh my God. I love this. This is what The American Legion did for me,’” says Guillermo Guillen, the post’s first vice commander who is also an active-duty Army officer.
Here are some other tips that posts can use to boost membership and community engagement:
Work with Legionnaires who have been active longer. “We still need to heavily rely on those at the posts who have come before us,” says Guillen. “I’m talking guys who’ve been in the organization 10, 15, 20, 30 years because they have a lot of institutional knowledge. It ... gives us a basis of understanding where we have come from, and how we’ve gotten to where we are, and how we can change things.”
Identify members with leadership skills. When Feimster became the post’s second vice commander he saw potential in Guillen. “Guillermo, once you get to know him as an individual, is by far the best leader I know inside or outside the military,” Feimster says. “I saw an opportunity to take his leadership and his skills, and combine them with the fact that the older members were showing me respect.”
Just ask. Don’t be hesitant to ask more experienced Legionnaires about how programs have worked in the past to help map out a strategy.
Be willing to train. Quinn Mallonee was elected as a post officer days after joining. The camaraderie lured him in, the involvement keeps him engaged. “I’m sitting back thinking, ‘OK, I’ve been a member for a week. I’m clueless.’ But if you guys are willing to train me, let’s go. And that’s exactly what has happened.”
Recruit and retain. “You want to make members feel like they’re part of the family, and you’ve got to get them engaged,” Feimster says. “If you don’t do that, you’re losing them. Get them into programs and keep their interest. This is a life-long thing.”