The American Legion’s Membership Challenges

With many of its members aging and younger veterans too busy to join, the veterans-aid group is facing tough challenges—but ones its leaders believe it can tackle.

One of the most iconic membership organizations in the country is facing a tough go of it.

The American Legion, a veterans-aid group that dates back to World War I, is seeing a slow decline of its membership in recent years, with an 11 percent drop in members nationwide since 2000, according to The New York Times.

More details on the issue the organization faces:

What’s behind the decline? Simply put, many of the group’s traditional members, from World War II, are reaching old age, and the membership rolls aren’t being refilled by newer members. Even though most of the 22.7 million veterans nationwide are eligible to join the American Legion, the group had just 2.4 million members in 2012. It has also struggled with an image problem that has made it difficult to sell the organization to younger members. “For many of the younger veterans, when they think of the American Legion, they picture the building on the corner where the old guys go to drink beer,” noted the Mark Sutton of the American Legion Department of Michigan, which has made efforts to focus on community outreach programs like Boys Nation.

Financial issues: As a result of declining membership, some posts in rural areas have struggled financially. In Burlington Junction, Missouri, for example, the building for the local Rolla Dicks Post 315 fell into disrepair, and in February it collapsed. The community banded together to replace the decades-old structure, as the group itself could not afford to rebuild. Many rural communities have traditionally relied on American Legion buildings as community centers, and with declining numbers, funding in such situations may be in short supply.

Can the decline be reversed? Possibly. The group is planning to work on the association’s image—focusing on veterans of more recent conflicts, such as the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars—and embracing social media. The organization has a long-term goal of boosting its membership to more than 3 million by 2019. “It’s true we are losing our World War II comrades, who are going to what I call the ‘post everlasting,’ and we are regretful of that,” American Legion spokesman Joe March told the Times. “They were the greatest generation. But now, the younger veterans need to pick up the gauntlet and continue the tradition.” While many posts are facing declines, there are some bright spots, including posts in Alexandria, Virginia, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, which have been embraced by younger veterans.

What advice would you give to a struggling organization looking to boost its membership as the group matures? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

(Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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