That you have ability is recognized by your election to the office of post commander. Now you must draw on your ability and past experience while developing new skills so that you will succeed in helping the post prosper. The charge you have accepted, commander, is broad and difficult. How you respond will determine to a large degree the standing of The American Legion among your associates and within the community. Your own ability, the support of district and department officers, the information in this guide, and the help you will get from the post officers who form your team will together make the performance of your job possible. As you look to the overall operation of the post, you’ll realize that you have stepped to another level. You may feel the step is too high, but as you proceed, following the suggestions and recommendations in this guide, you may find that your year as commander is the most rewarding of your life.
Planning post operations for the coming year
It’s a rare group of new post officers who take office without enthusiasm and a desire for a successful year. In the charge you accepted at your installation, you were entrusted with the supervision of the duties of all other post officers. This does not mean that you will discourage them from using initiative and developing new ideas. What it does mean is that you will be judged by their effectiveness. There are many ways to determine whether a post commander and their officers are enjoying a successful year. Judgments of the worth of a post are made by the members, the community, and by The American Legion itself. Like it or not, a gain or loss in membership is the measure most often used. Actually, the membership record is a reliable barometer of what your post is doing. An active post where the members enjoy themselves often creates a “word of mouth” membership campaign. The members are proud to belong. It’s natural for them to talk “Legion” to their friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers and business associates. Since they enjoy belonging to the Legion, they want their friends to get in on a good thing, too. However, whether it shows or not, a great deal of planning has probably gone into every successful membership campaign. But before salespeople can sell a product, they have to have a good product – something people want and will value. Programs, social activities, the opportunity to make new friends, even the post home itself – these are what a Legion salesperson has to sell.
Post executive committee
Early on, you will discover that running even a small post is more than a one-person job. This is why the post constitution provides for a full group of post officers, as well as an executive committee. They are elected to do specific jobs. It’s up to you to get them to work together for the good of the post. Start by calling an early meeting of your officers and executive committee. This can happen even before you are installed. Invite the outgoing post commander and adjutant to attend. Before the meeting, you and your adjutant should know what post records are on hand, where they are kept, and how to use them.
Records, minutes and other materials
Does the post have all its membership records since it was chartered, or at least for recent years? Members are proud of their record of continuous membership. Keep these and all other membership records up to date. Are the complete minutes of all meetings on file or bound? The keeping and reading of minutes may seem dull, but minutes can be extremely important. More than one legal case has turned on what some longforgotten secretary or adjutant wrote in the minutes of a meeting years ago. Does the checkbook balance? Where are the funds, and is all the money accounted for? Is the post incorporated under the state’s not-for-profit laws? Where is a copy of the articles of incorporation? Have the necessary annual reports been filed and all fees paid? Is every officer who will be handling funds bonded? This is required by the Legion’s national constitution. Do you have a copy of the post’s constitution and by-laws? With the changes in post officers from year to year, it’s easy to see how vital records can be lost or misplaced. Make sure that all essential records are accessible, that they are where they should be (and not hiding in the desk of an adjutant who served a decade ago), and that you know, at least generally, their purpose.
Budget and fundraising
Anyone who asks people to attend a meeting should do them the courtesy of preparing an agenda – and doing it in advance. One of the first things on the agenda for this first gathering of new post officers should be money – your post’s budget. The officers need to know what income is expected for the year and how it should be spent. 12 You’ll have a good chance of staying out of money troubles if you follow these three general principles:
- First, make your dues high enough to meet fixed, administrative costs: postage, stationery, department dues, and in some cases, rent. These are costs that every post must meet to stay in business.
- Second, if the community is to benefit from an American Legion project, don’t hesitate to solicit the community for funds – for example, an American Legion Baseball team, a community playground or a swimming pool. The post will actually add to its reputation with such projects, but a full public accounting needs to be made of all funds received and of how they are spent.
- Third, don’t ask the public to give in the name of charity for any project that will be of benefit primarily to Legionnaires. A businessman may donate to send a young man to Boys State, but he probably wouldn’t care to give money to buy a new cooler for your bar. Sometimes it is necessary to raise funds from outside for something that is strictly for the benefit of the post and its members. When this happens, make sure that the public receives full value.
Elected officers will be responsible for some of the activities and projects. Your appointed chairs will be in charge of others. Decide at the very beginning what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, and who is going to make it happen. Most of the assignments will be to carry on already established programs or activities. Handbooks, manuals and brochures exist for all of the Legion’s premier programs: Boys State, American Legion Baseball, scholarships, and more (see page 160). You and your adjutant have probably received copies from department headquarters already. These publications have information and ideas that your committee chairs need. Take them to the first planning meeting and turn them over to the proper people.
Programs new and old
No post can stand still. New programs are needed to maintain interest and, especially, to keep up with the times. Every new activity or program offers the opportunity to interest new people in joining the post. Inactive members can be turned into active members the same way. Just about every post has service programs and social activities that were started long ago and have become tradition. But organizations, like individuals, fall into ruts. Any program run exactly the same way year after year is going to grow stale. So, at your first planning meeting, take a look at the post’s programs and activities. Decide which need some changes or a new look. A program won’t happen, though, without someone to make it happen. Every program or activity needs to have a person in charge – usually a post officer or committee chair. If the selection is good, the program will succeed. Ask and, in fact, demand that each chairperson and officer build a timetable of events that can be fitted into an overall post calendar for your year.
First post meeting
At the first post meeting, expect others to compare you to previous commanders. This is the time to set the tone for the entire year. If changes are going to be made, start now. The basic framework for any post meeting is found in the Manual of Ceremonies. By following the prescribed ritual and order of business, even a person who has never before presided over a meeting can do an adequate job. As a new commander, you might feel self-conscious about running a formal meeting, particularly in a post that has gotten away from the Manual of Ceremonies. Don’t. The American Legion is a respected organization, and its meetings should be suitably formal and impressive. No time is saved by omitting parts of the ritual. Meetings, of course, can and should vary. But by following the prescribed ritual and order of business, you should be able to complete your agenda in no more than one hour.
While the Manual of Ceremonies provides the framework or the skeleton for a meeting, the commander’s agenda is what puts meat on the bones. Your agenda for the first and each succeeding meeting should list the exact committees scheduled to report. But before putting a chairperson’s name on the agenda, ask that person if he or she is ready to report. This is an easy way to see if the chairperson is doing the job. If not, a little encouragement, a few suggestions or perhaps some prodding might be in order.
Although “protocol” is a term used primarily in setting the rules of etiquette that govern diplomatic functions, there is a certain amount of protocol that applies to American Legion meetings and social functions, especially those to which dignitaries have been invited. This is the responsibility of the post commander, beginning with the planning of the event. If the department commander is to be invited, this matter should be cleared promptly with department headquarters. In preliminary planning, it is advisable to have an alternate date in the event the department commander is already committed for the original date. The invitation should list the time, place, whether or not the event is a dinner, significance of the event and any other pertinent information. Will it be a joint Legion-Auxiliary function? Will there be non-Legionnaire dignitaries present? Remember, this is your “home,” and those you’ve invited deserve all the courtesies and considerations accorded such distinguished guests. If the event is a dinner, notify those who will be seated at the head table before they arrive. Escort them to their places to avoid confusion. The presiding or host officer is seated just to the right of the lectern. The master of ceremonies is seated just to the left of the lectern. Use place cards to identify those at the head table. Introductions begin after the meal. The presiding officer stands at the center of the head table and makes the introductions, beginning at the extreme left, continuing to the center of the table, and then starting at the extreme right and continuing to the center. The main speaker, the guest of honor, is the last person introduced. Officers are introduced in the order by which they were installed: sergeant-at-arms, service officer, historian, judge advocate, chaplain, finance officer, adjutant, vice commanders and commander. As with all rules, there are some exceptions. If the event is a function of both the Legion and the Auxiliary, the Auxiliary officers and dignitaries are introduced first. A national executive committeeman or alternate national executive committeeman should be introduced immediately before the department commander.
The first meeting is a great time to start a welcoming committee, if the post doesn’t have one already. Ask two or three members – including the sergeant-at-arms – to take on the job of welcoming new members, guests or even older members who are not well acquainted, helping them feel at home and introducing them. An active welcome committee is a part of the post’s public relations job.
Pageantry and honors
Pageantry and patriotic observances are something that the community expects of its American Legion post. A well-trained color guard and even a burial detail composed of members of the Legion family will help keep the local post visible.
A good post commander will encourage members to actively participate in civic affairs. The entire post should be proud when a member is elected to the school board, heads up the United Way or gets a job promotion in a job – and will go out of the way to congratulate members on their accomplishments, whether in the Legion or in another field.
Plan, assign responsibilities, check back to see that the job is being done, and then say, “Thank you very much!” A post can express its appreciation in many ways, including awards, citations and recognition at a post meeting. But even a simple “thank you” note can mean a great deal. This is a simple courtesy that should never be forgotten.
If you have an idea that will improve The American Legion at any level, put that idea into words in the form of a resolution. First, work to have it passed by your local post, then by your district at its annual convention. All resolutions passed at a district convention are delivered to the resolutions committee at the next department convention. At the department convention, appear before the resolutions committee and plead for their passage of your resolution, and be prepared to speak for its passage on the floor of the department convention. All resolutions pertaining to the national organization that are passed by the department are forwarded to the national convention.
Sources of help
A commander relies on a team of post officers and taps the potential of post members. But valuable assistance comes from past post commanders, district officers, department officers and, where necessary, National Headquarters staff.
- Past commanders – Many posts have an active Past Commanders’ Club. Sometimes its primary purpose is social – retention of good fellowship among those who have served as commanders. But this group has a wealth of knowledge and ability. Don’t let it go to waste. Whether such a club is formally organized in your post or not, it is helpful to build a Commander’s Advisory Committee with your past commanders.
- District officers – The post is a separate and distinct unit that functions independently. But the work of the post can be more effective when it is tightly linked to the department and national organization. District officers provide that link. The district commander is usually the elected representative of posts in the district, but an obligation to provide guidance and supervision is implied. Posts are charged with carrying out the Legion’s objectives and programs and to comply fully with the obligations assumed under the post, department and national constitutions. But if your post becomes inactive or falters, expect your district commander to start giving advice. The district commander has a position of respect in our organization. A visit to your post calls for something special. Make it a social event significant enough to draw a crowd. The dignity shown the office helps increase the importance of the office of post commander.
- Department officers – Department officers are “show” people. A visit from one usually offers an opportunity for media coverage, and the type of Legion function that will attract your members and community leaders. These officers are your elected leaders and deserving of every respect. Not every post will receive annual visits from a department commander, but if your invitation is accepted, or there is occasion to visit you, make the most of it.
- Department headquarters – The department headquarters is the link between local posts and the national organization. The post will deal directly with the department adjutant. Routine business should be conducted through department headquarters. Questions of policy and organization should also be referred to department headquarters. The post commander should closely follow department affairs, know what statewide activities are going on, and see that the post is involved. He or she should also study all instructions from department headquarters and see that they are passed on to the proper officer or committee for action. Finally, the post’s membership needs to be informed of any new activities initiated by the department.
- National Headquarters – Nearly all your contacts with National Headquarters rightfully come through department headquarters. There is, however, one publication that should be faithfully read and kept, issue by issue: The American Legion Dispatch, which provides you the latest Legion news and information on which to base your programs. Post officers should also subscribe to The American Legion Online Update, an weekly email newsletter.
The Auxiliary unit is an important part of the post’s organization. Official contact with the unit is through the unit president. But the unit can help only in proportion to its opportunity. A good commander will find work for the Auxiliary unit to do. The commander, or a designated representative, will keep in close touch with the unit and give its members plenty of inspiration and encouragement.
While your post could continue to operate without the district, department or national organization, it is more effective as a part of a team. You may have an idea that should be developed and expanded beyond your post. Certainly you want your post to have a voice in deciding the future programs and direction of the Legion. District, department and national conventions are where Legion policy is determined. Be certain that your post is represented by properly elected delegates, particularly on the district and department level.
The American Legion Extension Institute (ALEI)
This online course is intended to educate and empower new or inactive American Legion, Auxiliary and SAL members. As a multimedia training tool, ALEI is an opportunity to learn and discover the rich history, programs, policies, developments, positions and goals of our organization. The 90-minute course has six modules: History and Organization, Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation, National Security, Americanism and Children & Youth, plus a course wrap-up and comprehensive final exam. ALEI centers on the Legion’s four pillars, each of which offers a variety of programs that benefit veterans, servicemembers, their families, America’s youth and citizens. To take the course, go to www.legion.org/alei or visit myLegion.org. The cost is $4.95 for current members of the American Legion Family.
Post programs require intelligent planning. Each year the district and the department conduct seminars on both general operations and specific Legion programs. You can help reduce the risk of leadership problems in your post by making certain that the post is represented at training sessions. Attendance at district and department functions also helps build the esprit de corps that makes for a good Legion post. Per Resolution No. 16, passed by the National Executive Committee in October 2016, the Legion expects participants of all its programs to show proper respect to the U.S. flag at all times, including during the national anthem.
Initiation ceremonies are good membership stabilizers. Keep working on membership, especially by contacting those who became delinquent Jan. 1. A community service survey can reveal areas where additional effort is needed. This month is also a good time to present flags and copies of the flag code to local schools. Check dates for post, district or county, and state Oratorical contests. March is Community Service Month, so now is the time to plan initiatives and projects.
Americanism Month Plan school awards with local educators. Sponsor religious emphasis activities. Start planning the upcoming American Legion Baseball season. Invite a local veterans employment representative to speak at a post meeting. Consider hosting observances of Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays. Plan a big American Legion birthday program for March.
Community Service Month Give priority to Boys State selection this month, or earlier. Close out the membership campaign, and mail dues and cards to the department. Recognize the anniversary of The American Legion’s founding March 15-17. This is an occasion for post officers to focus on projecting the proper image of The American Legion in the community, in the programs sponsored and services provided, and also on the appearance of the post home and surrounding grounds. This can be perceived as a reflection of the attitude, initiative and civic awareness of the post membership. The post should be a pillar of the community, conscious that it represents the national organization to citizens in its community. Renewed attention to appearance doesn’t require a capital improvement project, merely one of attention to detail and routine fix-ups, from signage to inside and outside improvements. This should be included on your annual Post Responsibility Audit (see page 25). Between January and March, post leaders should consider forming a committee to host a post open house.
Children & Youth Month. Coordinate Children & Youth activities and recognition with the post’s Auxiliary unit. Obtain Children & Youth Guide from department headquarters. Plan election of new officers, summer Scouting activities and Boys State. How about an old timers’ night? Community service will elevate your post’s standing in the community. Put American Legion Child Welfare Foundation Week on the post calendar.
This month marks the anniversary of the St. Louis Caucus, where organization of The American Legion was completed in 1919. National Poppy Week, Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day and Mother’s Day form the basis for good post programs and outreach to U.S. military personnel in communities nationwide. Consider honoring them with a Blue Star Salute. Does the post have a uniformed group? Do you decorate veterans’ graves? Present school awards at the end of the semester. Kick off American Legion Baseball and summer athletic programs. Contact school officials to get Legion activities approved and on the calendar for next year: Oratorical Contest, Boys State, school awards, American Education Week.
Start planning a membership drive for next year, calling on past officers for assistance and guidance. Decide how to go about contacting new veterans. June 14 is Flag Day, so consider surveying people and businesses in the community, asking who flies flags on patriotic holidays. The history of Old Glory would make an excellent program for a post meeting. Summer youth programs need members’ support and attendance. Community service is a great activity this month and every month.
Host an old-fashioned community Fourth of July celebration. Certify new officers with department headquarters. Installation of officers makes an impressive ceremony at a post meeting. Continue efforts on behalf of summer youth programs.
By now the post should have received next year’s membership cards from department headquarters. In many communities, school starts at the beginning or middle of the month. Begin planning a community Veterans Day observance.
National Disaster Preparedness Month Sept. 2 is V-J Day, so consider asking churches to ring their bells. Encourage the community to recognize Patriot Day, Sept. 11. Celebrate the anniversary of Congress’ charter of The American Legion on Sept. 16, perhaps with an event including civic leaders. Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, an ideal time for a citizenship program. Provide schools with copies of “Let‘s Be Right on Flag Etiquette.” The third Friday of the month is National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Obtain ad materials for Veterans Day.
Launch an all-out membership campaign. Remember that dues for next year are payable by Oct. 20. Organize and participate in Halloween safety programs.
Continue full speed ahead on the membership campaign by conducting membership roundups. Get them in before Dec. 31. Lead your community in observing Veterans Day and American Education Week. Remind members they need next year’s card number when paying American Legion life insurance premiums. The deadline for payment is Dec. 31.
Don’t let Dec. 7 go by without an acknowledgment of Pearl Harbor, “a day that will live in infamy.” As the holiday season begins, encourage and support activities that bring Christmas cheer to needy families. How about a Christmas party? Work toward an all-time high in post membership. Keep plugging for renewals and new members. Visit veterans who are ill or in the hospital.