Many years ago, Will Rogers offered this sage advice: “You might be on the right track, but you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” And so it is for the Air Force Association and the Aerospace Education Foundation. We have been on the “right track” for many years and have enjoyed great success in achieving our mission objectives, but we now recognize more than ever that being on the right track isn’t enough—we must continue to improve our performance and periodically change the way we are organized and operate in light of the ever-changing environment in which we live. That environment has changed significantly in recent years.
Consider our three main constituencies—those groups that we support and represent—the United States Air Force, the defense industry, and the Air Force Association membership. Each of these three groups has experienced a significant decline in size. Both the Air Force and the defense industry have been reorganized a number of times, and both now employ significantly different operating procedures than they did just 15 years ago. The Air Force no longer generates AFA members through base membership drives as it once did, and the defense industry no longer has the financial or human resources to support AFA’s and AEF’s activities at the same level it once did. Participation of AFA members in field and national activities has dwindled, resulting in a reduced ability of AFA’s field-level entities to function effectively, and numerous chapter and state organizations have been discontinued. Further, AFA field units have not been able to implement AEF programs at the desired level.
These examples represent but a few of the many changes that have taken place in our environment. However, they are indicative of a need to alter the way in which we do business if we are to remain relevant and successful in the future. Although AFA recognized the need for change as early as 1997, the changes that have occurred have not kept pace with the changes taking place within our constituent organizations. More is required.
The process began when it became apparent to AFA’s leadership that the governance structure was far too large to operate effectively and efficiently. Further, it became apparent that AFA’s field organizational structure was no longer equitable in terms of numbers of members and chapters assigned to regions, thereby making it difficult to govern the field in the larger regions and creating an imbalance in representation in the governance structure. As a result, a review was conducted, led by the National Vice Presidents (today’s Region Presidents), to determine how to address these issues. The result of that effort was a significant reduction in the size of the board and a reorganization of the regions, including removal of the National Vice Presidents from the board and a change in their title to Region President.
The AFA leadership also recognized that its volunteer leadership progression did not permit maximum effectiveness in that the senior executive (the National President) did not have the opportunity to gain experience in a senior position before being thrust into the top position. Therefore, in 2000, the responsibilities of the two senior officers of the association—the Chairman of the Board and the National President—were realigned such that the Chairman was designated as the senior executive and responsible for policy, and the National President was designated as the next senior executive and responsible for field operations.
That same year, the Membership Committee completed a field survey that indicated AFA had serious issues with regard to a lack of focus on external constituents, communications, and awareness in the field among members and potential members alike. It became apparent that significant membership inhibitors were present and that AFA would need to address them if it wished to stop its membership decline.
A further review of AFA’s performance during 2000 and 2001 indicated that the organization had little long-term focus and no means to ensure that all components of the organization were aligned and focused on mission execution.
As a result, AFA in 2001 developed and implemented a strategic planning process. The first strategic plan, developed in 2001 for the 2002 AFA year and beyond, had two requirements:
1. Evaluate the impact of the board and field changes and determine if further change was needed.
2. Identify AFA’s true constituents and their needs, which would be needed to effect a philosophical shift from “serving the members” to “serving the constituents” as a top priority.
In 2002, ad hoc committees were formed to address the board and field changes, as well as the constituent issues. Each of these committees indicated that further change was needed for AFA to be successful in the long term. While some of the committees’ recommendations were approved and implemented, many were deferred for further study.
Enter the ORG
To carry out that task, an Organizational Review Group (ORG) was formed in 2004. The ORG’s report proposed that the association initiate afa21, a transformation approach that would achieve the following three basic objectives:
1. Restructure our tax status to become more inclusive and more efficient.
2. Restructure our governance to focus on agile policy and decision-making with accountability to the membership.
3. Restructure the field organization to focus on mission performance.
To achieve these objectives, the ORG recommended the following specific actions:
- Take action to change AFA’s tax status to a new type that would benefit AFA, its individual members, and the association’s mission.
- Determine the feasibility of combining the Aerospace Education Foundation with the Air Force Association into a single nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.
- Change from a delegate-based governance structure to a member-based structure to allow the entire membership to participate in the election process, and replace the National Convention with an annual membership meeting.
- Modify the size of the Board of Directors and change the Board of Directors and officer election process.
- Modify the committee structure and initiate a formal AFA council structure.
Field Organization Structure
- Eliminate the chapter requirements for quarterly reporting.
- Eliminate the present state and region organizations as they are known and put in place an intermediate organization between AFA national and field units.
These proposals and recommendations were reviewed by AFA’s and AEF’s executive committees and boards in August and September 2004. These groups concurred with the basic transformation approach outlined by the ORG and agreed to move forward with further evaluation of the specific recommendations to determine if they should be pursued and, if so, to define how they should be implemented. Consequently, the afa21 Task Force was chartered to accomplish this work.
Meanwhile, the Aerospace Education Foundation, AFA’s affiliate, was making changes of its own. AEF restructured its board and reduced its size, initiated a strategic planning process, and refocused itself to create an opportunity to expand its programming and enhance its fund-raising potential.
Recognizing the changes that AFA and AEF had already made, and using the ORG recommendations as a starting point, the afa21 Task Force set out to refine the AFA and AEF structure to increase their ability to maximize execution of their stated missions and generate a higher level of performance.
To do this, the task force identified a number of issues that would have to be addressed. These included:
- Continued decline in AFA membership.
- Decline in the participation of members in activities of AFA and the governance process.
- Constraints on becoming a member of AFA and participating in AFA activities.
- Slow decision-making process within the governance structure.
- Imbalance in the election process for board members (at-large board members few in numbers as compared to “region” and leadership development directors).
- Limited ability to establish representation of key constituencies on the board.
- High cost of the governance system.
- Lack of mission execution in the field.
- Inefficient use of resources to support field operations.
- Increased number of underperforming chapters.
- Lack of quality control over field operations.
- Disconnection between field reporting requirements and the strategic plan.
The task force also identified characteristics that AFA and AEF would need to posture themselves for success in the long term. These supplemented the formal task force objectives stated in the charter and included:
- Few or no constraints on membership and participation.
- Broad ability to generate revenue.
- Efficiency in all operations.
- High visibility and awareness throughout the country.
- Enhanced ability to execute the aerospace education mission.
- Agile decision-making.
- Significant involvement of and accountability to the membership.
- Focus within chapters on mission execution.
The task force believes that, if these characteristics can be achieved, AFA/AEF will have an excellent opportunity to become something different and more effective. It would demographically reflect a younger, more diverse, and larger membership. It would operate with an agile governing body capable of rapid decision response to needs and increased efficiency in the allocation of financial and human resources. Finally, it would have a field organization that actively executes the AFA/AEF mission “at home.”
This is the type of organization that the afa21 Task Force seeks to create. The task force attempted to inject new thinking in doing its work and brought forth some key recommendations that were approved by the AFA and AEF boards and the convention delegates and a number of new ideas that will be further evaluated over the next year.
The boards and the convention delegates in 2005 approved combining AFA and AEF into one organization, with the major activities of both organizations merged into a single IRS Section 501(c) (3) entity to be named AFA. The existing AFA organization, a 501(c) (19), is to be retained and will hold AFA’s insurance business and the AFA building and be called AFA Veterans’ Benefits Association in order to provide a favorable tax environment for these business activities. This action is tentatively planned to take place on April 1, 2006.
To prepare for implementation, a transition governance structure was created by combining the AFA and AEF Executive Committees and boards on Oct. 1, 2005, with authority delegated to the combined board to approve the necessary document changes and financial transactions to effect the tax status change.
Once the tax status change is complete, all AFA chapters will become IRS Section 501(c)(3) entities under the national organization umbrella. The impact on chapter operations will be minimal, as all chapter and state activities currently allowed still will be permitted. States and chapters can continue to function exactly as they currently do. Further, the change would not have any impact on existing 501(c)(3) organizations that have been established at the state or chapter level.
By taking this action, the association effectively changes its tax status from a veterans organization to an aerospace education organization focused on support of the United States Air Force. As a result, there will be no restriction on membership or participation (no “patron” category), membership recruitment opportunity will grow, and the stated objective of becoming more inclusive will be achieved. Further, as a 501(c)(3), AFA will be able to accept charitable gifts, enhancing its fund-raising potential, and a combined AFA and AEF will provide significant opportunities for more efficient operations and enhanced revenue generation.
The boards and convention also approved, in concept, a proposal to revise the association’s governance structure to support the tax status change and create more efficiency and agility. The AFA and AEF boards will be fully integrated and ultimately reduced in size. In addition, a formal council structure will be established, consisting of an empowered Aerospace Education Council to address aerospace education programming matters and an empowered Field Council to address field-related issues. The AFA and AEF committee structure will be revised to include establishment of a Development Committee to oversee fund-raising activities, and the AFA and AEF officer structure will be revised to include changing the title of the AFA National President to Vice Chairman of the Board-Field Operations; the Executive Director to President; and a new position, Vice Chairman of the Board-Aerospace Education, will be established. In addition, a Board of Directors Orientation and Training Program will be created. All of these concepts will be further developed before final approval is requested at the 2006 AFA National Convention.
By taking these actions, the association will create a highly effective governance structure for the combined AFA/AEF and achieve the stated objective of agile policy and decision-making through a smaller board, higher level of empowerment for the board, and establishment of empowered councils.
In addition to these approved actions, the afa21 Task Force presented information during the convention concerning a number of ideas that are undergoing further analysis. These include a member-based governance structure that would afford all AFA members the opportunity to vote for national officers and directors. Members would have the opportunity to vote in a variety of ways, which may include a mail-in ballot from Air Force Magazine, online, by telephone, or in person at an annual membership meeting. A membership survey regarding this issue produced a healthy 22 percent response rate and revealed the following:
- More than 84 percent of the respondents indicated they would vote if they were given the opportunity.
- More than 45 percent of the respondents indicated they would increase their participation in AFA activities if they were given the opportunity to vote (about 54 percent indicated their participation would remain same).
- About 70 percent of the respondents indicated that they would have a greater sense of involvement (connection) with AFA if they were given the opportunity to vote.
- More than 76 percent indicated they believe AFA should change to a member-based voting system.
- Only 40 percent indicated that the delegates adequately represent their interests at the National Convention; a greater number (more than 48 percent) were not sure.
Secondly, the task force is considering a revised national officer and director nominating process. This approach would create an application procedure that would permit any member the opportunity to apply to serve as an officer or director. In addition, this concept would reduce the size of the Nominating Committee, broaden its representation, and streamline its operating procedures.
A third idea is to combine the state and region organizational structure in favor of an intermediate-level organization to provide a single level of operational management of field activities. The new organization is tentatively called an “Area” and would be led by an Area President who would be empowered to organize his or her area as deemed appropriate to enhance mission execution. Also, each area may have a designated “Mission Center” to provide mentoring, guidance, and support to other chapters in the area. The operational procedures for the areas, identification of the states that comprise the areas, and details pertaining to Mission Centers are to be further defined and developed prior to consideration by the Board of Directors.
Finally, the task force is exploring ways to refine chapter operations to simplify procedures, reduce the administrative burden on chapter leadership, and enhance focus on mission execution. Among the ideas under consideration are: instituting an annual chartering process with well-defined criteria that must be met in order to receive a charter to operate as an AFA chapter; revising the chapter reporting process to align with strategic plan requirements and the national measurement system; increasing incentives for new member recruitment; and revising the method by which chapters are provided financial support.
All of these ideas will be further analyzed in the coming months with the expectation that the task force will provide additional recommendations during 2006. We believe that we are, in fact, taking the steps needed to make AFA stronger and even more relevant in the future. It takes courage and fortitude to significantly change an organization, and we believe that the AFA leadership and AFA members have what it takes. We have been in the change process for more than five years, but we need to go much further to remain the premier professional military association in the nation.
John J. Politi served as AFA’s Chairman of the Board (2002-04) and National President (2000-02). He is currently the president of The Avalon Group, a consulting firm specializing in helping organizations participate in the Baldrige National Quality Program, and serves as the afa21 Task Force director.