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Defining a Future at AARP

“The transition involved reduction in the power of the board and more concentration at the CEO level,” said a member of the board at that time, who did not want to be named. “His title was changed from executive director to CEO, and he reorganized things to concentrate more power in the main office.”

Novelli used his background in public relations and marketing — he co-founded the PR firm Porter Novelli — to make AARP more relevant to the aging baby-boomer population, doubling the readership of AARP’s bimonthly magazine, launching the country’s largest bilingual publication, establishing an annual member event and introducing new, interactive tools and publications on the AARP Web site.

And he took advantage of his nearly 30 years experience in Washington to make the organization more of a presence on Capitol Hill.

Under Novelli’s leadership, the organization became more institutionalized, from its branding to its profit centers.

AARP-branded offerings grew to include 17 types of insurance, which provide hundreds of millions of dollars annually in royalties used by AARP to support its lobbying campaigns and community-based services for members, such as driving programs and tax assistance for seniors.

Membership rose from around 35 million when Novelli started to surpass the 40 million mark last September, while total revenue rose from $595 million in 2001 to more than $1 billion today.

“Bill brought with him expertise in social marketing, the application of which was a new concept for AARP. It included much more in-depth activities with media, television, newspaper ads,” said Lavada DeSalles, a board member from 2000 to 2006.

In short, Novelli led the organization to focus more on aging as a lifestyle.

With that shift came an increased focus on Washington and a move from addressing a smaller slate of issues to playing offense on the major stories affecting its membership, from Social Security to Medicare and financial security.

With an e-mail advocacy list of close to 6 million and data showing that more than 40 percent of the nation’s voters are 50 years or older, AARP has the electoral heft to capture the attention of lawmakers of both parties.

“They represent the ‘silver tsunami,’” one majority Senate aide said. “They seem to know what their members want and who can take action on those issues.”

A ‘Big-Picture Player’

Under Novelli, AARP has expanded its state offices and grass-roots operations; increased its annual lobbying expenditures by more than $20 million, to almost $28 million in 2008; and increased its in-house lobbying staff from 30 in 2000 to 50.

The group has also not been hesitant to form partnerships with what Novelli has called “strange bedfellows” to achieve its goals, joining with the Business Roundtable, Service Employees International Union and the National Federation of Independent Businesses on the multimillion-dollar “Divided We Fail” campaign to highlight health care and financial security.

In 2003, Novelli orchestrated the organization’s most aggressive, and controversial, lobbying effort to date in support of the Medicare bill that was eventually signed into law by President George W. Bush.

People on both sides of the aisle said AARP’s support ensured the bill’s passage, but its inclusion of a prescription drug plan and expanded role for private insurers angered the organization’s Democratic allies and alienated its traditional, elderly constituent base, leading thousands of members to quit in protest.

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