AARP

AARP is redefining what aging means for its 38 million members

Jo Ann Jenkins has no plans to retire.

Forty-three percent of the nearly 38 million people she works for know just how she feels. Sixteen years have passed since AARP sent its old name — the American Association of Retired Persons — out to pasture because so many of its members are still part of the workforce. Jenkins, who took over as the behemoth nonprofit’s CEO on Sept. 1, 2014, is one of them.

“We know that people today are going to live some 30 to 40 years past the age of 50,” she says from her 10th-floor office at the organization’s national headquarters in Washington’s Penn Quarter. “I’m trying to change the perception of what it means to be 50 and older in this country. People ought to be not defined by their age, but by who they are and what they bring to the table.”

Age. For so many of us, it’s a secret to be hidden, a concept to avoid contemplating, a number to fear embracing. When I ask Jenkins hers, she doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“I am 56,” she says. “I am actually very open about my age because I was born in the year that Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus founded AARP in 1958. I think it’s good when you have young, vibrant 56 year-olds at the helm. And you’re supposed to say …”

“You don’t look a day over 35,” I blurt out.

“Thanks!” she exclaims, letting out a deep, hearty, forever-young laugh.

Jenkins has brought charisma, enthusiasm and a tough-but-fair leadership style to an organization that was in need of some youthful exuberance when she was elevated from COO.

“Jo Ann has a sense of urgency — she gets things done,” says Gail Aldrich, former chair of AARP’s board of directors. “She’s high-energy, and yet she has this ability to step back and listen to a variety of different perspectives. When we needed to redo our member event, board members had a lot of ideas about how to do that. Staff has a lot of traditions. She talked with all the stakeholders, she spent the time, she did the research, and came up with a plan.”

The revamped event, held in San Diego in September 2014, featured fewer speakers, more consistent messaging and the increased use of technology. It received some of the most positive feedback from attendees that AARP had seen in ages.

THE MAKING OF A LEADER

Jenkins was born on Mon Louis Island, a little place in Alabama near where parts of the movie Forrest Gump were filmed. Her father, Leroy, was a merchant marine, while her mother, Thelma, worked in the home. It was a close-knit community, and Jenkins stayed close by to attend Spring Hill College in Mobile, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.

“I came to Washington because you had to do an internship in order to graduate,” she says. “I actually interned for the Republican Party. I was one of the youngest African American interns the party had ever had.”

The experience transfixed her, and after a job back home working briefly in customer service for Alabama Power — “I just remember my line, ‘As soon as you pay that bill, we’ll make sure you get those lights back on.’” — she returned to Washington as a new graduate in August of 1980. She’s been here ever since.

Jenkins began her career in the federal government at the Department of Housing and Urban Development before joining the Department of Transportation four years later. From 1990 to 1993, she directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Advocacy and Enterprise. In all of her positions, leadership seemed to come naturally to her.

“What’s most important is for a leader to be able to inspire people,” she says. “In my case, I always liked to say you’re trying to get people to achieve more than what they ever thought they were capable of doing, and to create an environment where people can be innovative and creative and feel like they’re part of what the organization is trying to do.

“People come with certain skill sets. I try to do it by instilling confidence in folks that I’m not going to ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. I’m direct, and I’m a risk taker. I hope people think that I am walking hand in hand with them and that I’m always going to take responsibility if something goes wrong rather than throw an employee into the fire.”

In 1994, Jenkins joined the Library of Congress as a senior advisor to the librarian. It was a difficult time for the now 200-year-old institution, which was enduring some difficult organizational issues as a result of class-action lawsuits filed by African Americans. Jenkins arrived with the thought that she’d be there for a year. Instead, she stayed 15, rising to become the library’s COO, responsible for managing its day-to-day operations, 4,000-person staff and budget in excess of $1 billion.

Among the projects she headed was a push to make the library one of Washington’s top five destination sites.

“Within a five-year period, we transformed that building into the people’s house,” she says. “Early in that process, the main customers of the library were the Congress, copyright owners, publishers, and other law libraries. Something like five to 10 percent of our client base was educators. Now, of the folks using the library, [about] 70 percent are teachers and educators.”

In 2004, while still at the library, she was asked to join the board of AARP Services Inc., the organization’s for-profit branch. After the initial surprise — “My first answer was ‘I’m not 50.’” — she said yes. When her term expired six years later, she became president of the AARP Foundation, the association’s charitable arm.

“I had enough years in the federal government but I wasn’t old enough to retire,” she says. “I used to say that I had one of the best jobs in Washington. Just being there on the Capitol grounds and really being able to delve into whatever interests you. It was a great job. But I think I was at a time that I was ready to do something new and different, and this opportunity came up, and I had always said one day I’m going to run for office or head up a nonprofit.”

That day had come.

INSPIRING CHANGE

Quick — how many people age 50 or older do you think go hungry every day? The answer might shock you.

For an informal video, “we sent people on the street to ask,” Jenkins says. Guesses came in at 50,000 or 100,000.

“It’s 9 million,” she says. “It was sobering to see people’s reactions.”

Hunger is one of the four problems Jenkins directed the foundation to focus on. (Housing, income and isolation are the others.) It launched the Drive to End Hunger campaign, and it turned to an unlikely entity to help market it.

“NASCAR fans have been such a big part of the success of Drive to End Hunger, and we’re really grateful for that,” legendary driver Jeff Gordon said in an August 8, 2014 statement announcing the  continuation of the relationship between the AARP Foundation and Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ve seen them packing meals, texting donations and getting involved in their communities. AARP and AARP Foundation are incredible partners to be involved with, and I’m very happy to continue our work together. It’s been an extremely rewarding and humbling experience for me personally.”

The 2015 season will mark the fifth straight one that Drive to End Hunger will be a primary sponsor of the No. 24 car. In that time, the program has served more than 30 million meals to food banks across the country. Under Jenkins’ stewardship, the AARP Foundation’s donor base increased from 800,000 to 2 million.

“She really breathed tremendous energy and focus into the foundation,” says Carol Raphael, the current chair of AARP’s board of directors. “There’s no doubt about the fact that she was a fundraising dynamo and was able to secure considerable corporate and foundation and other sources of donations to support the work. We really made a huge dent in terms of providing meals and sustenance to people who are in our age category who were experiencing consistent hunger.”

In March of 2013, Jenkins left the foundation to become AARP’s COO.

“We had, I felt, accomplished a lot in the foundation,” she says. “The CEO at the time, Barry Rand, had asked me if I would come over and build out the enterprise strategy for AARP. It’s something I think I have a particular expertise in doing. Having worked in the for-profit and nonprofit side, you could see how the organization had many, many successes, but it wasn’t necessarily an enterprise success, it was more separate. You had individual business-unit successes rather than successes for the enterprise.”

To help execute the new task order, Jenkins tapped SYPartners, a consulting firm with offices in New York and San Francisco that had worked with AARP in the past.

“AARP is a very unique institution. It has a social mission, a vast membership and also has corporate relationships that rival many for-profit entities,” says SYPartners’ chairman, Keith Yamashita. “In this era, aging is taking on whole new meaning. Jo Ann is simultaneously taking on aging — in her words, she is ‘disrupting aging in America.’ And through that disruption, she is going to help 50 or 60 million Americans. Not many CEOs take on a movement of this magnitude and scale. She’s decided to take on a cause, and bring true business and operational rigor to that challenge.”

A new marketing campaign, dubbed “Real Possibilities,” was rolled out in March 2014. It’s tailored toward 50- to 59-year olds, many of whom still think of AARP as an organization for their parents.

One of AARP’s biggest challenges is how to attract and excite baby boomers and market itself as a sort of lifestyle organization, complete with online resources for travel, adult education, entertainment and socialization.

“We’re about creating real possibilities for people who are 50 and older in this country,” says Jenkins. “I like to say instead of going to Google.com, if you’re 50 and older, you ought to be going to AARP.org to find anything you want and need in your life.”

The campaign has been a resounding success, Jenkins says, citing a roughly 20-percent lift in people who see AARP as relevant and an approximately 13-percent uptick in trust in the brand. Television ads, which have aired on a wide variety of programming (“My son called me and said ‘Mom, I cannot believe you guys are advertising on Monday Night Football!’”), even embrace the general public’s tendency to call the organization “arp,” rather than “A-A-R-P.”

A website, LifeReimagined.org, is a digital and live service that provides tools and support to help people reflect, evaluate priorities and define their next steps in the categories of work, relationships and wellbeing.

In 2014, Life Reimagined’s registered community reached close to 1 million people, and more than 60,000 people attended a Life Reimagined event.

STRENGTHENING THE ROOTS

AARP remains a powerful lobby for its members in Washington and in all 50 state capitals. However, the majority of its members still pay their annual $16 dues primarily to receive the discounts AARP negotiates on travel, restaurants (15 percent off at Denny’s), entertainment and retail.

The organization also enters partnerships with companies like Intel, with which it worked to produce the AARP RealPad tablet. It’s available for $189 and comes with free 24/7 customer support — from a real person.

Jenkins keeps one in her office, which she moved into late last summer after AARP conducted an exhaustive national search for its next CEO.

“We were looking for someone who could work on many different fields at the same time and take the lead in putting together partnerships and coalitions that could tackle these very important issues that individuals face and society faces,” Raphael says. “It’s really vital that in a complex organization people work for the betterment of the organization overall and that they can coordinate their efforts. We saw evidence of Jo Ann being able to build a team. She’s someone who’s very strategic and very focused. She makes sure that, with zeal and tremendous energy, she focuses on what are the needed destinations for that plan. It’s easy to get diverted. She really stays very much focused on that end point.

“She demonstrated an ability to motivate and inspire. That was another very important attribute that we valued highly. I thought she was someone who could set the world on fire.”

Jenkins launched a leadership development program based on one she led at the Library of Congress. One hundred of the organization’s roughly 2,300 employees will be a part of the program, which she hopes will be a model in the nonprofit world.

She’s also focusing on developing partnerships and relationships.

“There was perhaps a time when AARP was the big voice,” Jenkins says. “We think we still have a big voice, but business models dictate that we ought to be working more collaboratively with not only our provider partners, but also with other nonprofit leaders. Since I’ve taken over in September I think I’ve talked to or met with some 30 or 40 different CEOs who had relationships with us in the past or want to have relationships with us. I do think that’s a significant part of not only the work we do at AARP, but also the work we do at the foundation.”

It’s a busy time for AARP’s new CEO, who has many goals, including changing the conversation in the country around what it means to age. Luckily, at 56 years young, she has plenty of time to accomplish them. CEO

Mike Unger is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.