With 40 million members, the AARP is an influential lobbying organization that also provides services for Americans aged 50 and older. Ethel Percy Andrus, a retired high school principal from Los Angeles, launched what she originally called the American Association of Retired Persons in 1958 with financial support from Leonard Davis, a 32-year-old insurance broker from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The organization was an outgrowth of the National Retired Teachers Association, which Andrus had established 11 years earlier to seek health insurance for aging educators. It adopted its abbreviated name in 1998 in recognition of the fact that a large number of its members were in fact still working.
The association, with headquarters in Washington, focuses on four areas: hunger, income, housing and isolation afflicting older people. It works through lobbying and legal advocacy to fight these problems and support older Americans.
The AARP comprises 2,200 employees and reported $1.34 billion in operating revenues during 2011. The association distributes a monthly AARP Bulletin and bimonthly AARP The Magazine. These publications are particularly important for drawing advertising revenues from companies that want to reach the AARP’s members — ad sales reportedly account for about half of the association’s revenues. The AARP’s interactive Government Watch website is designed to let members hold the president’s and Congress’ feet to the fire about Social Security and other issues that affect older Americans.
A. Barry Rand, a former chief of Avis Group Holdings, is chief executive officer.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
General counsel Cynthia “Cindy” Lewin’s legal team includes 12 lawyers, two assistants and one business manager. The department provides legal advice to all AARP subsidiaries except for AARP Legal Services Network, which offers a directory of attorneys who agree to provide specific benefits to members at discounted rates; it has its own legal team.
Lewin’s department handles internal audits, ethics and compliance, and risk management. It also oversees the forensic audit group, which focuses on fraud and investigating possible misconduct.
Since the AARP is a nonprofit organization, Lewin said, she keeps an eye out for efficiencies and tries to handle as much work in-house as possible. She became convinced soon after joining the organization that it was turning to outside counsel too often for second opinions. She made it a point to seek outside counsel only when absolutely necessary — in her words, she “took out the middle man.” As a result, she cut the association’s spending on outside counsel in half, saving about $2 million each year, she said.
When outside counsel is necessary, Lewin turns to a few firms in particular, including Foley & Lardner for tax matters, Venable for lobbying and Washington-based Dow Lohnes for advice on intellectual property. A 12-page addendum the association attaches to outside firms’ retainer agreements clarifies the AARP’s expectations of outside counsel.
“We address communications between us and the firm; advance approval for paying for more than one lawyer at depositions, meetings, etc.; what kind of detail we expect to see in bills; and much, much more,” Lewin said. It “raises people’s awareness that we are price-conscious and good stewards of nonprofit funds.”
Lewin summed up her principal duty as follows: “Nonprofit tax law — understanding…what each organization can do within its tax status. That’s at the heart of what we do as general counsel” at nonprofit agencies.
When she isn’t in meetings, Lewin spends most her day wrestling with legal matters that need her attention. “There are always people here,” Lewin said, referring to staffers who visit her office for what she describes as “informal, drop-in brainstorming on all kinds of legal issues.”
Some of these matters include the legal implications of new programs; contract negotiations and strategy; how to resolve disputes with vendors and other parties; and whether something constitutes trademark infringement.
“It’s so much fun to work in-house in a team of different disciplines and help make decisions before problems happen rather than after,” Lewin said. She also works on the big picture — helping to set the AARP’s strategic plan and assigning priorities to different projects.
A constant challenge for the organization is staying relevant — as Lewin put it, “proving we’re not your father’s AARP.” The organization is doing this by expanding its services — such as joining forces with Experience Corps, a program that connect seniors with underperforming schools where they can help children as tutors.
One project to which her office has provided legal counsel is the AARP’s prepaid debit cards. The cards are available to everyone, but were designed for low-income people who lack bank accounts. Users can reload their cards via direct deposit, Lewin said.
Another project that pushes the traditional role of the AARP is its Drive to End Hunger. The campaign is a three-year, multimillion-dollar deal that the organization launched with Nascar and race driver Jeff Gordon in 2011 to spread awareness about the extent of hunger among senior citizens. According to the AARP website, 8.8 million Americans aged 50 and older face the risk of hunger — meaning that they are forced to skip meals or eat poor-quality meals.
Lewin’s team dealt with the legalities of setting up the program, which she described as a huge success. Nascar recently approached the AARP proposing additional marketing related to the initiative, she said.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
After graduating from Yale Law School in 1984, Lewin spent 12 years as an associate at Arnold & Porter. She then joined the small Washington firm now called Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold. Later, she served as executive vice president and general counsel for Volunteers of America (when she joined, she constituted a one-person legal department for the 15,000-employee organization, she said).
Lewin subsequently became senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of the National Wildlife Federation. After four years there, she moved to the AARP in 2010. Lewin considers that all of her work in the nonprofit sector has prepared her for the position she now holds at the AARP.
Lewin was born in Boston but she spent most of her childhood in Denver. She is married to Arthur Fox, and they have three children — Courtney, Lowell and Miranda — and two grandchildren, Lilly and Anna.
Lewin is a committed tennis player who is captain of one amateur team and a member of another. She enjoys the theater and traveling.
LAST BOOK AND MOVIE
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.
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