In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Novelli touched upon differences between leading a profit-making firm and a nonprofit entity. He seemed to envy corporations their single-minded focus on the “financial bottom line,” so crisp and measurable compared to the nonprofit goal of influencing hearts and minds. But he found a compensating strength in nonprofits’ mission to make the world “a better place,” which translates into a level of employee satisfaction that corporations can only approximate by encouraging their people to get out in the community as volunteers.

Novelli also told the Georgetown audience that nonprofit CEOs don’t get the heels-clicking respect that corporate titans do: “In a nonprofit, board members and other powerful stakeholders often have different goals and agendas. This is much more complex to manage and requires more consultative and inclusive decision-making.”

Half-a-day is a limited time in which to size up someone’s leadership style, but Novelli’s way of handling himself seemed to bear out these words. He didn’t crush his underlings with charisma or bark out Trump-like commands. He paid close attention (pointing out, in the middle of Nancy Lewin’s presentation, that her written material was missing a transitional “bullet”); asked questions, especially ones designed to arrive at the proper match between AARP’s capabilities and the proposal being floated; solicited opinions from his staff; and ended meetings with precise directives as to what should happen next.

He showed impressive familiarity with his employees as individuals—the one who had just come back from a Caribbean vacation, the one who is working with a personal coach to smooth out his rough edges—and his diction was jargon-free (he majored in English). Rather than bowl over his subordinates with look-at-me-I’m-leading bravado, Novelli simply led them.


Lately AARP has been addressing an image problem not directly related to its policies: the perception that an outfit catering to a gray-haired population can’t help appearing rather gray itself. The July-August issue of AARP The Magazine featured a Hot Fifty List, including the likes of Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson (“Leading Men”); Kim Basinger and Susan Sarandon (“Leading Women”); and Sting and Tina Turner (“Coolest Crooners”). The same issue reported the results of a senior sex survey, with the curve skewed to take in respondents as young as a lusty 45. A follow-up to one conducted in 1999, the new poll debuts in a climate where Viagra and its competitors are firming up the sex lives of millions: 22 percent of the men surveyed say they take one of the libido-enablers, more than double the response in the first survey. More than a quarter (28 percent) of all couples have watched adult (XXX-rated) films together, and 9 percent have made their own erotic photos or videos. Around 10 percent overall have engaged in phone sex or exchanged erotic notes or e-mails. These were especially popular with the younger crowd: 17 percent of men and 18 percent of women in the 45-49 age group admit to having talked dirty on the phone, while 22 percent of both sexes have sent naughty notes or emails.

All this ribaldry has its serious side. Over lunch, Novelli observes that AARP’s membership-renewal rate is not what he’d like it to be. With more baby boomers—the generation that starred in the summer of love, championed feminism, and marched for gay rights—approaching the age of eligibility, watch for AARP to get funkier still. As a slightly older brother to that generation (he is 64), Novelli is well-placed to observe them. And indeed he is writing a book, scheduled for publication a year from now, on boomer aging. In his view, far from being the demographic disaster that many people predict, the entry of such a large cohort into old age offers an opportunity to change our whole outlook on aging. Bill Novelli would surprise no one if he stayed on as AARP’s master of the revels for some time to come.

Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/05

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FEATURE: Gray is Good