Wreaths Across America (WAA) of Columbia Falls, Maine, started by mistake. It was 1992 and Karen Worcester’s company, Worcester Wreath Co., bought about 5,000 too many wreathes. The Worcester family decided to bring those wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery and place them on graves of soliders. More than two decades later, WAA’s yearly revenue tops $4.5 million.
Executive Director Worcester told her story to attendees at the Blackbaud Conference for Nonprofits (bbcon 2013) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md. Though the seed was planted in 1992, it wasn’t until 2007 that Wreaths Across America was formed. Two years earlier, a Pentagon photographer captured the Worcesters placing the wreaths at Arlington and the photo went viral.
“We had to figure out what to do,” said Worcester. By 2006, the Worcester Wreath Co. was getting thousands of dollars in donations. Worcester said the company had to hire someone to send the money back and explain to would-be donors the company was not a charity. WAA was formed in 2007 with the mission of Remember, Honor, Teach.
The organization has grown by at least 40 percent every year, and a large part of that is due to peer-to-peer fundraising, said Worcester. “Even though we’ve gotten bigger in numbers, peer-to-peer allows us to keep that one-on-one” interaction, she said. “If a VFW wants to do a fundraiser (for WAA), they’ve got a peer to peer page.”
Partnerships are also a key to WAA’s success. “Every person who serves (in the military), they don’t live in a vacuum,” said Worcester. They have causes they care about as well. WAA partners with other organizations, from cancer charities to veterans’ charities to domestic violence organizations. It costs $15 to place a wreath on a soldier’s grave, and $5 goes back to the organizations with which WAA partners. “If the USO is doing an event, we put that on our website,” said Worcester by way of example. Co-branding has allowed the organization to expand to a size she never thought possible.
Volunteers are the heart and soul of WAA. Some 650,000 volunteers have helped WAA place wreaths in more than 800 cemeteries in all 50 states. “We listen to every volunteer,” said Worcester. “The people who know what’s going on are the people with boots on the ground.”
Communicating the mission is the most important part of what WAA does, said Worcester. “We’ve learned that the teach piece is the most important part of our mission,” she said. WAA does not decorate graves. Rather, “We want children and families to place a wreath and read a name and understand that someone took a bullet so they can live free. It’s up to us to pass on the information of the character of those men and women. That’s what our mission has become.”