USO is Out to Make Some New Memories

March 1, 2002       Tom Pope      

For years the face of Bob Hope made Americans think of the United Service Organizations (USO). And with the grim tragedies of September 11, the activity of the USO goes on with new celebrities who take up the mantle to again entertain the troops overseas.

Such a mission places a weighty demand on fundraising that requires new methods and new faces.

“Over the years we averaged one to two dozen tours a year,” said Ray Hord, vice president for development at the world headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Since last year we are doing twice that number.”

Tours can cost in excess of $50,000 and when large entourages accompany celebrities, the price tag could increase to more than $100,000. While the celebrities work free, the costs accrue from housing and travel despite help from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The USO presently has operations in 64 U.S. centers and 58 overseas facilities that include five mobile canteens. Many exist in airport locations. When a crisis erupts, the airport sites will see troop movements that require a 24-hour operation to service the forces.

“When we went to a war footing in September, the U.S. affiliates increased the hours of service,” Hord said. “Our paid staff and volunteers increased individual projects from two to three events a week to as many as 10.

” The 60-year-old organization needs fundraising to support more than its noted celebrity tours. Each local club caters to its own specific clientele. One club might specialize in lively entertainment, hosting several dances a week, sports tournaments or outings. Another may provide daycare and serve primarily as a home away from home for the wives and children of soldiers stationed nearby.

One might host special programs for industrial workers.

Fundraising for U.S. operations is not handled by the world headquarters. The world organization sanctions local clubs that are franchised with the use of the logo. Each club raises its own funds to cover a paid club manager and assistant club manager. These two are responsible for overall operations at the club, from activities to plumbing problems.

“A wave of patriotic generosity has been helping our local clubs,” he said. “The concern came from people and organizations that wanted to help.” This assistance was from high school kids who set up car washes to raise funds to contributions from major companies that enlisted help from employees. The world headquarters oversees fundraising abroad. Facing these fundraising needs could have been monumental for an organization that was cash poor just several years ago. Yet, Hord explained the USO has turned the corner in an aggressive way.

“Our programs have matured within the past six years and in part because we invested more in the direct mail program,” he said. “Over six years, we doubled the donor file and tripled revenue.” Fundraising drew in $12.9 million in 2001, compared to $8.1 million during 2000. A spike in the fourth quarter is attributed to the public’s reaction to the War on Terrorism. The direct mail effort increased by 11 percent and corporate giving climbed by 40 percent.

An investment of several million dollars a year paid for improved technology in the endowment area that now helps with an online software prospect tracking system. Systems are geared to take credit card contributions online. Also, a analysis of the data tracks the mail program to ascertain who gives the money so the file can be adequately segmented.

“The War on Terrorism has created a phenomenon,” Hord said. “Before we were beating the bushes trying to reach major companies, but they started coming to us after 9/11 because they clearly saw a patriotic link.”

No additional mailings were planned despite the September 11 attacks, according to Karen Woods, director of individual giving. “But we enhanced our packages to let donors know the family centers and mobile canteens needed extra help,” she said.

The mailings included a note from the organization’s general that mentioned the increased mobilization. “We increased the acquisition numbers with double the names we anticipated,” she said.

To help the finances, the organization recognized the need for an endowment. “The board decided a few years ago to reach out beyond the present audience which is getting older,” said Matt Schatzle, executive director of the endowment campaign. He explained that the donor base is strong with the World War II generation. While it reaches out to other vets, the size of the military during World War II was much larger compared to the recent numbers of veterans.

The USO hopes to reach an endowment of $100 million during the next five years, although the number now rests at $25 million. “We’re trying to get the size of the gift up,” he said. “We’re sending the message that, ‘you’ve supported us over the years and you understand the value of our organization, so we want you to keep giving in perpetuity.”

The effort with corporate giving increased as well. “Corporations are trying to brand themselves to the military community,” said Diane Rogers, director of corporate giving. “They see they can link to a larger consumer database with our community and they want to align themselves with our cyber Internet campaigns.”

The USO clubs help service personnel with free email and telephones. A program allows the military to record a video that is placed on the Internet so service personnel can communicate with family back home. Since the Department of Defense halted mail programs to troops, the USO had to find alternate ways to serve people with communication. “That’s the way the 18 to 23-year-olds communicate,” she said.

Corporations are looking to market to the age group of 18 to 23 and while the organization has been involved with cause related marketing for four years, a shift in the patriotic feeling now helps the USO.

“Before we were making cold calls trying to get our feet in the door,” she said. “Now we’re trying to keep our heads above water with the response of 9/11 because corporations are looking for multiple-year partnerships.”

Corporate partnerships hinge in part on whether the product benefits the troops. For example, AT&T provides phone cards that becomes a direct benefit for the troops. “We have tried to be selective with corporate giving,” Hord said. “We do not take funds from tobacco or spirits because we promote the sense of wellness.”

Managers hope to grow the organization 10 percent across the board annually, and had been reaching that goal even prior to 9/11.

While the celebrities entertain the troops, the presence adds to organizational awareness. “But translating awareness to new donations is only as good as we make it,” Hord said. “We want to capture the rich images that Bob Hope once made famous.”

Today’s image of entertaining the troops continues in that tradition with Wayne Newton. The performer was announced as the Chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle on November 2. The circle exists as a way to work with entertainers who take time to recruit, and fundraise for the organization. Newton filled the role by taking two holiday tours recently to Bosnia and Afghanistan.

“As Wayne Newton has said, there will never be a replacement for the Ambassador of Good Will, Bob Hope,” Hord said. “But the organization realized that someone was needed to come to the fore to recruit others.”

Tom Pope is a New York City-based journalist who writes about management issues.