|I used to drive by this all the time going to school. Image from wikipedia.|
The VFW isn't unlike the NRA in terms of it's initial demographics, quick rise in popularity and then facing a membership and relevance challenge. But unlike the NRA, which adapted to it's environment, the VFW, American Legion, Submarine Veterans and others haven't. How could these organizations change to better recruit? I have some ideas.
- Recruit members on active duty. Military members are easy to find. They have a distinctive haircut and manners about them. Junior enlisted don't stray far from most military bases. Despite knowing exactly where your base of new members resides, I've never once had a VFW member canvass our neighborhood. I've gotten Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, window salesmen and political hacks knocking on my door (and I like the first two and not the second two). The VFW needs to be hitting the streets to recruit.
Contrast this to the NRA. You can't walk into a gun store without seeing NRA signs and literature everywhere. Most store owners are members and bring up membership in conversation.
- Actually use technology. The VFW finally has a decent website, and is on Facebook. But it's sort of a check in the box. Are they reaching out to new members through social media? Are they ready for the next big thing? This article lays out trends that I see coming, but will likely take the VFW by surprise. The VFW needs a media organization that looks professional and is adept with the latest technologies that our younger people use.
If you go to the NRA, they had professionally produced podcasts and videos up long ago. Their media machine is poised for whatever comes next.
- Deliver focused messages. Women are too often ignored at the VFW. I think the organization is slowly realizing that women work as more than just nurses in war time. When I talk to female veterans that I serve with, none of them had a good experience with the VFW. If you plan to scrap 20-25% of eligible members, you're gonna have a membership problem. The VFW has to develop a tailored message to women and other underrepresented groups.
A caveat to that. A tailored message doesn't mean you change your core beliefs, nor does it mean you cow-toe to the outreach mafia. It means you recognize that when you recruit people, you have your best chance recruiting when you use something that appeals to the potential member. One of those things is that people like other people that look like themselves. You can try and fight that, or you can use that to your advantage. When I was recruiting new ushers for our church, rather than do the recruiting myself, I had a mix of ushers from all different backgrounds to help me, which increased our recruitment 10 fold from the previous year.
The NRA has specific outreach for women and minorities. It builds media products, classes and programs designed to appeal to those groups. At the same time, the core message of gun rights isn't diluted by doing this. In fact, the growing membership brings a diversity of thinking to the group.
- Actually decide on your core message. "What's the VFW do?" That's a darn good question, one asked by a lot of young veterans. The VFW marches in parades and has a hall you can rent. And drinks beer. I'm willing to bet they do a lot more, but we don't hear about it, I think in large part because they do a poor job of conveying their core message. The VFW needs to develop a core message that repeats easily in media and within it's membership.
Contrast this to the NRA. Instantly people think "gun rights." Even the NRA's detractors know this. For any member, they know about shooting classes, Eddie Eagle and gun safety. It's right out there for all to see, no guessing involved.
The VFW, American Legion and others can totally bounce back and become vibrant organizations again. However, that is going to require current members to really change how they think first before new members will sign on. I'm not holding my breath.
This post is the view of the author and does not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, National Rifle Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars or any other organization.