Recruiting and Retention are not Four-Letter Words

By John August Otte State Membership Chairman - 5/8/2022

Membership is indeed the lifeblood of any organization, especially in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the veteran’s community overall.  Our continued and sustainable success as a valued Veterans Service Organization (VSO) is predicated on our ability to retain our current membership and recruit new eligible veterans into our ranks.   Without a strong and committed membership that annually increases in size and active participation, our capabilities to perform our primary mission of caring for veterans, their spouses, widows, and orphans  quickly become diminished.   Most of us, have already come to know this fact and often discuss what the most likely outcome would be to the VFW from sustained membership decline.  Although leaders at all levels in our department agree that our near-term actions should focus on recruiting and retention (especially of younger veterans), these words are often met from those very same leaders with resistance and sometimes even disgust.   Membership, recruiting and retention in the VFW have become words that elicit feelings of dread, shame, and embarrassment.  So, how do we transition our thinking and approach to these critically important activities from gloom and despair to that of zeal and honor?   The remaining sections of this article seek to explore some transformational ideas and concepts to accomplish this mission.  

A key first imperative is to understand that VFW recruiting, and retention activities are not sales.   Membership in our organization is a privilege that was earned through selfless service in a combat theatre of operations.  It is not a product, device, service, or "thing” in which we offer.   In fact, it is a call-to-action much like that which brought each one of us to military service.  It is an opportunity (beyond our military service) to continue the commitment to Duty, Honor and Country in service now to one another and our families.   When I think of my own membership in the VFW, I am immediately overcome with feelings of pride and enthusiasm that drives a willingness to seek out eligible veterans to join.   Each of us that have served are uniquely bonded into a finite group of brothers and sisters that is limited to less than 7% of our nation’s population.   Only other combat veterans could know, through common experiences, the struggles, and challenges we face each day.  Viewing our elite association together in this way helps me to understand that we are not "selling” anything but instead are calling those that have served and are eligible to now join our benevolent cause.   In the blink of an eye, our thinking is transformed from burden to evangelism.  
A second key imperative to remember is that Membership, Recruiting, and retention require a dedicated heart for service, a service before self-mindset and personal perseverance.  Taking care of and serving one another is the mission bestowed upon us.   Service is the act of putting others’ needs first before your own.   This is embedded in all veterans’ DNA from their very first day in the Military.   From a VFW perspective, service means doing the work that is best for the organization at all levels.   Developing a plan, organizing resources, planning recruiting and retention events (even those that include members to call every veteran on your post/district roster) are all important activities that can lead a multi-dimensional membership program to success.  When you view VFW recruiting and retention from a more positive perspective of "serving your fellow veteran”, your mind instantly fills you with an incredible sense of mission accomplishment.   What a positive impact this can have when building your membership team and plan.  
Lastly, leadership is the core trait required to build, execute, and maintain an effective recruiting and retention strategy.  In a recent conversation with a first year, newly elected District Commander, I was told that they could not do membership in their district because of being in an isolated rural area with a small number of veterans.  Additionally, they told me that membership required too much of their time and the ultimate responsibility for such activities rests with the department and not each district or post.   Sadly, it Is this very mindset that has caused the erosion of over 100,000 members from our department over the past several decades.  I encourage both post and district commanders and officers to reach out to one another, support each other, establish relationships of mutual benefit, and serve the greater good of the organization.  We hope that using this new positive-focused approach changes our attitudes and our actions from active avoidance to an earnest passion and desire to recruit and retain our members year after year.  
I would be remiss here if I did not take the time to illustrate all the best practices and resources that are available to make recruiting and retention a more positive and enjoyable experience.  Some of the best ideas for recruiting and retention efforts include:
1.Late summer district-level membership and program workshop
2.Inspirational video interviews with top recruiters on techniques
3.Instructional videos on how to identify veterans
4.Instructional videos on turning a greeting into evangelizing for the VFW
5.Role playing strategies for overcoming objections for not joining
6.Working out individual but brief "elevator speeches” (your passion)
7.Video training on swiftly filling out membership applications
8.Recognize and promote recruiting success (certificates, phone calls, email attaboy)

Additionally, the following is a list of ideas and locations where leads can be generated when seeking new members to join the organization.  These include:
Grocery stores
Gas stations
Walmart parking lots
People wearing veteran-related clothing
People with military style haircuts
Indicators of vet status
Pre- and post-deployment ceremonies for National Guard units
Military license plates
Sporting goods stores
Gun shows
Buddy Poppy drives
Veteran parking spaces
PX food court
Vehicle decals
Be visible in community (media for VOD and PP)

In closing, membership, recruiting and retention have traditionally been viewed as laborious, burdensome, and difficult to perform. Over time, these terms have become, in essence four letter words to many.   As we begin to now consider alternative ways of thinking about what our own membership means to us, and why we joined the VFW, we can change our thoughts, words, and actions from a position of apprehension and avoidance to a mindset of zest and fervor.  Lest we conclude with our organizational tagline:  VFW, No One Does More for Veterans!