By Charles M. Pickett
Membership is the lifeblood of any organization. To continue to be strong and effective, veteran service organizations (VSOs) such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion consistently need to retain current comrades, reinstate expired members, and recruit new members.
However, while all three facets of membership campaigning are essential, recruiting new veterans is pretty disagreeable and largely ignored. From lead generation to turning in completed packets, most members in VSOs are not engaged in recruiting and even actively avoid it. Sounds crazy? Just look at the number of posts who have not recruited one new member for YEARS.
Additionally, there is such an excessive emphasis by post, department, and national leadership given to recruiting, some members refer to it as the “M word” and are put off by the “cultlike” prominence it has at meetings and in bulk communications. In short, not many people like “membership.”
So, how can VSOs turn recruiting into something more pleasurable?
For most people, volunteering for a VSO such as the VFW and the American Legion is a hobby. A hobby is an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure—an activity that is enjoyable, agreeable, or gratifying—not just fun. For example, washing industrial-sized pots after the weekly post pasta fundraiser is not especially fun, but it’s gratifying because it supports the post and the committee enjoys working together.
Pleasure is a key reason (or motivator) for why people behave a particular way. If something is pleasurable (enjoyable, agreeable, or gratifying), then they are more willing to do it. Conversely, the less pleasurable something is, the less likely people are willing to do it.
In the Legion and VFW, recruiting is viewed as sales. Membership is measured, managed by percentage, supported by sales brochures, and the dominant motivator from leadership is shame—a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety. Think of how many posts pay for “ghost members” to get 100% in membership because they don’t want to be shamed by district and department leadership. Those posts aren’t selling the VFW or Legion to new members, they are buying expired memberships to keep senior leadership off their backs. That’s shame.
The use of shame is endemic in both organizations at all levels. For example, at VFW Council of Administration Meetings in Connecticut, districts are called to give their district reports in order of membership percentages. While some may argue this is good-natured ribbing; nonetheless, it is a sales management strategy that seeks to manipulate behavior through negative emotions. It’s petty and de-motivating (a printed certificate presented for achievement would probably work better). If every decision is based on one of six emotions (greed, fear, altruism, envy, pride, and shame) how can we motivate our members through the desire to help others, to gain recognition, and to earn rewards (instead of looking stupid or loosing out)?
In short, VSO recruiting is not pleasurable; however, there are VFW and Legion members who recruit hundreds of new members annually. Just look at the top recruiter list in the monthly VFW National Headquarters Bulletin or members who have earned the Century Award multiple times. How is this possible?
Based on interviews and anecdotal evidence, top recruiters enjoy meeting new people with a common cultural background—our shared military service. They are motivated and successful because they like connecting with fellow veterans; that’s how humans make new friends. For them, recruiting is a pleasurable hobby. Author Ernest Hemingway even wrote about this kinship in the short story “Soldier’s Home,” when the disillusioned Krebs “occasionally met another man who had really been a soldier and they talked a few minutes … he fell into the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers.”
So how can individual members become motivated and engaged recruiters?
Both the VFW and the American Legion offer incentives such as recruiting awards and recognition. This is extrinsic motivation, where external benefits drive behavior (money, pins, challenge coins, commander’s challenge, All-American program, etc.) For example, students work for grades; employees work for pay; salesmen work for commissions. Avoidance of shame is also an extrinsic motivator.
On the other hand, top VSO recruiters are largely propelled by intrinsic motivation: their incentive to engage in an activity is from the activity itself. They believe in the VFW and the Legion so much, that they are enthusiastic advocates or evangelists.
So how can the VFW and the American Legion move from a sales model to an evangelical model for new member recruiting?
Even evangelists need guidance, training and recognition. Babies cry for it; men die for it. Don’t underestimate the power of positive recognition.
Here are some ideas:
- Late summer district-level membership and program workshop
- Inspirational video interviews with top recruiters on techniques
- Instructional videos on greeting veteran-looking people
- Instructional videos on turning a greeting into evangelizing the VSO
- Role playing strategies for fielding excuses
- Working out individual but brief “elevator speeches”
- Video training on swiftly filling out membership applications
- Recognize and promote recruiting success (certificates, phone calls, email attaboy)
- Department or district mentoring program (Certified National Recruiters)
- How to hear to what resonates with a particular veteran
Tips on meeting, understanding, and signing new veterans
- Grocery store
- Gas station
- Walmart parking lot
- People wearing veteran-type clothing
- People with military 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)
- Young vets: Don’t need the VFW
- Remind them of Post-9/11 GI Bill
- Vietnam vets: Not welcome 50 years ago
- Vietnam vets now run the VFW
- Join to support the next generation of veterans
- What’s in it for me?
- VFW fact sheet (“You may not need us now, but you will.”)
- Not having a paper application handy
- Can’t make meetings/family obligations
- their voice still counts with membership
- still welcome any time
- strength in numbers
- Introductions (shake hands, thank for/appreciate service)
- Find out where they were stationed and relate to them
- Remember they are veterans first and every veteran counts
- Listen to the veteran and find out what motivates them
- Take an interest in what they have to say (blueprinting)
- Determine their dominant buying motive and match that to VSO value
- Ask them to join and close the deal
- Perhaps ask, “What VFW post do you belong to”
- “Would you like to join?”
- Give younger vets a purpose (programs)
- Invite to a meeting or event
- Personally visible (wear military cap or related clothing)
- Leave business card on windows with cars with stickers
- Be passionate about what you do
- The longer you talk to a potential member without signing the application, the more likely you are to lose them
- Tell veteran what VFW does
- VFWs lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill
- Scholarship programs
- Advocating for veteran’s rights
- Need to stick together
- Post-9/11 GI Bill
- VFW Programs (UnmetNeeds)
- Strength in numbers
- Need to be there for the younger generation because no one was there for them when they came home
- Welcome them to a meeting, get them involved, thank for service to country and helping the post
Dyhouse, Janie. “VFW Recruiters Share Tips on Increasing Membership.” VFW Magazine. Veterans of Foreign Wars, April 2019 https://www.vfw.org/media-and-events/latest-releases/archives/2019/6/vfw-recruiters-share-tips-on-increasing-membership
“Intrinsic Motivation.” APA Dictionary of Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2018, dictionary.apa.org/intrinsic-motivation.
“Membership Campaigning on the Post Level: A Post Guide to Recruiting, Retention, and Mentoring.” Veterans of Foreign Wars, Oct. 2018.
Robinson, Lawrence; et. all. “Making Good Friends.” HelpGuide.org, June 2019. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/making-good-friends.htm
“Shame.” Merriam-Webster.com, Feb. 2020.