4 reasons why the VFW is losing its battle for members

The organization will have to make a sustained shift at the Post level to attract and retain younger members

4 reasons why the VFW is losing its battle for members

(Photo courtesy of Lydia Davey)

The VFW just tried to recruit me, and failed. Badly.

In yesterday’s mail I received a large manila envelope stamped with these words:

A U.S. Marine veteran by the name shown below is being sought in regard to unclaimed benefits.

Seeking: Lydia Davey
Re: Unclaimed Benefits
Probability Factor: High

There was no return address. I opened the packet to find the following goodies:

  • A set of personalized return labels with the image of an American flag superimposed over a screaming eagle
  • The promise of a free, lightweight, stainless steel multi-tool if I returned my application and some money “today!”
  • A paper calendar

The entire thing reeked of scam and wasted resources. Not only were their opaque recruitment tactics off-putting, but the free gadgetry and paper products were more suited to an 85-year-old male veteran than a 30-year-old female Marine living in Silicon Valley. No disrespect intended. My grandpa would have loved that multi-tool.

Recent national news coverage of the VFW always seems to circle back to a single issue: declining membership. As a veteran, I have huge respect for the good and powerful work the VFW has done on behalf of America’s war fighters. But as a Millennial, I’m turned off by their current approach.

Here are 4 reasons the VFW is losing its battle for members, and what they can do to start turning the tide.

1. Lack of relevance

CHALLENGE: Nearly half of all Millennials prefer to interact with brands engaged in social causes. Our generation has the time and desire to engage with the world in meaningful ways. Although the VFW has a proud heritage of effective policy-making, the more tangible aspects of social responsibility and activism are either lacking, or poorly communicated.

SOLUTION: Take a page from the books of organizations like Team Rubicon, Team Red White and Blue, and Sierra Club Military Outdoors. Engage with local communities in ways that involve meaningful physical service outdoors, and provide opportunities for young veterans to interact directly with each other and the folks we’re serving.

2. The headache of bloated hierarchy

CHALLENGE: Across industries, Millennials value peer feedback and collaboration more than top-down guidance. We left the military for a reason, and the last thing we want is to subjugate ourselves to another overbearing authority figure. This is especially true when we’re trying to accomplish something helpful, and we have to wade through a lengthy internal approval system.

SOLUTION: Empower members who have good ideas - regardless of our age or rank. Give us timely support to execute the plan. Don’t hold us back with lengthy meetings or unnecessary formalities. We’re huge fans of using collaboration and action to solve problems. 

3.  An unwelcoming vibe

CHALLENGE: I first entered a VFW Post in 2007 - just weeks after returning from Afghanistan. My friend, a male veteran, was escorted into the member meeting and greeted with cheers. I was stopped at the doors by the bartender and some other grizzled fellas and told, “You can’t go in there.” It took me five minutes to discover they didn’t think I was a veteran, and one second for me to claim my place at the table. My story is not unique.

SOLUTION: The VFW’s stated mission is to foster camaraderie among US veterans of foreign wars. Do that for all of us. Veterans no longer sound, act, or look a certain way. Greet every newcomer with a smile and a welcoming attitude, and ask some low-key discovery questions. Open your minds; you may be surprised by the value we bring.

4. Dated recruiting practices

CHALLENGE: Official-looking envelopes with no return address?  Sneaky-feeling documents that make you read three paragraphs before discovering that the VFW is simply after membership dues?  Vaguely threatening phrases in red ink?  Are you trying to scare or trick us into joining?

SOLUTION: To quote one of the best creative agencies in America, “Modern brands are defined by what they do, not what they say.” When you send out recruiting materials that aren’t transparent, you raise questions about the virtue of the organization as a whole. I can’t help but wonder what portion of my membership dues will be set aside to pay for some other veteran’s personalized return labels. Educate us about what you’ve been doing recently (like in the last week) to make lives better, and let us know how we can get involved. We’d like that.

Bite the bullet. Win the war.

My grandfather was a lifetime member of the VFW and every time I think of the organization, I think of him. The Post was his place - it’s where his friends gathered from their small farming community to talk about the glory days; it was one of his favorite places to be. I have a special place in my heart for the VFW, and I’m primarily writing this because I care what happens to the organization that has done so much good for so many folks. I don’t want it to fade into obscurity.

The VFW is filled with many honorable people who offer amazing assistance to veterans, family members, and survivors - such as claims advocacy and military family assistance. These services are free to all veterans - whether you’re a member or not. VFW headquarters communicates regularly and well about these programs from their primary website and across social platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Google+.

Still, the organization will have to make a valiant, intentional, sustained shift at the Post level to attract and retain younger members. It’s time to get out of the building and into the community. Trade that poker night for a citywide cleanup day. Join forces with other national veteran organizations. Put down the beer and pick up a shovel. Use social and traditional media to let your town or city know about the good work you’re doing. Bite the change bullet, and turn the tide to win a worthy war.

Thanks for all you’ve done, and here’s hoping you can right the ship.