Leading the Charge
John Melia is a no-nonsense kind of guy. He’s got what seems at first to be the naïve determination of a child building sand castles at water’s edge, not quite cognizant of the fact that the surf could swoop in at any moment and wreak havoc.
It’s a refreshing assessment. But it’s also wrong. At 42, the wounded Gulf War vet and founder and executive director of the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Wounded Warrior Project is far from naïve about the way nonprofit organizations have historically worked. He just cuts the crap and focuses on how they should work. And in the case of WWP, how they do work.
It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves, “let’s do this thing” attitude, and it’s served WWP well — especially in terms of fundraising. It helps the 5-year-old organization embrace the new 2.0 strategies while integrating them with more traditional approaches; avoid falling prey to what many argue are inefficient measures of success; and stay away from counterproductive, old-school ideas about how to interact with donors.
No choice but to be different
There’s no arguing it: War really is hell. Just ask any of the throngs of American veterans who came rolling home from either of the World Wars, Korea or Vietnam in wheelchairs.
How do you rebuild your life when so much of your spirit, your soul, your body was left behind? Enter the nonprofit sector, with organizations like Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America, which have provided much-needed support for generations of this country’s wounded warriors.
But what about this latest group of young veterans, the ones who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan — this MySpace generation of warriors?
During previous wars, loved ones got news from the front via impassioned radio reports or grainy newsreels watched over dinner weeks or months after they were taped. In early May, an American soldier in Afghanistan inadvertently called home on his cell phone in the middle of a battle. His family and the American public — thanks to the Internet — listened in horror for three long minutes to muffled curses and commands, the heavy shuffling of boots, a series of dull thuds and pops, and, finally, the chilling shout, “Incoming RPG (rocket-propelled grenade)!”
The wounds and challenges faced by these vets are the same as those of their predecessors. But the mind-set? Not so much. These young men and women, who can communicate with their families and friends even during active duty via cell phones and the Internet, are more likely to seek community online than at the local VFW hall once they get home.
“The goal of the Wounded Warrior Project is really to work on healing mind, body and spirit for people that have been injured either physically or spiritually or mentally in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Melia explains. “Our mission is specific to the younger vets. It’s not that we don’t have any real affinity for the other generations of warriors out there, but we felt that there was a big generational gap between the Vietnam-era veterans and these folks, and that they needed a different kind of organization to serve their needs.
“This is very much the MySpace, Facebook, YouTube generation,” Melia adds. “Their needs are very different. They communicate differently; they interact differently. We often ask these folks, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a conference call,’ and they look at us like we’re crazy and say, ‘We don’t do conference calls; can we [e-chat], or can we get on a MySpace page?’”
(Many WWP staffers themselves are young, wounded vets who represent the organization’s constituency because they are the organization’s constituency.)
Melia recognizes that interacting with these vets, many of whom are still in their 20s when they return home, is different than even what he’s used to. Which explains why WWP is a different kind of organization. Call it, as Melia does, “the fresh face of veterans service.” And just as the organization’s approach to communication and service delivery is different, so, too, is its approach to fundraising.
Truth be told, it’s tough to get Melia to talk specifically about fundraising because WWP has managed to avoid the kind of departmental siloing that plagues many nonprofit organizations.
“The people in fundraising here are part of the mission,” Melia explains. “Their part of the mission is to raise the dollars. They see that they are hand in hand with the program people. There’s not really a major separation between our program folks and our fundraising folks.”
But when he does talk, the numbers are impressive. According to Melia, at a time when philanthropic giving across the board is slumping, WWP is doing just fine. In FY 2007, for example, the organization was looking for a 10 percent increase in donated dollars over the previous year, and, he says, it already is seeing a 30 percent increase.
In dollar terms, WWP has raised $10.6 million so far this fiscal year, which is only about three-quarters over.
Online, Melia says, WWP has raised at least $500,000 a year since its inception and is on track to raise more than $2 million online in 2008. Even without a dedicated major-gifts program as yet, it has secured individual online gifts as high as $25,000.
The organization also has seen a lot of success with the Combined Federal Campaign, which last year brought in more than $700,000 in pledges and is on track to bring in between $1.7 million and $2 million in 2008, Melia says.
Strategy specifics aside, Melia attributes his organization’s success to passion, which produces results … which produce donor loyalty … which produces donor dollars. It’s a fairly simple, but alarmingly evasive, equation.
“There are no smoke and mirrors at WWP. You can go there any day of the week and see veterans’ lives changing. And we’re very proud of that,” he says. “You come in to us on a Monday, and we’ll tell you about something that happened the week before that changed somebody’s life. There’s something powerful about that.
“From the beginning, I knew that good program drives good fundraising,” he adds. “And I really believe it’s a 50/50 kind of solution. Fifty percent of it is fundraising; 50 percent of it is program. And there is no good fundraising without good program.”
But what about the strategy?
Integration, from the start, has been the driving force behind WWP’s success. But it didn’t start with direct mail and branch out from there.
After Melia’s initial efforts to create and deliver backpacks of essentials and extras for returning wounded veterans (see “Wounded Warrior Project History” ), he created a Web site to “sell” the Wounded Warrior Backpacks, asking donors for $99 to provide one filled backpack to one returning wounded vet. It wasn’t until a year later that direct mail became part of the equation, and that was mainly because the organization was looking to build an endowment.
Coming from the nonprofit world — though not as a fundraiser — Melia knew his way around a housefile and knew enough to know that veterans organizations do well in the mail. WWP partnered with Maryland-based direct-mail marketing and fundraising agency Creative Direct Response and kicked off the direct-mail portion of its fundraising efforts.
As with most organizations, direct mail has been the backbone of WWP’s fundraising, but every direct-mail piece pushes donors and potential donors to the Web.
“We want to convert [everyone] into someone we can communicate solely online with,” Melia says. “We would love that, and we put that into all of our direct-mail pieces: ‘If you would like to become an online donor, please go to www.woundedwarriorproject.org and sign up.’
“Our conversion rate isn’t high yet, but we’re working on it,” he adds.
The five-person development team at WWP, headed by Executive Vice President of Resource Development Jeff Searcy, currently is working to harness the runaway popularity of social-networking sites, especially in terms of viral video, and hopes to hire young, wounded vets to take on the project. Melia admits that even the fresh-faced WWP doesn’t have a solid social-networking plan just yet, but it’s not something any nonprofit can afford to ignore.
“We could never hire enough people to do what we have to do,” Melia says. “This is a national mission; every corner of this country has been affected. We’re going to have to use the tools that are available to reach people where they are.”
But there’s more to it
Integration doesn’t stop at direct mail and the Internet for WWP. Melia can’t stress enough the importance of leveraging media coverage — even to the point of suggesting that nonprofits partner early on with a public relations company to spread the word.
“Since our first days, we’ve had a public relations company that we work with. I can tell any nonprofit that’s just starting that it’s worthwhile to do that; that it’s money well spent,” he says. “Find somebody that’s new like you when you first start and is hungry, and you can do a really good job.
“We have an incredibly strong group out of Virginia Beach, [Va.] called The Meridian Group who were donors first, and they share our values and our sense of mission. And they’ve been our public relations partner for about four years now,” he adds.
That partnership, plus the fact that the war and the people fighting it have been very top-of-mind issues since WWP was founded, has kept the organization in the media and attracted some high-profile coverage, including frequent mention by commentators Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs and Tony Snow. WWP knows how to keep its mission, and the veterans it serves, in the limelight — whether it’s lobbying for legislation such as the Wounded Warrior Bill (passed in 2005) that allows for immediate payments to service members that have suffered life-altering injuries, or organizing a bike ride or other event.
“We’ve always been able to stay in the news, and last year we had 6 billion media impressions,” Melia says. “And when you get those kind of impressions, it drives traffic to your site. The brand is out there; people recognize the brand. They’ve seen it in direct mail; they’ve seen it on the news; they’ve seen it on billboards; they’ve seen it on the Web. And from the beginning, we’ve wanted our brand to be the Susan Komen brand of veterans affairs.”
Another huge part of WWP’s fundraising efforts includes community events. According to Melia, the organization tracks around 200 WWP-branded events around the country, though he speculates there probably are 600 or 700 total, mainly orchestrated by small groups that remain under the radar until an unexpected check comes in.
This large-scale interest is a blessing, of course, but also can pose a challenge when it comes to policing the WWP brand. And as WWP becomes more visible, it’s a challenge that is getting increasingly difficult.
“You start as a grassroots organization, and then you see that you’ve got some national momentum and that you can really take your brand to the marketplace and do real good for veterans,” he says. “But you don’t want to lose that sense of grassroots feel that WWP has had since its first days.” (For more of Melia’s thoughts on brand, see “Tips From John Melia” )
One of WWP’s most successful fully integrated campaigns took place around Veterans Day 2007, and it also happens to have been its first. It involved direct mail, e-mail and Web components, as well as print advertising on billboards and in military publications, and a nine-part YouTube video series narrated by actor Matthew Modine.
“There were a lot of moving pieces,” Melia explains. “You should have seen the spreadsheet. But it worked remarkably well, and we’re really starting to see the payoff of integrating all of the elements.”
The results: WWP’s 2007 Veterans Day campaign raised $10 million, with roughly half coming in between October and late December.
Fresh face of fundraising
Having a constituency base of people in their 20s and 30s allows — actually requires — WWP to do things a little differently all around.
Training and ongoing education, for example, are imperative parts of Melia’s grand plan. He and his staff constantly educate themselves, reading books — like “Good to Great and the Social Sectors” (by Jim Collins) and “Forces for Good” (by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant) — that keep them on the cutting edge of fundraising know-how, general management principles and nonprofit efficiency. He has attended the Executive Education Program for Nonprofit Leaders at Stanford University and regularly sends fundraising staffers to The Fund Raising School at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The “professionalization” of fundraising is a topic being debated throughout the sector, with some practitioners voicing concern that too much formal training could suck the very heart out of it.
Melia, however, comes down on the other side of that debate.
“I don’t think you can be successful [as a fundraiser] unless you’re passionate about the cause,” he says. “But professionalizing the fundraising staff is important because, you know, people are looking. People care deeply, and they want to know that the dollars are going where you say they’re going. I think it’s important that people are trained. This is a profession, and [WWP has] always treated it that way.
“We want our folks to be professional development folks. We want them to have the credentials necessary to do the job and to be able to work in their world, in that fundraising world,” he adds.
Finally, Melia doesn’t put much stock in traditional efficiency ratings for nonprofits, i.e., watchdog groups like GuideStar, Charity Navigator, the American Institute of Philanthropy and the Better Business Bureau. Relying, instead, on outcomes and the organization’s own measures of success, he says, allows it to do what it needs to without worrying about how many stars it gets. (For the time being, however, that’s not too much of a concern because WWP hasn’t been around long enough to be officially “rated,” though Melia expects three stars when the time comes.)
He says, for example, he’s heard complaints that too much WWP money goes into programs for returning wounded vets rather than directly to the vets themselves. The organization figured out that if it were to do that, each vet it has helped would have received a check for roughly $6,000. And while that seems like a good deal, it would really only be a short-term fix, as opposed to the programs WWP offers to help vets and their families in the long run. Sort of a “give a man a fish …” scenario.
Also, the guidelines for ratings aren’t standardized enough to make it possible to please everyone, Melia says, explaining, “You can chase your tail all day trying to satisfy the different watchdog groups that are out there. We’ve measured what it would mean to us if we met GuideStar’s ratings, and then we’ve measured what it would mean to us if we met Charity Navigator’s ratings and AIP’s ratings. And what we found is if you do well on Charity Navigator, it may bring your score down at AIP. Or if you’ve done well at BBB, it may bring your score down. Because BBB wants you to have more in reserves and AIP would look poorly on that. So it’s really like the cat or dog chasing its tail.”
WWP is “governed by a very strong board of directors that believes in accountability and governance,” Melia concludes — and that’s good enough for him.
“Nonprofits are in business to cure social ills, the worst problems in our society. People want to measure us using a star system, which I think is ridiculous,” he says.
“We know that what we’re doing is right. We care deeply about being efficient. We care deeply about outcomes; we care deeply about whether or not this is the most successful, well-adjusted generation of disabled veterans in the history of our country,” he says. “That’s what our big, hairy, audacious goal is — the most successful, well-adjusted generation of disabled veterans in the history of our country.
“We’re not going to know that we’re there for 20 years,” he concludes, “so why sit there and measure ourselves five years into our existence on whether or not we’re doing our job well based on a financial number? Let’s look at the outcomes and see whether or not [wounded vets] are getting better-paying jobs, are committing suicide less, people have fewer mental admissions, people are getting good care in VA hospitals, families are staying together. These are the types of things that we care deeply about.” FS
Wounded Warrior Project
7020 AC Skinner Pkwy.
Jacksonville, Fla. 32256
Mission: (From www.woundedwarriorproject.org )
The mission of the Wounded Warrior Project is to honor and empower wounded warriors.
Purpose: (From www.woundedwarriorproject.org )
● To raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of severely injured service men and women;
● To help severely injured service members aid and assist each other;
● To provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs.
Related story: Tips From John Melia, Wounded Warrior Project