Inside industry's evolving role with the USO
Partnerships go beyond cash to include volunteers, products and services
Elaine Rogers has been president of the USO of Metropolitan Washington for 34 years, and during that time, she’s dealt with legendary stars and chief executives of huge corporations. She’s also helped countless soldiers and their families.
- By Nick Wakeman
- Aug 26, 2010
All the while, she’s led an organization that continually adapts to new demands while staying focused on an unchanging mission: supporting the members of the military and their families.
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She spoke recently with Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman about how the USO has changed and the role corporate sponsors play.
WT: What has kept you in this job for so long?
Rogers: I love working with the military, and I love working with the volunteers. You get to see the good in people who want to give back and support our military.
The USO is never the same thing every day. The challenge of bringing so many people together to make something happen is the most exciting part of the job.
WT: Describe the role corporate sponsors play. How has the nature of giving changed?
Rogers: Without them, the USO wouldn’t exist. We work off the generosity of the corporations who want to give back to us because, in many cases, they are supporting their customers.
It used to be they would write a check. But today, when we are in discussions about giving to the USO, we are also in discussions about how they can help us beyond that.
These folks really want to give back — and not just dollars. Most of the corporations who donate to our USO also are getting their employees involved. They want their employees at the airports, handing out care packages, or at the hospitals.
We have 5,000 volunteers that give their time, and many are individuals who are with corporations who also give financially.
Companies are using it for morale-building days where they come out to our warehouse at Fort Belvoir and stuff care packages or people come to the hospitals to visit the wounded warriors.
We have volunteers who escort soldiers from the hospitals to our events.
We have one corporate donor that has employees build bicycles for us during the holiday season. We are talking about 800 bikes, and we give those to members of the military, mostly young enlisted families in a crisis situation.
WT: Why has the corporate volunteerism grown?
Rogers: Corporations are trying to be responsible for the money they donate. They want to make sure it is going to an organization that is doing the right things with funds.
There is some branding going on as well, especially with the [information technology] companies.
It’s also driven by the employees. An individual might be volunteering, and they’ll go back and say "We should get more involved."
WT: How much do you raise each year?
Rogers: We have a budget of $5 million, but we also raise that much in in-kind support. Verizon is one of our top sponsors at all of our airport locations — Baltimore/Washington International, Reagan National and Dulles — and our 13 other centers. They give us cash donations and volunteers, plus they are giving all kinds of IT help. Cisco [Systems] does the same thing.
We just renovated our community center at Fort Myer, and the young people in the military are looking for these high-tech things that our USO could never afford to buy.
But these companies are donating IT resources, computers and technicians to help us.
WT: As the wars have dragged on, how has this affected the USO’s mission?
Rogers: We have found we need to be more mobile to reach the troops. Boeing stepped up and donated an incredible mobile canteen to us, which lets us go to the military bases as units are being deployed.
The stress on our military families is growing, so we are working even more closely with the military to provide support to the family members who are left behind.
Before [Sept. 11], 2001, our programs were mainly centered on the military installations, but now the dynamics of everything has changed with all the deployments.
We not only have people traveling through our airports coming to our military hospitals but we have a lot coming for burials, too.
WT: What are some of your major new initiatives?
Rogers: With our national organization, we have just launched Operation Enduring Care, which is a $100 million project to build two new USO facilities at the new Walter Reed Army Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., and at the new hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va.
We want to create homes away from home for the wounded warriors and their families. We’ll have kitchens if they want to cook, and we’ll provide meals, too. We’ll have things like golf simulators and entertainment rooms with every kind of device you can think of.
It’ll be a place where they can come in and relax. And it isn’t just about the wounded warrior but about the caregiver. This is something that affects the whole family.
People have to give up their jobs and be the caregiver. The injuries are so severe. We are seeing these wounded warriors not just for a couple of months but, in many cases, a couple of years.
WT: How do you deal with the egos of celebrities and high-powered corporate executives?
Rogers: We are very upfront and honest with people about that — whether it is an Angelina Jolie or a corporate CEO or anybody, You check your ego at the door. This is all about the troops, not about you. But we don’t have any problems. Everyone gets that.
We are there to help lift the spirits. Everyone when they leave, they always say they got so much more out of it than they gave. It is really neat to watch that.
Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.