In this post I’m going to profile the United Service Organizations (USO). USO is a nationwide service organization dedicated to helping military service members. You’ve probably heard about the USO in stories of Bob Hope on tour, providing entertainment and encouragement to thousands of soldiers and sailors around the world.
The USO provides for service members, and their families, throughout the life cycle of engagement. From pre-enlistment support, to deployed entertainment, to post-discharge help with finances and transitions to civilian life, the USO has a mission to be there for those who are there for us. In their own words:
The USO strengthens America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation.
Positives (i.e. Keep On Doing These Things)
And they do that. They’ve been doing that for over 75 years, beginning even before the United States had entered WWII in 1941. Probably the most recognizable of the USO’s operations is the entertainment tours, of celebrities ranging from Bob Hope to Robin Williams to Toby Keith; Betty Grable to Marilyn Monroe to Jessica Simpson and Ke$ha.
But the USO does much more than simply entertain troops on the front lines. They provide connections for service members back to their families through care packages and phone calls home. What’s more, they provide comfort services in over 200 locations around the world. These provide little bits of home: fast internet, movie nights, a chance to relax and unwind, even a workout room.
Many of these are comforts that the rest of us take for granted. They keep service members feeling valued, appreciated, and ready for action. Plus, centers near bases provide an additional community for families whose service member is deployed. These can be critical in maintaining morale, readiness, and forging connections that last a lifetime.
Most civilians probably assume that our military is funding such services. However, the USO is an organization completely separate from the military. It steps in to provide where the traditional budget allocations have holes. It allows for a better-trained, more capable military and more resilient home family waiting for their return.
Negatives / Challenges / Opportunities
Here I’d like to highlight some areas that may be considered negative. However, they can also be viewed as opportunity for growth, as these are touch points the USO could improve upon to enhance their profile and effectiveness.
I reviewed the GuideStar, GreatNonProfits, and Charity Navigator profiles of the USO. There are some challenges. GuideStar allows individual users (donors) to make reviews. Right now there are 41 reviews, averaging 2.5 stars, as follows:
There is a large split here. The 5-star and 1-star are the most informative. Ratings of 5 stars come from reviewers who say, in a sense, The USO is doing great work! Keep it up! While the 1 star ratings often come with statements like I gave them $10 once, and they sent me ten more mailings over the next year. What a waste of my money. Or, I donated, and three months later I was spammed with a dozen letters from other groups. I’m done giving to these people who sell my name to the highest bidder.
In these cases the good things that the USO is doing for service members and their families are overwhelmed by a perceived inefficient use of resources or lack of respect for their donors’ privacy.
And while this is not a statistically valid survey of those who donate (or don’t) to the USO, it is out there in the public domain. Impressions like these affect perception when potential donors may be researching an organization to determine whether or not to give. If the USO can make a better argument for how they use their donations, then the balance of these ratings will likely increase as more 4- and 5-star reviews show up. This is tied to the next element, fundraising efficiency.
Currently the USO only earns 3 of 4 stars on Charity Navigator. This is because their Financial Rating is 2/4, due to high fundraising expenses. 18% of every dollar donated is used to bring in more money. See above, where many reviews point out excessive mailings. While this isn’t bad in the grand scheme of things (in general, nonprofits are doing well if they can keep fundraising and administrative expenses under 35 cents on the dollar), it could be less.
Many of the more highly-rated nonprofits have fundraising ratios under 10%. This might be a challenge to the current business model. The USO would have to either keep fundraising processes the same and bring in almost twice as much money, or find a way to cut about half of their expenses out and still collect the same total donations. It won’t be easy; but at least they’re not on the Charity Navigator list of “10 Charities Overpaying their For-profit Fundraisers”, where fundraising expenses are over 50%. Oof.
It will be a challenge to the current business model. I don’t know what the perfect mix will be, but I’m sure it will require some combination of lower cost (fewer mailings, fewer “freebies”) and higher efficiency (better integration with e-mail, higher quality contacts, getting more out of the same events, etc.).
Initial Website Impression:
When I opened up my web browser and typed in www.uso.org, I got this:
The “Donate Now” popup box is big and intrusive right away. I didn’t even get to see a “Welcome, We’re Glad You’re Here” page first.
The problem I have is that this is quite presumptive. It’s like the USO is saying, in effect, “Hey, we know you came to this website just to make a donation, even if you think you came to find out more about us. So, go ahead and do that, first, and then we can get on to your agenda.”
The USO seems to be acting as if it is owed my donation, and therefore all that’s left is for me to play along and give. I don’t wish to be crass, but it’s almost as if your blind date rings your doorbell, and you invite them to your bedroom before you’ve even gone out for the evening. Might it not be better to go slower, introduce yourself, let me browse around a few pages and get to know you a little better, then see if there is a connection, before we get down to business?
[To be fair, I’m not the first to think of persuasion, whether in sales or soliciting donations, as a romantic encounter. AWAI describes one sales strategy called the “Architecture of Persuasion” that is similar in explaining how to romance a potential client (or, in this case, donor).]
Now, I don’t know whether this is a winning methodology. If I was working with the USO, I would certainly advise them to test it. A simple question could be answered with about a month’s worth of A/B(/C) parallels on their landing pages: Does having this pop up immediately on navigating to the website produce more donations, or donations with greater average size, than having the pop-up show up 10 minutes later (or not at all)? If so, then keep it and I’ll stand corrected. My suspicion is that it is not, however, and that a change would benefit the organization through visitors feeling more respected, trusted, and valued before being asked to donate.
What a short test cannot answer, though, is whether those donors will have greater longevity, provide higher quality word-of-mouth referrals, or higher engagement with the organization. Only time will tell that, but my suspicion is, again, that the USO could improve public perceptions in many areas, web included, that would lead to better results in the future.
And the good thing about fixing this element is that it improves both of the first two points as well. Improving donor relationship, by treating them as more than just a wallet, will certainly improve public testimony. And, by having a more efficient fundraising process (through greater donations for the same effort), the financial rating may increase enough to advance the USO into the ranks of Charity Navigator’s 4-Star club.
The USO is a great organization with a high-quality history. It serves a noble purpose and meets a great unmet need. I am fully confident that the USO will continue to meet those needs with character and passion, and that, should it address some negatives in the public eye, it will be able to ensure that the future is even better than the past.