VFW Recruiters Share Tips on Increasing Membership

As VFW pushes toward 100 percent in membership, a group of certified recruiters offer advice for those struggling to hit the mark. Most agree the easiest part is to 'just ask'

With the end of VFW’s membership year just a few months away, the push to achieve 100 percent in membership is stronger than ever. This would be the first time in 27 years that VFW has reached 100 percent.

“I’m so proud of everyone who accepted this challenge,” VFW Commander-in-Chief B.J. Lawrence said. “Don’t stop now. Keep the momentum going and ‘Make it Happen.’ ”

Here’s a look at what some of VFW’s top Certified National Recruiters have to say about successful recruiting. A common thread among the recruiters is the importance of impressing upon potential members how their numbers will add to the collective VFW voice on Capitol Hill. 

This article was featured in the April 2019 issue of VFW magazine, and was by Janie Dyhouse, senior editor of VFW magazine.
VFW Recruiter Robert Harmon

Robert Harmon  |  Post 1831: De Soto, Mo.

Harmon, who joined the VFW in 1990, began his recruiting stint with VFW in 2006. He has earned the Century Award (recruiting at least 100 members) four times. The most members he has recruited in one year is 140.

The Vietnam vet said if he’s at the grocery store or filling up his car at the gas station, he tries to look for people wearing clothing indicating his or her veteran status. He also looks at haircuts, as that often is a clue if someone is active duty.

“I once saw a guy with a Fort Knox cap,” Harmon said. “He had been a veteran for 15 years and no one had ever bothered to ask him to join the VFW.”

Harmon also attends pre- and post-deployment ceremonies for Missouri National Guard units. He sets up a booth and hands out copies of VFW magazine and recruiting materials. He traveled to all 13 VFW Districts in Missouri this year to help boost recruiting efforts with training.

The Navy vet said with recruiting, the easy part is asking because the worst that can happen is the person says “no.” He said sometimes veterans have objections or opinions about VFW, but Harmon maintains that it’s best to come back with a positive response.

“I’ve had people curse me up one side and down the other,” he said. “But if you raise your voice or challenge them in some way, you will lose them.”

Harmon said the most frequent question he gets is, “What’s in it for me?” He uses the VFW fact sheet to report all of the work VFW does for veterans and families and responds with: “You may not need us now, but you will.”

Harmon said each person is unique, and recruiters should not assume an older vet is more likely to sign up. In his experience, some younger vets don’t think they need the VFW, while some Vietnam vets remember not being welcome 50 years ago and decide not to join today’s VFW.

“Always remember that they are veterans first,” said Harmon, who adds that he is 80 percent more likely to sign up life members than annual memberships. “The common ground is we are all veterans and we shouldn’t differentiate between continents and decades.”

VFW Recruiter Tim Borland

Tim Borland  |  Post 9972: Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Borland said it’s important to recruit everywhere you go, even the most obscure places, such as a Walmart parking lot.

“I am never without an application,” the Iraq War vet said. “Everywhere I go, I have an application. Even if I’m at the VFW, I have an application.”

Twice, Borland has been pulled over for going just over the speed limit. In the first instance, he didn’t get a ticket but instead signed up the state trooper who pulled him over in Texas. The second time, Borland used the opportunity to promote VFW, and instead of getting a ticket, he got a promise from the sheriff that he would join his Post in Hatch, N.M., as soon as he had a day off.

“No matter where I am or what I’m doing,” Borland said, “I always recruit for VFW. Always remember, every veteran counts.”

He advises recruiters to seek out vets by obvious signs such as clothing, military license plates or vehicle decals. Approach them by shaking hands and thank them for their service, he added.

“I find out where they were stationed and then I can relate because I was in the Army for 28 years,” Borland said. “Most jump right on joining when I tell them what VFW does for veterans.”

He finds that the two turning points for those unsure about signing up are VFW’s lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital and its scholarship programs.

Borland said he feels passionate about VFW and growing the organization because he was in the Army for 21 years before he really knew about the VFW.

“No one ever asked me to join,” said Borland, who has annually recruited 100 or more members for 16 consecutive years. “But it’s that simple. Just ask the question. And never pass up the opportunity to thank a veteran and to let them know you appreciate their service.”

VFW Recruiter Denny Croner

Denny Croner  |  Post 3886; Caldwell, Idaho

For Croner, who joined VFW in 2004, recruiting is all about assessment. The Vietnam vet said after thanking a vet for his or her service, he determines their needs and whether or not the vet is eligible for membership. 

The last question he asks is to what Post does the veteran belong — not whether or not he or she is a member.

“No matter what their answer, I have the information to help,” said Croner, who served off the coast of Vietnam in 1973 on the USS Coral Sea. “I can combat any question they come up with. That’s why I blueprint them first. Nine out of 10 times, I get a signature.”

Croner said in addition to actively recruiting, it’s important for VFW members to be visible in the community as a way of promoting the organization. He uses the media to let the community know about programs such as Voice of Democracy and Patriot’s Pen.

He wears a VFW cap, a Navy hat or other military-related clothing. On both of his vehicles, he has VFW decals. 

“I am a walking billboard,” Croner said. “When I pull into a gas station, people start talking to me about VFW.”

Croner believes that all vets from any generation can be recruited as VFW members. All it takes is the ask.

“So often, I hear that a vet has never been asked to join,” he said. “That’s the easy part. Just don’t expect Iraq and Afghanistan vets with families to take over the Posts quite yet. Let them know their voice counts, but if they can’t make all the meetings, they are still welcome any time.”

VFW Recruiter Tim Woods

Tim Woods  |  Post 2423; Indian Trail, N.C.

Woods, who served in the Navy from 1995-2004, including in the aftermath of the USS Cole bombing, admits that he will talk to anyone. 

“I’m always looking at people wearing an indicator of vet status,” he said. “I look at cars in parking lots and leave my business card on the window of those cars with stickers. The worst thing anyone can tell you is ‘no.’”

Woods likes to emphasize how much VFW fights for veterans’ rights and that all vets need to stick together. If a potential recruit asks him the age-old question of, “What’s in it for me?” Woods asks if the vet used the Post-9/11 GI Bill. 

“If they say yes, I say, ‘You are welcome. VFW did that,’” he said. “After that they are like, ‘I’m in.’”

Woods has found that some vets take longer than others to recruit. He recalled a vet he would speak with every chance he got, always asking him to join. 

On one occasion, the vet told him he wasn’t going to join because VFW has a bar and he’s not going to a place that has a bar. Woods asked him if ever goes to Applebee’s or Olive Garden because those establishments also have bars. The vet signed up on the spot. 

“You just have to be quick on your feet with the comeback,” Woods said. 

He added that he finds people still prefer paper applications and putting pen to paper.

VFW Recruiter Rick Higgins

Rick Higgins  |  Post 4039; Creswell, Ore.

When Higgins recruits, he looks for high-traffic areas such as Walmart and grocery stores. 

“I try to talk to every single person who walks by,” said Higgins, a Vietnam vet who served with the 1st Cav Division from 1967-69. “And always ask women, because anyone can be a vet and you don’t want to insult someone. Don’t assume that if you are talking to a married couple that it is the husband who is a vet.” 

Before Higgins asks someone to join, he engages the vet in conversation to determine eligibility. 

“Then it’s simple,” he said. “I simply say, ‘Would you like to join?’ A lot of people say they have never been asked to join.”

Higgins noted that the longer you talk to a potential member without signing the application, the more likely you are to lose them. 

“Just get it done,” he emphasized. “Keep it short and quick or you will miss other prospective members walking by.”

In addition to promoting VFW programs such as Unmet Needs, he likes to talk up VFW’s work on Capitol Hill. And for those who say they don’t have time, he still pushes for the signature telling them about strength in numbers.

“I find that Vietnam vets are hard to sign,” Higgins said. “Many still don’t want to be recognized. I tell them that we need to be there for the younger generation since no one was there for us when we came home. We need to keep advocating for veterans’ rights.”

VFW Recruiter Tim Peters

Tim Peters  |  Post 10010; East Helena, Mont.

Peters, a 1991 Persian Gulf War vet, said the most important aspect of recruiting is to get out and just talk to veterans. 

“Spend the time talking and know what you are talking about in terms of VFW,” said Peters, who served in the Air Force for 20 years. “Most people don’t know what VFW stands for or what we do. Our voice isn’t out there in the communities like it should be. Or they think the wrong thing like smoky bars and war stories.” 

Peters, the adjutant/quartermaster for the Department of Montana, said it can be harder to recruit younger members since they are often in the midst of raising families. 

“When you sign up young members, don’t expect them to be active for 10 or 20 years,” he said. “Tell them that’s OK because we need their voice on Capitol Hill, to have strength in numbers. Just say, ‘We have meetings every month, and we’d love to have you when you can make it.’” 

Like other recruiters, Peters said almost half of the people he recruits say they have never been asked to join. He talked to a Vietnam vet in a grocery store who said he had never joined because no one asked.

Montana, which was the first VFW Department to reach 100 percent this year, opened two new Posts.

One is at Ft. Harrison, which, according to Peters, makes it the only VFW Post on a National Guard base in the world. The second is a Post in Billings, making it the city’s third Post. 

VFW Recruiter Mark Short

Mark Short  |  Post 9400; Phoenix, Ariz.

Short, who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War with the 1st Infantry Division, joined VFW in 2014 by basically recruiting himself. He walked into a VFW Post and asked for an application. He was grilled by some of the members sitting around the Post that day and signed up.

It was from that point that he started recruiting others similar to his age to get involved at the Post. 

“You don’t have to be a salesman,” Short said. “You just have to be passionate about what you do. If we don’t let people know what VFW is doing, we will cease to exist.”

Some of Short’s biggest recruiting successes started at VA medical centers and clinics. He recruits at sporting goods stores, gun shows and even at the Post’s Buddy Poppy drives. 

At the gym in which he works out, there are veterans parking spots. He always places his business card on the cars parked in those spaces, as well as on cars with veterans’ license plates.  “I write a note on the back of the card and leave it,” he said, adding that most don’t call him back. “I get a few calls from that. It shows that you can recruit anywhere. It’s not that hard.”

Short finds that the best way to recruit younger vets is to give them a purpose. By doing this, he said, it will break the mold of old guys sitting around drinking. 

“We have enough programs in the VFW to break the mold,” he said. “But no one is talking about them. Young vets don’t know about these programs.”

Short recalled speaking with an older Vietnam vet who wanted to know what VFW would do for him. Short told him that becoming a member is not about what VFW could do, but what VFW has already done. 

He told him VFW would continue working for him regardless of his membership. The vet signed up.

 “It’s time for all VFW members to tell our story and scream it from the rooftops,” Short said.

VFW Recruiter Larry Lyons

Larry Lyons  |  Post 12147; Seongnam, South Korea 

Lyons, who served in the Air Force with the 8th Civil Engineering Squadron at Kunsan Air Base Korea from 1987-88, has been a VFW recruiter for three years.

Living in Korea poses certain obstacles for membership recruiting, Lyons said. For instance, it’s more difficult to recruit members under age 25 because some are simply not familiar with VFW.

Nevertheless, Lyons finds gaining new members is most successful while manning a membership booth at the PX food court on K-16 Air Base in Seongnam.

The location is not as important as organizational knowledge, Lyons said. 

“You have to know the product you are selling,” he said. “That is the VFW, its programs and how they can help.” 

For members of VFW Posts located near military installations, Lyons suggests adopting units through VFW’s Military Assistance Program. 

“In Korea, active-duty members account for approximately 90 percent of our new annual or new life members each year,” Lyons said. “But you are not done there. Welcome them to a meeting, get them involved and, by all means, thank them for their service and thank them for helping the Post. This will lead to renewals of their memberships.”