Leveraging partnerships into added PR support, a personal mission morphs into powerful nonprofit
Operation Gratitude (OG) is a nonprofit corporation that sends care packages of food, toiletries, entertainment items, and letters of appreciation to deployed US military service members. It aims solely to lift morale and give civilians an opportunity to tangibly support military individuals.
Carolyn Blashek, president and CEO, began sending care packages to troops on her own in 2003. Unflappable commitment and the power of grassroots PR grew her personal mission into a group that has reached nearly 250,000 military men and women.
Sponsors (companies donating a minimum of $10,000 or 10,000 items) now total nearly 70 and include Checkers/Rally's, Dr Pepper, Target, Kellogg's, Schering-Plough, Jeep, and Hershey's. Two hundred others have given a minimum of $3,000 or 1,000 items.
Checkers/Rally's donated a Dodge Caliber as part of the 200,000th care package, which was received in December by a 19-year-old Marine in Iraq. Also, cash donations last year totaled about $800,000, and in-kind was about $16 million. Blashek expects to send at least 125,000 packages this year. But it almost didn't last.
"I thought it would be over by the end of summer 2003," Blashek says. "I was getting close to the amount I was willing to spend personally. Then the LA Times ran an article, which caught the interest of a lawyer who turn[ed] me into a nonprofit. Names [of soldiers], donated items, and money kept coming in. It was viral marketing at its best."
When donated items outgrew her house, Blashek felt "committed to continuing and a little overwhelmed." She met SSG Elizabeth Cowie, an Army National Guard member who was also sending packages. They joined forces, and OG moved into the armory where Cowie worked.
Once becoming a nonprofit, Blashek reached out to everyone she knew and eventually built a database of more than 30,000 contacts. She also cold-called every company she could think of that made things troops could use. Companies often introduced or brought in partners.
"I started doing my own press releases to two or three [outlets that] contacted me," Blashek says. "What I was doing was so unsophisticated, and I guess that's still how I do it. People are drawn to the mission and the cause. It's an amazing human-interest story. The mechanics of it was just me pounding the pavement. AT&T became our first corporate sponsor and sent the first more formal press release. That made a difference."
OG's organization was demonstrated during a planned 2003 Veteran's Day rally, when the duo hoped they could assemble 1,500 packages for the holidays.
Blashek put word out online and printed only a few hundred flyers. She contacted a columnist at the LA Daily News, which ran a story. TV talk show host Wayne Brady did a segment and presented station-solicited donations of AT&T phone cards and Block- buster DVDs. The rally drew 200-plus volunteers, and 3,000 packages were sent. Vast local and national coverage followed, as did volunteers, donations, and sponsors.
Sophisticated PR support from corporate partners and their firms added to Blashek's momentum, contributed to OG's phenomenal growth, and clearly benefits everyone.
"[Blashek's] success in generating PR comes from her belief," says Kim Francis, Checkers Drive-In Restaurants communications director. "We help deliver items and leverage our resources to promote [OG] and our involvement. We reached out to our NASCAR partners and [received] donations [from] Hershey's, Tide, and Masterfoods. We keep looking for synergies. [PR support is] part of our overall partnership."
"My first thanks [at press conferences] are always to [the media] because we would never have gone anywhere without their attention," Blashek notes.
Larry Needle, executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, connected with OG via Jeep, a sponsor of the annual Army-Navy football game.
Two tons of donated items were collected during last year's game weekend. "It's a natural fit," he says. "We're happy to lend PR support. We [use] opportunities [with other partners] to support OG. Everybody wins."
Blashek's quest began after 9/11, when the military rejected her application to join because she was too old. She volunteered at a USO military lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. In early 2003, she met a distraught soldier who felt he might not come home and that no one cared. She thought the realization that somebody back home cares had to be a source of strength to survive.
Because mail sent to service members must have specific names and addresses, Blashek networked online and asked everyone she saw for names and addresses.
The day the Iraq war broke out, she mailed the first four packages. They included a note explaining who she was, what she was doing, why, and how she got their contact details.
OG has now outgrown the armory and will move into its own space this year. Major corporate product donations are required to fill OG's package requests, and operating costs rise in tandem with packages sent.
"I need more funding sources," Blashek says. "We know we'll keep expanding - the number of troops is going up, not down."
At a glance
President and CEO:
Revenue (2006 monetary and in-kind):
$800,000 cash; about $16 million in-kind
The Department of Defense now recognizes at least 300 military support groups