Celebrating Five Years: The Story of Team RWB
By Blayne Smith, Executive Director
It is hard to believe that it has been 5 years. Many of you may not know that October 2, 2010 marked Team RWB’s first ever event, the Twin Cities Marathon. I don’t think that any of us had an idea of the journey that we were beginning. Over the past five years our Team has become a second home for tens of thousands of Veterans, military members, our families, and supportive members of our communities. I could not be more proud to be a part of this Team and the work that we are doing to enrich so many lives. On our anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to tell our story.
In early 2010, Mike Erwin had the idea of inviting 75 friends to Minneapolis to run the Twin Cities Marathon. This “team” would join together to raise awareness and money for a nonprofit organization that would support wounded Veterans and their families. Since leaving Ft. Bragg and arriving at grad school he had noticed that there was a real lack of consistent, everyday support for Veterans where they lived. With this problem in his head, and against the advice of almost everybody, Mike decided to found a nonprofit organization to fill the gap that so badly needed to be addressed.
A Better Way:
It was clear to us that the existing model for wounded Veteran support was inadequate, if not broken altogether. Much of the support being offered was too centralized, too inconsistent, too grand, felt way too much like charity, and cast Veterans as broken victims. We knew that the answer had to be local, consistent, sustainable, valuable, positive, and empowering. Ultimately, ski trips, golf clubs, and hockey tickets are just expensive ways to defer the real challenges that await Veterans when they come home for good. What our wounded truly needed were real people, providing authentic support, where they lived.
Team RWB 1.0:
At our inception, Team RWB was chartered to serve only wounded Veterans. The original model was designed to pair one wounded Veteran with one “Advocate” within their community. Each chapter was lead by a “Lead Advocate” that conducted most of the outreach and was responsible for all of the pairings. This was challenging, labor-intensive work, but it yielded powerful results in a number cases. With each successful pair, we were more convinced of the power of personal relationships. However, we started to make some interesting observations that caused us to wonder if our model was correct.
1. In many cases, it was hard to determine who was getting more out of the Veteran/Advocate relationships (a good thing).
2. Creating pairs felt a little like social work, which we were not necessarily qualified to do, and the concept was proving hard to scale.
3. Very few Veterans wanted to identify themselves as “in-need” and rather signed up to be advocates for fellow Veterans or athlete fundraisers.
4. We started getting emails and phone calls from tons of non-wounded Veterans stating that Team RWB had been very important to them in their transition process.
These realizations told us that we had the big ideas right, but that we’d missed the bigger potential. The most important things that our organization offered were renewed purpose, sense of identity, and genuine camaraderie. It also turns out that many Veterans struggle, to some degree, with the transition to civilian life; and that we could build an organization to serve all of them.
The Right Questions:
Our realization that we needed to serve an inclusive population of Veterans brought a number of exciting and challenging questions to the forefront. Before launching headlong into a strategy that sounded good, we decided to invest some time and energy in answering the two biggest questions:
1. Who is an American Veteran?
2. What does he/she want and need?
So, we dove into the problem, we conducted a scientific survey, and we did our homework. The results were clear and compelling. Here’s what we learned:
Veterans typically fall into one of three groups. We call them: Connection-seekers, Family-focused, and Driven. Interestingly, Connection-seekers and Driven have very complementary needs…and this explained Team RWB’s early appeal. While about 25% of Veterans are seeking connection, mentorship, and belonging (Connection-seekers); another 25% are actively looking for opportunities to lead, coach, mentor, and matter (Driven). The remaining 50% are generally getting along quite well and will join only if the experience adds value to their life (Family-focused). Armed with this knowledge and understanding, we went about creating a model that would actually give Veterans what they were asking for.
A New Beginning:
During the last few months of 2012 we ran the organization while simultaneously building (mostly behind the scenes) Team RWB 2.0. We spent a tremendous amount of time re-tooling everything from our mission statement, to our programs, to our website. We built budgets, a chapter playbook, and new communication and marketing tools. Most importantly, we invited about 30 of our local leaders, national volunteers, board members, and advisors to the very first Team RWB Leadership Summit…a January weekend in Chicago that would change everything. We spent three days sharing a clear mission and vision, new tools and guidelines, and academic evidence that our strategy would work. It is hard to describe the incredible passion and energy that filled the Pritzker Military Library during the summit, but everyone went home empowered and committed to the mission.
Rapid (and Responsible) Growth:
Since January of 2013, Team RWB has not simply grown in numbers. We’ve become more professional, more efficient, and more effective. We’ve not only changed lives, but have also successfully laid the foundation to change thousands more in the future.
We began 2013 with about 6,400 members and a growth rate of about 20 members per day. After our summit, we immediately started seeing growth at over 75 new members per day and finished the year with over 28,000 members. As of 1 September 2015, we have nearly 90,000 members!
We started 2013 with less than 10 solid chapters. By the year’s end, we were well established in 70 cities across the country, and today, we are established in over 180 locations! We will continue to strive to serve more Veterans, in more places, more often.
We have, and will continue to, invest in our members and volunteer leaders. We now have over 1,300 volunteer leaders! Through the camps, leadership development program, and regional leadership summits, we have committed to strong leaders, a strong team, and strong communities.
And We Are Just Getting Started:
As proud as we are of our first few years, we are beyond excited about what lies ahead. We will certainly continue to grow in scale (more Veterans, more communities, more often). However, we are also working feverishly to build our capacity in the areas of leadership development, volunteer training, and thought leadership.
We are in this for the long haul. We have a bold and ambitious vision. Together, we will continue building our movement to build strong American communities. You are a co-author to this story. Go write your chapter.
To celebrate our anniversary, we doing a limited edition, throwback Team RWB white t-shirt…just like the ones we wore at our first event. If you’d like to pick one up, you can grab it here, while supplies last.