With a renewed mission, the USO celebrates 75 years of serving the troops and their families

By Matt Ward
Photography by Mitro Hood and courtesy of USO


Read J.D. Crouch’s cover story in our November/December issue

The USO, which turned 75 this year, is — in spirit and in practice — still the USO of Bob Hope and Coca-Cola. It’s still about the interactions between the organization’s volunteers and the soldiers, sailors and airmen they help. But it’s about other things, too.

It’s about baby showers for troops and their spouses, often hosted by Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting; it’s millions of prepaid international calling cards distributed to service members; it’s satellite bandwidth and free internet access, which allows a soldier in Afghanistan to be virtually present in the delivery room when his wife gives birth; it’s new initiatives that seek to ease the transition out of the military and back into civilian life; it’s a big box, delivered to the far reaches of the globe, full of video game consoles, guitars, shaving cream, soap and baseball gloves; it’s the long-running, travelling Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families; and it’s Warrior and Family Centers for ill or wounded troops near medical facilities in Germany, Bethesda and Virginia.

The USO is the marquis military charity, operating in a space crowded with tens of thousands of other organizations. But to stay relevant — to have powerful and effective programs and to remain competitive in the new era of online giving — the organization is undergoing a transition. Overseeing the change is president and CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch II, who took the reins in July 2014 and is in the midst of a five-year plan to update and bolster the organization.

“I didn’t grow up through the USO system. I came in from the outside,” Crouch says during a recent interview in his office at USO headquarters in Arlington. “I came in understanding a little bit about the mission but not really knowing the breadth of what the USO does, and the importance of it, in a way. So there’s a learning curve, and every CEO that comes into an organization like that, they really need to go to school — they can’t just assume that their prior experience makes them know everything or almost everything they need to know. That was a big thing for me.”

Crouch, who holds a doctorate in international relations and worked for both Presidents Bush, spent his first several months building his leadership team and setting a new strategy for the USO. In year two of his tenure, Crouch focused on the execution of that strategy.

“We made a lot of progress in the second year in our three focus areas: reimagining programs, refreshing the brand and rebalancing development — the three Rs,” says Crouch. “And that is really all about trying to create and sustain a virtuous cycle. Strong programs will attract people to your organization, they will attract good employees and colleagues, they will attract volunteers, which are critical in our case. They will attract public supporters and ultimately donors. That helps you build a strong and attractive brand, and that in turn helps you raise funds, and those funds then get plowed back into programs.”


In addition to his government service, Crouch has solid experience in tech; in 1995, he co-founded, which became the leading source for Palm OS software. He also served, more recently, as CEO of QinetiQ North America, a defense technology firm. So Crouch brought with him to the USO some tech-style thinking. And that led to a process wherein all the organization’s programs and activities essentially went under the microscope.

“We took the staff through an exercise that I had learned through my business experience, looking at our activities around the framework of what we call core, explore and test for value,” says Crouch. “Core activities are the things that you’re doing at scale, that are really at the essence of what your organization is all about. Explore activities are things that you know there’s demand for, and you’re trying to figure out, how can I scale this activity? Test for value is, any organization always ought to be working at new things it could be doing, and you have to be able to test them, see if there’s market demand.”


This process makes for an interesting case study in how to refresh a legacy business or organization. It starts with a few relatively simple questions.

“When I first walked in, I said, ‘Tell me about what we do,’ and, in a way, I was in the perfect position to ask that question because I didn’t grow up here,” Crouch says. “And it was a complicated answer. It was very difficult to say, what’s the essence of what we do? Or how do these programs group, how do they work together? And so we worked really hard to try to both make sure our programs are mutually supporting, but at the same time, develop a language around them where we can explain what we do to people. It’s the classic: What’s the elevator speech for the USO? And I didn’t want to have to have a 130-floor building to be able to answer the question.”

Before this process, the USO had 57 different programs; today it has fewer than a dozen, and they are all organized under a new mission statement. Gone are the days of simply “Lifting the Spirits of America’s Troops and Their Families.” The new mission statement responds to the central challenge of military life: separation from family, home and country. It also gives the organization a clear litmus test for all its activities: “The USO strengthens America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation.”


This step, says Crouch, is about determining what activities can be scaled — that is, put into place in a big way, with costs that make sense. Some programs at USO didn’t make the cut because, while beneficial to the troops, they wouldn’t scale effectively. Others actually spoke to the organizational core mission and could scale, but for whatever reason had been kept small. This step in the process is really about impact: How can an organization have the biggest impact for the highest possible number of customers/users?

“We’re the USO,” Crouch says. “We’ve been around for 75 years and we provide millions of service instances every year — 10 million last year. So if we’re going to do something, we ought to be doing something that’s really meaningful.”


Test for value is about innovation, about having an organizational culture that supports new ideas and gives them life. But it’s also about knowing when to move on when an idea isn’t working.

“Our market is soldiers and their families and providing something that’s powerful for them, something that they need. You ought to be testing stuff like that,” Crouch says. “We try to inculcate the idea around here that, let’s test things, let’s fail fast and let’s move on to something else. And you can’t let those explore and test for value things be the tail that wags the dog. So I kind of have an 80/15/5 rule: You ought to be spending about 80 percent on your core, the other 20 percent in those other two categories.”

One of the big things that have come out of this process is the USO Transition 360 Alliance, designed to ease the transition from military life back into civilian life — an area that has gotten a lot of attention (and one where there has been a lot of need) since the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another program, the USO’s famous care packages, got a revamp. The program had always focused on combat zones, but with the drawdowns, demand had dropped off a bit. The program itself, though, was well-loved and scalable — the infrastructure to keep it going and even make it bigger was already built. So now, the USO sends care packages all around the world and even within the U.S. It turns out soldiers, sailors and airmen like the packages just as much in non-combat zones.

“The care packages,” Crouch says, “are a very tangible way for Americans to show their gratitude, to connect with soldiers and their families, and sailors and their families, to know that somebody is thinking about them.”


J.D. Crouch grew up mostly in Southern California, though he spent a few years in elementary school in a suburb outside Chicago. He graduated from Palm Springs High School, which he is quick to point out was much less glamorous than it sounds. He went on to the University of Southern California, and his parents expected him to go on to law school. But a college course in national security captured his imagination, and he pursued his interest in international relations throughout grad school at USC.

“What changed my life was I took a course. And that course was about American national security, and I got very interested in the issues of national security,” Crouch says. “I really hadn’t had anybody in my family who was in the military. I graduated high school in 1976. When you think about that, it was not a high point for the military. We’d just gotten out of Vietnam, and no one was encouraging you to go into the military, certainly nobody in my family. In fact, I often say if there was one thing I could’ve gone back and done differently, I probably would have liked to have served.”

Crouch’s first job in DC was with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Next, he was military legislative assistant to Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. He joined the administration of George H. W. Bush as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy. Crouch then spent several years as a professor at Missouri State University before joining the George W. Bush administration, this time as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, then Ambassador to Romania, and finally Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor.

uso_1With the second Bush administration, Crouch had barely been on the job a month when issues of national security took on a whole new level of importance.

“When I first came into the administration as an assistant secretary, I was confirmed in August of 2001,” says Crouch. “So a month later, I’m sitting in Moscow in the Kremlin and negotiating nuclear weapons issues with the Russians and I hear about the attack. The first thing I did was call home to find out if any of my people [were hurt] — because I had 125 people working for me in the Pentagon — and I was very fortunate that our side of the Pentagon was not hit.”

Of working in the West Wing, Crouch notes: “I would say the overwhelming feeling was of responsibility, the sense that the first foundational responsibility of government is the protection of the country, and so, above all else, you need to protect the country.”

An avid reader who also likes to hike, hunt, shoot sporting clays and SCUBA dive, Crouch also served for a decade as a volunteer deputy sheriff in Missouri. He spent much of his time as a member of a special response team, serving high-risk warrants.

The parts might seem disparate — government service at the highest level, tech entrepreneur, college professor, volunteer policeman, head of the USO — but they do have some common threads: public service and national security.


As president and CEO of the USO, Crouch didn’t just come from outside the organization — he came from outside the world of nonprofits altogether. But he doesn’t hold with the notion that fundraising must be the least enjoyable part of the job.

“A lot of people say it must be the programmatic stuff that’s really fun,” Crouch says, “and a lot of people say, ‘Aren’t you uncomfortable having to effectively ask people for money,’ and I say no because I believe in the mission and I know that without the resources we can’t deliver on the mission. In business, it’s akin to having to go into my board and defend my budget.”

Historically, direct mail has been the biggest money-raiser for the USO. It’s a four-legged stool, Crouch says, and he wants all four legs to be solid. In addition to direct mail, the organization relies on online fundraising, major gifts, planned giving and corporate giving.

“My attitude is when you offer someone the opportunity to do something that is larger than themselves, it’s not about the money,” Crouch says. “The money is the fuel. The thing you’re really offering somebody is the opportunity to do something that’s really meaningful that they couldn’t possibly do on their own. That’s a great gift to give someone.”


uso_7In March of this year, hundreds of Americans had to be evacuated from Turkey due to security threats. The USO team in Germany, says vice president of operations Glenn F. Welling Jr., sprang into action to accommodate this mass influx of passengers — which included families and small children — arriving at Ramstein Air Base. The USO team there provided makeshift accommodations, snacks and drinks. Many of the evacuees went straight on to flights back to the U.S., so the team in Germany, with assistance from USO headquarters in Arlington, coordinated with the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore to meet arriving family members at BWI Airport.

This is today’s USO — with international reach, flexible response to troops’ needs and an army of dedicated volunteers. Crouch, who started out as something of an outsider at the organization, knows this well. “When that volunteer makes a connection with a service member or their family,” he says, “something magic happens.” CEO

Matt Ward is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at


CEO: How would you describe Dr. Crouch’s leadership style?

Glenn Welling: The word that comes immediately to my mind is transformational. From the outset, JD demonstrated the ability to articulate a broad strategic vision for the organization, while at the same time bringing a laser focus to our mission delivery. He put forth what he referred to as the “3 Rs” — reimagine programs, rebalance development and refresh the brand — while reemphasizing our collective responsibility to focus on the field, meaning that for every action or decision we make, we must consider first and foremost what the impact and benefit will be to those we serve.

CEO: How has the organization changed under his command?

GW: In the two years since JD became CEO and president of the USO, his vision and organizational focus have permeated the organization. There is a recognizable entrepreneurial spirit that can be seen at all levels. One very concrete example that falls under “reimagine programs” is the USO Transition 360 Alliance that was launched in May of 2015 to focus resources, programs and services on service members and their families who are transitioning from military service to civilian careers. Going further, we examined every program that the USO was delivering either organically or in conjunction with a program partner, and made the strategic decision to scale back the number of programs in order to focus on those that were making a demonstrable impact and where we had the opportunity to scale them to serve a broader number of service and family members.

CEO: Can you describe an event that most impressed you, since working for the USO, in terms of the organization’s positive impact on the lives of military personnel and their families?

GW: I recently visited the USO of North Carolina and its president, John Falkenbury, described an event that occurred at one of their Warrior Reset Programs held at Fort Bragg. Participating in the program were service members from the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and North Carolina National Guard, including their spouses. The session included fitness, botanical therapies, nutrition, psychological discussions, financial literacy and leadership. The intent is to place service members with peers in a comfortable environment outside the military channels. This particular session included a presentation by retired Major General Mark Graham, who had lost a son to suicide and shortly thereafter another killed in action. He discussed eliminating the stigma of suicide and the need to understand and to seek help. He relayed from personal experience that both he and his wife had missed the signals with their son who committed suicide. The day after the session, a young Marine from camp Lejeune stood up and said that if this general can talk about the stigma of suicide, he can come forward to say that he too needed some help. Immediately, the entire group of service members mobilized to provide him comfort and assistance. Members from the North Carolina National Guard who were in attendance referred him to their counselors, provided assistance and the referral for him back to the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune. Another Marine who was not in his unit volunteered to transport him back to the Naval Hospital, and yet another Marine came back the next day to pick up his car. And the Marine who self-identified reported that he was getting the help that he needed. According to the team in North Carolina, this is the second or third time within the last year that this has occurred during one of the Warrior Reset Programs. With that as just one example, there can be no doubt that USO changes lives.


Sarah KempThe USO has about 650 employees and about 30,000 volunteers. “We can’t do what we do without the volunteers,” says Dr. J.D. Crouch II, president and CEO of the USO. “And it’s not just the fact that there’s cost savings or something like that. The volunteers bring passion and an energy and a unique understanding of the mission. That would be very hard to replace with a full-time employee.”

Before her current role as the USO’s manager of volunteer operations, Sarah Kemp spent time working as a USO duty manager in Afghanistan. SmartCEO caught up with her to find out more about how her organization manages such a huge number of volunteers.

CEO: Volunteers are such a central part of the USO’s work. How do you keep track of them all?

Sarah Kemp: We use an online volunteer management system. Through the system, we can receive prospective volunteers’ applications, track training progress, schedule shifts, record milestones, and communicate with and recognize our volunteers. But if you ask any staff member in one of our centers what the volunteer behind the desk’s name is, I bet they know it. Our staff know more than what’s in the volunteer profiles; they know the volunteers personally. The welcoming home-away-from-home atmosphere that our service members enjoy in a USO center starts with the staff creating that environment for the volunteers. They could tell you which volunteer served in Vietnam, which one’s daughter just had their first grandbaby, and which one is about to PCS [Permanent Change of Station]. It’s the connections to the staff, each other and the service members that keep our volunteers feeling happy.

CEO: How do you set standards, deliver training … basically, how do you manage 30,000 volunteers?

SK: We have policies, standards of conduct and a volunteer agreement. Beyond the signed forms, where we really learn is in the field. When I’m asked the best solution to recruiting more volunteers, or managing schedules, my recommendations mostly come directly from what another staff person at a center has told me worked for them. We hold quarterly webinars for best-practice sharing among staff managing volunteers. We have themes for our webinars such as communicating across generations, recruitment and onboarding, and change management. Our volunteer operations department leads the discussion, but a lot of the time spent is sharing among staff what works and what doesn’t. In some centers, we have volunteer team leaders or volunteer committees that help us manage our volunteer force. What it really boils down to is respecting that a person has chosen to donate their most valuable resource, their time, to us.

CEO: What is a typical service member’s experience like at one of the more than 180 USO locations worldwide?

SK: Well, first it’s important to understand that the USO serves all five branches of our armed forces — Army, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and National Guard — and their families. We train our volunteers to first make the visitor feel welcome, then determine if there is any way they can assist them further. Sometimes it’s a travel-weary military spouse with three children and not enough hands, and a volunteer can offer some apple juice boxes and some help putting together a puzzle with a child. Sometimes it’s a young recruit who it’s his very first time flying in an airplane to travel to basic training, and the advice he receives from the veteran volunteer who’s been there and done that is exactly what he needs. Sometimes it’s a service member or family who is having the worst day of their lives, and we’re there then too to offer comfort, or simply a quiet place to be alone until their flight arrives. While there’s no typical day at a USO center, most service members can experience from the moment they walk into an airport USO a warm, “Welcome to the USO!” greeting, an offer of hot coffee and snacks, being given the Wi-Fi code, being shown where the comfiest TV watching recliners are, and asked what time they need a wakeup call for their flight (because even if they aren’t intending to take a nap, the volunteer knows that the sense of relaxation our service members have at a center tends to result in an unintended nap).

CEO: Sometimes the USO provides troops and their commanders with a leveling effect, when a higher-ranking service member volunteers at a USO location. How does that work?

SK: I was a duty manager and volunteer coordinator in Kandahar, Afghanistan from September 2010 to June 2012. In Southwest Asia, 80 percent of our volunteers are active-duty military. (Volunteer Satisfaction Survey 2016).

There was a Navy medic who would volunteer every single morning from 0600 to 0700. He helped open the center, then would make a 20-minute phone call home, then report to duty. He worked at least 12-hour days going on missions with the Marines, often longer, then he had to eat, go to the gym, get a few hours’ sleep, and repeat. He literally had about eight hours of off-duty time a day, and he chose to dedicate one of those to volunteering at the USO.

We had a few majors and lieutenant colonels who volunteered to set a good example for their soldiers.

While I can’t play favorites, there were six soldiers from 10th Mountain Division that I’ll never forget. They were wounded in a firefight at their Forward Operating Base. They were sent to [Kandahar Airfield] (KAF) to recover. When we visited them to ask how we could help, we thought they would maybe want more video games or snacks, but they instead replied that all they wanted was to get back to their men. They despised not feeling useful. I jokingly said, well, I can put you to work! The next day they showed up bandaged, some with shrapnel still in their sides, to volunteer. They said it helped distract them from their pain. A few months later, they came through KAF again to redeploy. It was one of the best feelings to see them back in their uniforms and headed home.

CEO: How would you describe Dr. Crouch’s leadership style?

SK: Accessible. Every year, we award two Volunteers of the Year. JD calls the volunteer to surprise them with the news. Every year, we have some extenuating circumstances with time zones, or deployments, or events that make catching the volunteer for a call difficult. JD’s first year making the call, I had the house number for the volunteer instead of the cell phone, and she didn’t answer. I was mortified when I found out. I immediately found the cell number, but didn’t know what to do. Do I just waltz into my CEO’s office and say, hey, I messed up, here’s the number? Well, with sweaty palms, I did. JD’s response was, “Oh, no problem; should I call her right now?” Then he offered for me to sit. I was flabbergasted that he made time right then, and invited me to be part of it. After the call he looked to me and said sincerely, “Well how’d I do? I didn’t forget anything, right?” He was asking for my feedback. It was a sincere moment for me, feeling like I wasn’t just a nameless manager, but a member of the USO team, and he valued my input.

CEO: How has the organization changed under his command?

SK: He leads by example. A few months into his tenure, we had a care-package stuffing event on Capitol Hill. Staff and volunteers were running around setting everything up. A group of us were sitting on the floor of the Rayburn building folding hand towels. He walked over and said that he wanted to help. So in his suit and tie, our brand-new CEO kneeled down on the floor and began folding hand towels for kits for wounded, ill and injured troops. Another senior executive noticed and immediately … began assisting as well. Senior leadership folding towels with coordinators and volunteers is getting our mission done.

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