Trees for Troops: Helping Military Families

Fresh Ideas Keep Christmas Program Going Strong

By Published on .

Christmas. Military families. Transportation. Tree growers. Logistics. These seemingly incongruous words provide a case study in cause marketing.

FedEx works with Trees for Troops to distribute Christmas trees to military families.
FedEx works with Trees for Troops to distribute Christmas trees to military families.
For the last four years, I've been blessed to be part of Trees for Troops, a nationwide program that touches the lives of military families by delivering free, farm-grown Christmas trees. In those years, with the help of companies starting with FedEx Corp., we've reached 50,082 families -- about 1,200 of whom are soldiers, Marines, Navy and Air Force personnel stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries near the Persian Gulf.

The excitement on the faces of the military kids and the joy of the moms, dads and others when they pick out that free Christmas tree is nearly overwhelming.

As the holiday season rapidly approaches, our planning for the 2009 Trees for Troops program is ramping up. And with some new additions for 2009, marketers and consumers are touching lives during the holidays.

How we got started

For several years, Christmas tree growers had been providing free trees for charitable purposes. In the 1990s, some organized efforts started through which trees were given to National Guard units and other military personnel deployed in peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo and other parts of the world.

Then early in 2005, the National Christmas Tree Association developed two concepts:

  • Create the Christmas Spirit Foundation as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization to advance the spirit of Christmas year-round for kids, families and the environment.
  • Develop plans for a national Trees for Troops program that could unify the individual programs of tree growers and state Christmas tree associations. (The big problem was that we didn't have funding to ship the trees from the growers to families at the military bases.)

FedEx contacted us within two weeks of IRS approval of the foundation's nonprofit status, and the nationwide Trees for Troops program began. Without FedEx, Trees for Troops would have remained an idea on a shelf. With FedEx, Trees for Troops has engaged more than 800 tree farms, tree retailers, garden centers and consumers in an expanding program that touches the lives of U.S. military families during some of their most difficult times.

Lessons learned

Even the best marketing campaigns can get stale after a while. As one season or year rolls into another, savvy cause marketing campaign managers must reaffirm the need for the program, find ways to engage more people and refresh the energy and enthusiasm of longtime supporters.

My staff and I have managed this cause marketing effort for five years and offer three key points for companies, nonprofits and others working on multi-year cause marketing campaigns:

  • Confirm the need. Each year, the Christmas Spirit Foundation, FedEx and our other partners review the results and determine whether there is a need and desire to continue the program. For 2009, tree growers said yes, FedEx said yes and the military said yes.
  • Engage others. Our relationship with FedEx has included an understanding that it isn't our exclusive corporate partner, and it has encouraged the foundation to reach out and engage other partners. So we've been able to expand to others, including Brown-Forman Corp., Garden Centers of America, Products for Good and Greater Than Goods, among others. Each of these other organizations helped enhance the Trees for Troops program.
  • Continually refresh your cause marketing campaigns. In the initial years, consumers told us: "I don't grow trees and don't work for FedEx. How can I help?" This stimulated our thinking and helped us enhance and refresh the program in a way that gave consumers an opportunity to participate.
    • Trees for Troops Weekend: Growers and retailers volunteer to be a host location for a FedEx trailer, where customers can purchase a tree and donate it to Trees for Troops. About 3,000 do each year.
    • Charity T-shirts: In this program, new for 2009, consumers can purchase a Trees for Troops shirt online, and $5 of the price goes to the Christmas Spirit Foundation.
    • TweetUp4Troops: These locally hosted events in November help honor veterans and generate support for Trees for Troops.
    • Christmas Tree ornaments: Working with Meredith Publishing, we have produced a commemorative Trees for Troops ornament that consumers can purchase. At the same time, they can buy a second ornament that will be donated to a military family. (One company just purchased 100 ornaments to donate to vendors—and another 100 to donate to troops.)

Trees for Troops shows how nonprofit and for-profit organizations can combine resources to support a cause and/or charity. Thanks to these combined efforts, we will touch the lives of another 15,000 military families in the next few weeks. A simple Christmas tree, the generosity of Christmas tree farmers and retailers and the support of FedEx and consumers pass along the gratitude of the nation to those who serve our country.

Steve Drake is president of Drake & Co., an accredited association management company serving as the staff and headquarters of the Christmas Spirit Foundation and Trees for Troops campaign.

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