The Salvation Army occupies a prominent position in the American philanthropic landscape by virtue of both its size and its effectiveness. In this country alone—the Army also serves in over 100 other nations—the group annually assists about 33 million Americans, or one in every ten citizens. For a decade until 2003, it ranked first among charities nationwide in contributions raised, and its slip last year to number two won’t likely be repeated in 2004, thanks to Joan Kroc’s January bequest of $1.5 billion. Its American work force totals over 3.5 million, but the overwhelming majority are volunteers, and a mere 5,400 uniformed officers oversee its 9,000 centers of operation and $2.5 billion budget.
That lean, decentralized management, with officers paid at minimum-wage levels, helps explain why the business world looks at the Army with amazement. Management guru Peter Drucker has famously lauded the Army for being “by far the most effective organization in the U.S.,” nonprofit or for-profit. “No one even comes close to it,” Drucker adds, “with respect to clarity of mission, ability to innovate, measurable results, dedication, and putting money to maximum use.” Drucker cited such impressive programs as the Army ‘s work with 25,000 Floridians annually who are convicted to their first prison term. Statistically, most of them would become habitual criminals, but 80 percent of those paroled to the Army ‘s care are rehabilitated at far less than the cost of prison. Forbes has been similarly impressed: “The Salvation Army can teach us all a lot about how to run a business.” The magazine calculates that if the Army ‘s employees and volunteers were paid at market rates, the organization would rank with the world’s largest companies.
The Army ‘s work with the poor rests on founder William Booth’s conviction that it’s not enough to “take people out of the slums,” one must also “take the slums out of people.” More recently, Robert Watson, a recently retired National Commander of the Army’s U.S. branch, has written that “the real secret of our success is getting them to accept responsibility for integrating their hearts, their minds, their souls with transcendent purpose.”
The current head of the Salvation Army in America is W. Todd Bassett. Though the unprecedented Kroc gift will pose considerable challenges, Bassett is confident that the Army will maintain its spiritual and organizational traditions just as it has since it landed on these shores in 1880.
PHILANTHROPY: Could you give us a brief sketch of your life with the Army?
MR. BASSETT: I was born into the Salvation Army. My mother and father were Salvation Army officers for 38 years, before their retirement. I have a brother who’s a Salvation Army officer, now retired, and a son and daughter-in-law who are with the Salvation Army in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
After attending college at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, I felt the call of God to go into full-time service as a Salvation Army officer. My wife and I entered the School for Officers’ Training in 1963, and served in two community centers in Hackensack, New Jersey, and Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. I served at the School for Officers’ Training on two different occasions, once as a field training officer and then as the assistant principal in the early 1980s.
One uniqueness of the Salvation Army is that both husband and wife serve together as Salvation Army officers, and their appointments come jointly, so that my wife serves as the National President of Women’s Ministries while I serve as the National Commander. One of the great delights of this shared ministry has been youth work. We’ve run summer camps and overseen character-building and behavior modification programs for the Salvation Army’s work with youth. For the last 20 years, we have had administrative responsibilities, serving two years in London at our International Headquarters, prior to the present appointment here at National Headquarters.
PHILANTHROPY: What are the major obstacles to overcoming poverty today?
MR. BASSETT: That is not an easy question. I think the poor will always be with us. Until we can equitably provide education, job training, and medical opportunities to the poor, we’re always going to have to deal with the difficulties of the poor.
We must help them understand their self-worth and deal with their own mental and emotional state. Once you’re down, it’s hard to move back up, and if you’ve never been exposed to the dignity and the opportunities that America offers, it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
PHILANTHROPY: How is the Army’s ministry to the poor similar to and different from other social services for the poor?
MR. BASSETT: What makes the Salvation Army unique is that we have both a national and international mission that has remained consistent for 139 years, which gives the Army credibility. We work very hard to preserve our integrity.
The Army’s whole ethos rests on a faith-based belief in the worth of the individual in the sight of God.
PHILANTHROPY: Why have religion and social services been so closely linked in America’s charitable tradition?
MR. BASSETT: There’s no question that America was founded on religious principles and a Judeo-Christian ethic. A fundamental part of this biblical standard is the duty to care for the poor. This moral and spiritual base has made us the kind of country that we are, with people who believe we must personally respond to the poor.
PHILANTHROPY: Some would argue that the religious vision stresses personal responsibility, whereas for roughly the last century a secular vision of helping the poor has downplayed personal responsibility and instead stressed the need for social change.
MR. BASSETT: There’s no question America did go through a period when we believed society was going to make all the necessary changes, and the government alone could handle it. But one reason both Democrats and Republicans in the mid-1990s were advocating “charitable choice” legislation to increase the involvement of faith-based organizations in social services is that you can’t divorce individual responsibility from the societal ills that create poverty. Low-income persons begin to see their own self-worth as they take responsibility for themselves, and that’s a long process. But it is intrinsic to Judeo-Christian belief.
PHILANTHROPY: The Army was born in England and works in many countries. Does the Army’s experience in America differ from that of other countries?
MR. BASSETT: At the heart of the Salvation Army, the mission remains the same, regardless of where you are across the world: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human need in His name, without discrimination. The Salvation Army serves millions of people around the world and does so without discrimination, and yet we have just over a million church members throughout the world.
That’s what makes the Salvation Army the same across the world. What makes the Salvation Army in the United States different is related to the wealth of America. Here, we have much finer buildings; we have access to governmental money and also to foundation support. The social service work we do here is far greater than in many other parts of the world, mainly because of the financial resources that are available.
In 1998, Mrs. Joan Kroc announced an $80 million pledge to build a community center in San Diego. Pleased with the results, she left most of her estate to the Salvation Army to build and partially endow dozens more such centers. The total gift is expected to exceed $1.5 billion
PHILANTHROPY: Sometimes the Army has had trouble in this country working with government. Your predecessor National Commander Robert A. Watson spoke in his book of a 1970s incident in New York City where officials demanded you stop saying grace before meals and singing hymns. In the 1990s the Department of Labor threatened to require that you pay minimum wage to persons undergoing treatment in your rehabilitation centers whenever they did chores. More recently, you ended government contracts in San Francisco rather than compromise on providing fringe benefits to “domestic partners.”
MR. BASSETT: Working with the government is never easy. I think that it’s to our advantage that the government calls for a degree of regulation and accountability, but there are times when those regulations directly impinge upon the ability to run an effective organization. In any public-private partnership you run into people who want to micromanage your operation and overlook your accomplishments. You’ve got to live with the good and the bad.
PHILANTHROPY: Do you see any threats, existing or potential, to the mission and independence of the Army ?
MR. BASSETT: I think they always exist. The federal government often impinges upon your rights less than states and counties do. Maintaining your identity and fulfilling your mission requires a constant balancing act.
PHILANTHROPY: How can foundations be as effective as possible in helping grantees like the Army ?
MR. BASSETT: One of the greatest ways foundations can assist an organization like ours is to improve the balance of operating support versus project support. Often we can access resources for the short-term or for a building project or other very specific project. But funders should understand that some efforts take more than two or three years in order to reach fruition and solidify their funding base.
Having said that, my own relationships with foundations have mostly been positive, because the foundations have usually had very clear mission statements and well-defined funding streams, so you know what can be expected.
PHILANTHROPY: To whom and for what is the Army accountable?
MR. BASSETT: First and foremost, the Salvation Army is accountable to God. I’m naïve enough to believe that the Army is a divine mission that was born in the heart of God. Beyond that, we have a governance process with clear accountability up and down the chain of command, with thorough internal accountability required.
We also have local advisory boards at each unit of service who represent the public—the largest donor to the Salvation Army—and ensure clear accountability, with transparent accounting. Remember, monies in the Salvation Army are not raised nationally, they are raised locally, and there’s a tithe at each level that supports the administration. We have accountability internally as well as through the audit process, where the Salvation Army tries hard to remain accountable to the community.
Programmatically, we work the same way. London inspects the territories, the territories inspect the divisions, and the divisions inspect the corps units. We have an accountability process that involves lay people as well as officers and professional personnel in an annual reporting process, at every level of command.
We also are accountable to funders, where there are restricted or identifiable gifts; to the United Way, where we receive their dollars; and to foundations, when we receive their dollars. This entails accountability for both the funding and also the programmatic implementation and results.
PHILANTHROPY: Could you describe the scope of the London office, the territories, and so on?
BASSETT: The Salvation Army serves in 54 territories and commands that are in 109 countries around the world. At the international office they’re divided into zones; so we have a zonal secretary responsible for the Americas.
Here in the United States, we have a national headquarters, plus four territories—New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Representation from these five headquarters form the Commissioners Conference, which is the governance body of the Salvation Army in the United States.
Each territory has a dual accountability to National Headquarters and to international headquarters. Each territory has ten divisions, and those divisions are responsible to the territorial headquarters. Within each division are any number of corps (from 25 up to 65), and each officer in a corps is accountable both programmatically and financially to divisional headquarters.
A territory would be about a dozen states. A division can be either several sparsely populated states grouped together, or just a part of a populous state.
PHILANTHROPY: What is the funding pattern in America?
MR. BASSETT: In 2003 we had a $2.5 billion national budget, which incidentally is a very difficult thing in our structure to put together. About $1 billion of our income came from the public’s cash contributions, another $332 million from in-kind donations, and the remainder from such sources as government ($334 million) and United Way and similar organizations ($98 million).
PHILANTHROPY: What are the biggest challenges to keeping your management structure lean and your overhead low?
BASSETT: I guess the biggest challenge would be to continue to recruit and train people who are committed to the spiritual disciplines of our mission. Historically, we have been very fortunate in attracting excellent personnel to serve both as Salvation Army officers—which is a lifelong calling—as well as employees who are not necessarily part of the Salvation Army’s religious family but who see what the Salvation Army is doing and find it sparks the passion they have for touching the lives of people.
That is partly what my predecessor Commissioner Bob Watson meant when he spoke in his book of engaging the spirit of people. It’s what helps attract both advisory board members as well as volunteers and employees. Some of the finest people we have working for us come from other churches, or are very nominally churched but have a real passion for serving people in need.
PHILANTHROPY: What’s the greatest challenge that comes with the $1.5 billion gift from Mrs. Joan Kroc?
MR. BASSETT: Identifying, recruiting, and training the future leaders we’ll need to maintain the ethos and the mission of the Salvation Army as we increase our employee base by about 20 percent to 25 percent is the greatest challenge.
PHILANTHROPY: The Kroc gift also requires you to raise much additional funding. Is that less urgent?
MR. BASSETT: I can’t scientifically prove this, but I know it’s the right people demonstrating the right type of service to others that makes donors want to give. Let me give you an illustration. We raised $20 million in the city of Philadelphia for a capital campaign. Each time we went on a solicitation, we took someone who knew the prospective donor, and we took somebody who had already given a major gift. But we also took a Salvation Army officer who said, “This is why I do what I do.” I think donors were far more captivated by the passion of the person providing that service than by the donor who gave the $500,000.
PHILANTHROPY: Will you strive to keep the same lean structure, even with this enormous influx of money?
MR. BASSETT: We have to. Joan Kroc gave us the bulk of her estate based on the belief that we are not going to change who we are, what we do, or how we do it. For our part, we’re determined that this gift will not in any way change our mission, but on the contrary, enhance and strengthen it. We will continue to provide people in impoverished areas with state-of-the-art facilities manned by workers who have the heart of compassion to see how those people’s lives can be transformed and made better.
PHILANTHROPY: The famous management expert Peter Drucker once commented that the Salvation Army is essentially a group of venture capitalists. Is that accurate?
MR. BASSETT: Not only do I think it’s a good way to put it, but I loved that comment when I first read it, especially in context. When he said “capital,” Drucker was not talking about money. He was talking about something far more valuable—the lives of people. I can cite chapter and verse from my own experience where investing in the lives of people has provided a return that is worth far more than thousands or even millions of dollars. When a person who’s been impoverished all his life suddenly has a vision of what he can become and begins to act responsibly, then not only is this person’s life no longer a drain on society, but he begins to give back in both time and in money to the very thing that brought him out of impoverishment.
For me, the greatest testimony comes from three-quarters of a century ago: My grandfather, a foul-mouthed, ornery railroad man in Schenectady, New York, went to the Salvation Army because he had nine children who needed to be fed. Out of that visit the children started going to Sunday school. Eventually my mother became a Salvation Army officer, one uncle became a Methodist minister, another uncle became a state senator, another uncle became a banker, another uncle became the chief of police in Rotterdam, New York.
Each of those families now has children who today are doctors and lawyers and school teachers and college professors. And the roots of all this human achievement trace back to the simple act of giving a bag of groceries to this railroad man who needed to feed his family.
That’s quite a return on investment, and it happens every single day.
PHILANTHROPY: The Salvation Army is one of America’s favorite charities—
BASSETT: —and that is a sacred trust that scares me some days but also gives me confidence for the future.
The Salvation Army by the Numbers
109 : Countries Served
175 : Languages Used
$2.5 billion : Budget for U.S. operations
5,443 : U.S. Officers
3,542,562 : U.S. Volunteers
32,936,917 : Persons assisted in the U.S.
55,572,633 : Meals served in the U.S.
10,616,113 : Lodgings supplied in the U.S.
Sources: Salvation Army USA 2003 Annual Report; salvationarmy.org