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How the VFW is turning around its image, saving itself from closing posts, declining members

Since the 1990s, VFW membership has declined by nearly 100,000 in Michigan. Now, the organization is working to save the veteran resource.

LANSING, Mich. — For years, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts have been closing across Michigan, as membership in the veteran organization dropped. 

In the 1990s, there were around 130,000 members in Michigan. In 2021, there were about 35,000.

Last year, 13 ON YOUR SIDE looked into the issue of the ailing VFW. Now, a year later, the organization is making some strides in Michigan to turn its image around and save itself from declining membership. 

For Commander of the VFW in Michigan, John Griffith, he believes a big challenge they face is an image problem. 

"That's that's our whole purpose, to educate veterans," said Griffith, "We know we're not just a club to sit around and talk about war stories and show each other our scars."

However, when veteran Sarah Anderson thought of the VFW, that was exactly what came to mind. That is, until she learned more. 

"I joined the student veterans club at my university, Grand Valley State," said Anderson. "That's when I was really introduced into the VFW and all the benefits and the resources they have. Their message is great, but it hasn't been widespread enough."

Anderson is now serving as the director of development and communications for the VFW of Michigan. She and the group have been working to rebrand the VFW in the last year. The main goal is to attract younger veterans like herself. 

"Millennials, Gen Z, even Gen Xers, they talk online," said Anderson. "So, moving your marketing and your word of mouth strategy to a digital universe and reaching people online is the way to communicate now. That hasn't been up to date as much with the VFW. We're working on it now."

While trying to squash the stereotype of older generations in a bar, Anderson doesn't want the message to get lost to veterans on how giant a hub of resources the VFW is to them. 

The VFW helps veterans navigate VA assistance, holds scholarships, pushes veteran-related legislation through government, connects veterans to resources, offers support and so much more. 

Anderson said the VFW was a major supporter of the PACT Act, passed this year. The legislation expanded VA health care and benefits for those impacted by burn pits, agent orange and other toxic chemicals during service. 

"The reason you newer veterans like me should join the VFW," said Anderson, "is because our voices matter. They listen, and they push it into law."

Griffith also promotes the idea of turning VFW posts into community hubs. He highlighted the post in Lakeview, which overcame debt and struggling membership through community events and new leadership. 

RELATED: One Good Thing: Turning around the VFW

"We've got a post up in Gaylord," said Griffith. "The members up there bought a bowling alley, revamped the bowling alley, and have their meetings in one of the rooms. They're taking the profits from the bowling alley they're saving and putting it into buying a new VFW post. They put movies on for the kids in the neighborhood."

While strides are being made, there is still more to be done. Both Anderson and Griffith agree the VFW needs more diversity. Plus, more female veterans.

"Did you know that female veterans can't give birth and have it completely paid for unless it's in a hospital?" said Anderson. "If they wanted a doula option, they don't have that. That's a piece of legislation we're working on right now, because that's a need. If female veterans weren't a part of this organization, that message wouldn't get out there."

To learn more about the VFW, and to connect to its many resources, visit the organization's website by clicking here.

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