Advancing a Trusted Brand

A Conversation with Bill Burke, Chairman of The Salvation Army National Advisory Board

War Cry: Share your faith journey.

Bill Burke: I was born in a very Irish and very Catholic family. In high school, I was in a minor seminary of the Archdiocese in New York, part of the feeder system to become a priest. I felt like I had a vocation when I left eighth grade and went to high school. I realized I was going to have a conflict because I knew that celibacy was not going to work for me. I never lost that connection that I felt I had with the Lord.

When we moved to Ohio, our neighborhood was loaded with born again Christians. We didn’t know what one was. My wife began going to a Bible study in our neighborhood with other moms. I was working my way through our local parish of the Catholic Church. Our timing on coming face-to-face with the Lord was very close. She had her born again experience with the ladies in the Bible group. I was at a men’s retreat one weekend and for the first time in my life someone handed me a Bible. As testimonies were given, I started opening up the New Testament, randomly picking out Scripture, reading it and thinking, “This is really relevant to me.” Scripture and some testimonies intersected for me with memories of how one of our kids was born in a traumatic situation. It dawned on me that the sacrifice of God’s Son was for me. I could relate to it because of my experience with my own son. That’s when the clouds opened and the sun came through. My wife and I joined an evangelical, Bible-based church. I became active and grew substantially by absorbing Scripture and doing Bible studies, listening to the Lord.

Ultimately, I got a ministry degree from Grace Seminary in Indiana. I thought the Lord was calling us to full-time ministry, but we couldn’t see how. We continued to pray, “What will you have for us Lord?”

WC: How did you become involved in The Salvation Army?

BB: In 1996, a note came out at the company where I was working that several non-profits were looking for board members locally. One was The Salvation Army. I knew very little about the Army, so I decided to inquire more deeply and wound up having breakfast one morning with Lt. Colonel Guy Klemanski. That led me to tell him, “I know more about the Army now. Sign me up for the advisory board. However, I don’t want to be another name on the letterhead. My wife and I want to do something.” We joined up with the Heart-to-Heart ministry, volunteering every Saturday night for two consecutive years at the canteen that went around to feed people in need on weekends. That was our date night. We started sharing the opportunity with our neighbors and friends at church. We became the schedulers rather than the doers. We moved on to more family-based work to help people with their utility bills, getting them signed up for “Christmas Cheer” and other programs. I became more deeply engaged with the local Central Ohio Advisory Board. My work became less on the street, which I loved, and more at the advisory board level.

A year later I was on the National Advisory Board, humbled as could be. I remember going to my first meeting in St. Louis and just looking at the names of the people sitting around the table. I was awestruck. It took me a couple of meetings to finally open my mouth.

"The Boundless Congress in London tied things together for me. To see the international nature of the Army was phenomenal… To see [delegates] re-energized by each other was so uplifting… this is God’s blueprint."
Bill Burke

WC: What do you tell the corporate world about The Salvation Army?

BB: The first thing is, “The Salvation Army is not a social services agency. The Salvation Army is a church, a mission agency that does social services to reach and facilitate the mission.” I talk about the effectiveness and efficiency of the Army. And I talk about the Army at the frontlines, that we are there before, during and after the needs of people are met, doing the most good. 

WC: How does the National Advisory Board contribute to the mission and work of The Salvation Army?

BB: We are advisors. We are not fiscally or operationally responsible for the Army. We take the best of our education and experience and help the Army position itself both for today and tomorrow based on the economic, social and business demographic trends that we see.

WC: What challenges does the Army face?

BB: We run on the Spirit and on dollars to fund the mission. The Spirit leads us, gives us the ability to serve globally in a way that no other organization can. In the United States, folks who are not engaged in the Army know the Army does good things. We have a wonderful brand reputation, [but] they don’t know the breadth of what we do, the impact on a local level. One of our challenges is to make clear who we are and what we do and to get donors totally aligned with our mission and support what we are doing.

A second challenge is to excite those Salvationists who are executing the plan and those who receive what we do so that they don’t just receive the benefits of our social services but they also receive the Word so they can find salvation. One example of this plan is Pathway of Hope, an extraordinary program. Its aim is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty through specialized case management. We are moving at the right pace. If we move too fast and fail, we are not going to be able to recover.

Third, we have one of the most trusted brands in the world, and being able to make sure that our brand is always presented well is important. There’s an inconsistent application of the brand across the country. We have some outstanding examples of best practices pocketed all over the country, but we don’t always do the best job in pulling them together so we can learn from each other. Wherever the board can enable and facilitate sharing best practices is key.

People not associated with the Army view it in two ways: the Red Kettle at Christmas or the place to donate their clothes. We have to figure out how technology plays into the kettles. The branding of our family thrift stores that support the Adult Rehabilitation Centers (ARCs) is also very important.

Fourth, how are we relevant to the millennials, the next generation? The millennials want to serve; they want genuineness, transparency. They want to get their hands dirty, and while we are an Army that moves on volunteers, we have to capture their hearts, minds and ultimately their financial resources as they become older and more solvent.

WC: Is there anything else?

BB: My personal love affair with The Salvation Army. The Boundless Congress in London last July tied together a lot of the things for me. To see the international nature of the Army was phenomenal. Africans dressed in their light brown uniforms, Asians dressed in their whites — and to see the joy that was there! It wasn’t orchestrated joy. It was amazing to be with people who are serving the most unloved, who hold Sunday services with people that the traditional churches reject because they don’t fit in, who serve with joy but who probably don’t smile all the time when they’re doing it because it’s such hard work. To see them smiling ear-to-ear, embracing one another, reenergized by each other, was so uplifting.

The worship sessions were a reminder that this is not man’s work, this is God’s work. The blueprint of the Army is not man’s blueprint, it’s God’s blueprint.

Now when I see a lieutenant working in a corps, frustrated in trying to get funds and facilities, having people leaving worship and coming back into worship, all those frustrations are settled by the fact that we’re doing it for the Lord.

Bill Burke is currently Senior Vice President – P&C Operations Marketing. He has extensive experience in marketing and business strategy, product development and innovation, advertising and communication and relationship management, both internationally and domestically. He has built and led successful teams and has a strong track record in developing talent.


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