By: Kate Nation
As I wavered on the thin line between consciousness and falling asleep on my feet during one of my 6-month-old daughter’s nighttime crying fits, I found myself comparing the rearing of a child with establishing an organization. When I was hired in January 2007, the newly formed Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) was six months shy of opening its doors to members, and I was the third person on staff. The USA has changed a lot since then. While ample planning, expert advice, partnerships, research and examples can bring a lot to the table, so much of establishing and growing an organization comes down to trial and error and learning and adapting as you go, much like the rollercoaster ride of parenting
Much like children, an organization can grow up fast. Shoots and conservation dinners were not part of the USA’s early vision, but from the very first USA sporting clays shoot in June 2009, there was no denying the power of events in creating a sense of community among members. By 2010, the USA had a full-scale shooting program, and 2011 saw the introduction of a custom USA truck and trailer for transporting gear to events across the country. With the success of the shooting program, the USA tested the waters in 2012 with its first three conservation dinners and quickly tripled that number in 2013. Not only have these events become a staple within the USA community, they serve as significant fundraisers for the organization. In 2013, the USA grossed more than $1 million through shooting events, while USA conservation dinners broke that threshold in 2015.
The original vision for the USA was to be a one-of-a-kind club exclusively for union members and their families that hunt, shoot, fish and enjoy the outdoors. The concept was pretty simple: deliver value-added benefits away from the jobsite to union members who were passionate about the outdoors. With contests, giveaways, a dynamic website and TV show, it was an exciting, social program of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP).
Just shy of its third birthday, the USA experienced its most significant change. In order to better meet the needs of the union world with its own vision and mission, the leadership of the USA made the decision to separate from the TRCP in early 2010 to blaze a new trail as a stand-alone conservation organization.
For me and other staff, it was both an exciting and tense time as the USA experienced the growing pains that came with learning to stand on our own. Armed with a solid foundation, committed union leadership, a growing membership base and strong partnerships, the USA grew into the organization it is today. Our mission: “To unite the union community through conservation to preserve North America’s outdoor heritage.”
The USA continued to deliver value to its growing number of members and, recognizing a unique opportunity to tap into the diverse trade skills of union members, the USA launched its Work Boots on the Ground program in 2010. The objective of the program was to bring together union members who were willing to donate their time and talents to tackle hands-on, community-based conservation projects throughout North America. Thanks to a multitude of union volunteers, the USA completed an impressive 88 projects between 2010 and 2016 that improve public access to the outdoors, restore America’s parks, enhance wildlife habitats and mentor youth in the outdoors. In July 2014, the strength of the program led to a Memorandum of Understanding between the USA, AFL-CIO and Department of the Interior stating their collective commitment to rebuild, renew and restore our country’s national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands. As part of that partnership, the USA completed its largest conservation project to date in 2016 – the construction of a 500-ft.-long elevated boardwalk in the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. Nearing its one hundredth Work Boots on the Ground project, there is no doubt the USA has found an effective niche and brought the strength of the labor community to benefit conservation and our great outdoor heritage.
“I didn’t really expect much when I joined,” said Clayton Bolton, a member of IAMAW LL946/DL725 and one of the USA’s earliest members. “On the surface, it appeared to be a social group for union members that liked to hunt and fish. While it was pretty cool in the beginning just to be able to communicate and share with like-minded members scattered across the country, today’s USA involvement in community services and conservation efforts is beyond astounding.”
The USA has also seen a lot of change in its membership structure as it worked to strike a balance between growing membership and providing the greatest value to members. In addition to adjusting membership over the years, the USA executed a variety of recruitment campaigns including national giveaways, refer-a-friend campaigns, direct mail, events and more.
“The one thing I never expected is that the USA would be able to offer no-cost memberships to union workers belonging to charter unions,” said Roofers International President and USA Treasurer Kinsey Robinson. “This event has been a game changer, allowing every member of a charter union to join the USA without a financial burden.”
Though not every technique worked, and the changes were rarely easy, the USA has grown tremendously from March 2009 when it achieved its ten thousandth member. Today, the USA continues to grow and has more than 225,000 members.
“When I first heard about the USA, I was very excited there was finally an outdoor sportsmen’s organization for union members exclusively,” said Wess Ringgold, a member of UA Local 602 who joined the USA in 2007. “The extent of how fast the USA has grown in the last 10 years in mind boggling. What has surprised me is how many things union members can be involved in: conservation, gun-a-week calendars, USA shoots, Photo of the Week, conservation dinners and ‘Brotherhood Outdoors.’”
While the USA was fortunate to have a television presence from the beginning thanks to its union and corporate sponsors, the TV series has seen its own evolution since 2007. From changes in the production company, network, format and the very name of the program from “Escape to the Wild” to “Brotherhood Outdoors” in 2011, the USA has continually shared the compelling stories of hardworking union sportsmen and women with the American public. Those efforts led to a coveted Sportsman’s Choice Award for top hunting and fishing combination show in 2011.
“‘Brotherhood Outdoors’ has provided a great service to the Union community by selecting members (including me) for trips,” said Eric Patrick, business manager of IBEW Local 196 and longtime USA member. “The USA has educated the non-union community on the benefit of being a union member with the stories delivered on the series. They have basically put a face with a name.”
Like the TV series, the USA’s website, which went live the day the USA opened its doors, and the Union Sportsmen’s Journal, which began as a newspaper in 2009, were part of the USA’s early multimedia plan which connects thousands of USA members who may never meet face-to-face through engaging stories.
Like a parent, you can influence what a new organization will grow into, but to some extent, it takes on a life of its own. You have to be able and willing to adapt for it to flourish. It’s hard to believe that in January 2007, the USA was just an idea and a check for $1.2 million presented by nine unions as seed money. A decade later, it truly is a one-of-a-kind organization that not only connects the union community outside the workplace, but also boldly demonstrates what can be accomplished by volunteer union members to help preserve North America’s outdoor heritage.
As we celebrate the USA’s tenth birthday this year, we extend our deepest thanks to you – union leadership and members, corporate partners and friends – for your steadfast support through all the ups and downs. Your hard work, sacrifice, financial support and dedication have made the USA one of America’s premier outdoor organizations, and we hope you will join us in shaping the next 10 years.