2017 California Department Recruiter of the Year Mary Jane Fisher. Photo by Henry Howard/The American Legion

The purpose-driven mindset of a top recruiter

Mary Jane Fisher is a third-generation American Legion member, following her grandfather and father into the service and then into the nation’s largest veterans service organization.

Fisher, who served in the Navy from 1979 until 1995, is not a follower. She is a leader. In fact, she was recognized as the Department of California’s Recruiter of the Year in 2017 when she achieved Gold Brigade status by recruiting 136 new members.

Each day her goal is to make 10 calls to prospective members. “It's so fun, so fun,” said Fisher, a member of Post 416 in Encinitas, Calif. “If I don't connect with these people who are in my neighborhood, I don't feel like I'm doing a service to The American Legion."

Fisher sat down for an interview about her experience with The American Legion, passion for recruiting and more.

The American Legion: When did you first hear about The American Legion?

Fisher: My grandfather and my father were both in The American Legion, but I didn't get raised in The American Legion. When I was in college I chased education opportunities because my father was no longer able to support us because he became ill. I found out about the benefits of education. When I went in, it was the Cold War, so we didn't have the old GI Bill. We had the veterans educational opportunity program or something, what they called VIP.

I was kind of disheartened, but I went ahead and used my tuition assistance. I got an associate's degree, but still felt ompelled to keep finding ways to get a bachelor's degree. When I got out I applied for college, and they said I didn't get approved because I didn't have the GI Bill. Later, I became an advocate to figure out as a 40 percent disabled veteran why don't I have any education benefits.

I started asking questions, and The American Legion actually came up as one of my point of contacts, and I said, "You know what? I'm going to go talk to them because I know my father and my grandfather, they had to have been members of The American Legion with a purpose." It was there that the Legion in Vista, Calif., helped me. I kept inquiring, resourcing, inquiring, and then they suggested I apply for Chapter 31, which is a program within the military for disabled vets. I got approved to go back to retrain so I could achieve my bachelor's degree. There's a lot of perseverance here.

TAL: Was it at that point that you joined the Legion?

Fisher: I did join the Legion. I walked into (Post 416) with my DD-214 unescorted and said, "I'd like to become a member right here." I had already completely researched, I was completely aware that they had benefits, and I had already done my homework. I wanted to become a member, so they vetted me right there and I became a member. That's probably about seven years ago, so I just took off, which I do usually.

TAL: You have an opportunity to work for any nonprofit, why The American Legion? What inspires you to help out Legionnaires, other veterans?

Fisher: It’s the (four) pillars, the programs and how much we give back. When I look at the different programs for national security, and, of course, I carry American flags with me everywhere I go. I think I'm just that type of patriot. It's my icebreaker. Some people will tell me that they're not American, and I ask them about their immigration and if they'd like to become a citizen. I work all avenues of The American Legion and don't realize it. When I started studying The American Legion I thought, "That fits with what I do in life purposely." I'm purpose-driven.

TAL: This is women's history month. Are there women veterans who have inspired you either earlier or now?

Fisher: It's interesting that you mention that. Grace Hopper did the cobra system for all the communications that we're using today. I came in as a radio operator and so I remember listening to her speak, and she inspired me. She always said to never ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. I moved that forward, and then there were some people who I met through The American Legion.

Without slighting anybody, I can say (Department of California Executive Committeeman) Janet Wilson and (National Commander) Denise H. Rohan have really inspired me. When Denise was campaigning Janet was telling me I really needed to learn more about Denise and her role in life and what she's been doing. I did read up on her a little bit, and then I had an opportunity to meet her when I went to National American Legion College. She's amazing.

TAL: Why should today's women veterans or active duty, join The American Legion?

Fisher: In the last 15 years we've come forward in the military that now there's opportunities for women to speak up about the different diseases or mental health issues that they face. There's a resource there that they could get some assistance. In the past, there weren't a whole lot of different avenues that were available for gender-specific issues.

Today, the Desert Storm veteran and the Iraq female veteran can come to The American Legion and we can put that claim in for them.

I'm building recruiting teams. I find that women have a different touch than men. I think that I'm perceived as, "Oh, wow. You were in the military?" The (American Legion) cover speaks, and I don't have to say it. A lot of times I educate people on the cover, and that's part of the recruiting process.

TAL: You were the department's recruiter of the year. Talk about what that means to you and how you got to that point.

Fisher: There's a lot of opportunity in Southern California with the military bases. I would go to the military base as a retired spouse to take all these classes. I'd see that the VFW and the DAV were there, and there were no American Legion members in these places. I thought, "You know what? I need to really get in and make a difference at the military bases."

I started off at the guard center over at Camp Pendleton. Then I started getting calls to go down to the family service center for the Guard down in the Army at National City, which is really close to Post 255. I'll knock on that sergeant major's door, or go knock on the colonel's door or the admiral's door, when the timing is right, and ask the administration if it's ok.

I can set an appointment or whatnot, and I go in and I say, "This is what I would like to do, just let them become aware of it." I kind of spread the seeds everywhere I go. Then whenever I go shopping I'll have a Legion cap or shirt on, and people will have a conversation about it.

Paul Brown came to a membership revitalization two or three years ago in San Diego. I was transferring people from Post 1000. I said, "Does anybody ever call these people?" He said, "If you want to call them, call them." So I call them. Why not? If they're in a 10-mile radius I'm going to call them and tell them to come have a sandwich. They're veterans.

TAL: How did that work?

Fisher: The first year I got 28 people, which built my confidence. I thought that I can do more than this. There's probably a faster way to do it, but I'm going to do it the old fashioned way. I'm not going to do constant contact. I want it to be personal. I deliberately went to the different hospitals, bases, different volunteer services centers, to the medical centers, to recruiting offices.

Part of the education process that's so important is while they're waiting to get their permanent number, I request they go on the Legion website and start reading. I want them to go to The American Legion Basic Training to learn. It's free. Then I'll check back in with them in about 30 days. I hold them accountable.

TAL: Tell me about how you approach a potential member one-on-one.

Fisher: I ask people if they have ever heard of The American Legion. I try to go into questions where I get five yes answers, but I don’t want them to feel stupid. I go into the five W's right away and qualify them. Most of the time they don’t know about the programs or the pillars. Cultivating, I plant the seeds and educate them about our programs. I usually don’t give out a business card; I'm not a forward person like that. I want it to be comfortable for them. Sometimes they'll ask me if I have a card. I'll go into my box here in my bag and give them a card.

TAL: You're also active on social media, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Is that part of your recruiting strategy?

Fisher: You know it is! Social media is free. It takes time, but it's an opportunity for us to share the name brand. But you have to be careful. I don't want to tag myself onto somebody who would embarrass me or The American Legion. Social media, to me, is real sensitive. You just can't graffiti the communications world. You have to be deliberate.

TAL: Do you have any last words of advice or anything we didn't cover you want to talk about?

Fisher: I think the main thing is the visibility of members, and not be afraid to invite people to learn more about the (Legion) website and drive them to it, and the (Legion) mobile applications. Media has been around for 25 years. It's not the way of the world, it is the world. People need to realize that we've got several generations, and we're always going to have three to four generations of warriors. And what works for my children, what works for my grandchildren that I don't have yet, what worked for my father is their choice. As recruiters and American Legion members, we need to know how to connect with them and let them know about our programs.