In 2007, Major Dan Rooney of the U.S. Air Force was returning from his second tour in Iraq when he had a life-changing moment that he refers to as a “chance with purpose.”
As he watched the flag-covered casket of a fallen soldier deboarded from his plane and delivered to the family, he thought of his wife and children and decided to do something to honor the sacrifices of those who preserve the freedoms we so easily take for granted.
“The bottom line is when you’re inspired and you’ve failed to take action, ultimately it’s meaningless,” Rooney said.
Soon thereafter, he founded Folds of Honor, a nonprofit organization that provides educational opportunities via scholarships to the families of fallen and wounded American soldiers.
There are currently 1.5 million dependents as a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearly 9 out of 10 don’t get federal education assistance according to Rooney.
In addition, currently less than 1% of American’s suit up to defend the freedoms of the other 99%. Rooney feels very passionately that we have a collective responsibility to take care of those families and give them every opportunity to live the American dream.
This is where Folds of Honor comes in, which Rooney describes as, “not an institution, [but] a group of people continually trying to make a difference for these families.”
“I truly believe that this is not a government issue. I don’t see it as a red issue or a blue issue, rather a red, white and blue obligation,” said Rooney.
The first sponsorship Folds of Honor attained was the PGA (Professional Golfer’s Association) of America.
Rooney happened to be both a fighter pilot and a PGA professional, so he spoke to the President of the PGA and they put together Patriot Golf Day. Golfers around the U.S. were asked to add $1 to their green fees as a donation while playing over Labor Day weekend, and they raised $1 million in that first year.
However, subsequent sponsors took much longer to rein in, and Rooney admitted that the biggest challenge he encountered with Folds of Honor was trying to raise money before they had any statistics to back them up.
For instance, it took Rooney two and a half years of cold-calling Anheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD) before finally getting an audience. Once he had their attention, they saw his passion, heard his story and became a donor.
“Having an endorsement from one of the most iconic brands in this country has led the way to many other partnerships and many other opportunities,” said Rooney. Subsequent sponsors came on board, including Nascar, Coca Cola (NYSE:KO), Kraft (NASDAQ: KHC) and Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV).
And they have a major enticing factor for potential sponsors: being able to show an immediate impact. “We were able to put a story and a name to the dollars that are donated to us,” said Rooney.
Once the sponsorships were under way and they began to raise money, the next challenge was finding families to help. The problem was that no one knew Folds of Honor existed because it was so new.
“How quickly the tide turns,” explained Rooney. “Initially when we started this out were able to raise money but couldn’t find recipients, and now recipients have found us at a pace that we can’t raise money to sustain.”
In 2015, Folds of Honor had 4917 submitted applications; 2559 of which were approved and funded via three scholarships for the children and/or spouses of those killed or disabled while in service to our nation.
The Children’s Fund is for private school tuition or educational tutoring of children grades K-12; the Higher Education Scholarship is intended for spouses or children accepted to attend two or four-year degree programs at accredited programs; and the Future Use Scholarship is for applicants from infancy to grade 11 to be used for the first year of a recipient’s post-secondary education—whenever that ends up being.
All told they’ve awarded over 10,069 scholarships worth almost $12.2 million in the eight years since that inspirational plane ride.
Click here to find out how you can apply for a scholarship or become a donor or sponsor.