Pandemic Lessons from the Salvation Army

By Collin Robisheaux |  August 4, 2021

Founded in 1865, the Salvation Army was created with the mission of bringing relief and humanitarian aid to people in need. In that 156-year span, the organization has supported communities through several disasters — from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, the COVID-19 created an unprecedented global crisis that required the charity’s response.

Sharon Bussey, Territorial Mission Strategists for the Salvation Army

“During the Great Depression, we had a 700 percent increase in services,” says Steven Bussey, Territorial Mission Strategist for the Salvation Army. “[During the pandemic] we saw, like an 800 percent increase in services. So [COVID was] greater than the Great Depression, in terms of some of the economic fallout.”

During the pandemic, the Salvation Army worked with under-booked hotels to provide people shelter. When COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to the public, the organization converted its community centers into distribution centers. That’s all in addition to its longstanding missions of tackling food insecurity and housing instability.

Steven and Sharon Bussey, a married couple, both serve as Territorial Mission Strategists for the Salvation Army. In their respective roles, they oversee the Eastern North American division, and Salvation Army locations everywhere from Maine to Puerto Rico. InnoLead sat down with the pair to discuss lessons from the pandemic, making budget adjustments amidst a health crisis, and implementing strategy changes across an entire organization.

Pandemic Lessons from the Salvation Army

Steven Bussey, Territorial Mission Strategists for the Salvation Army

When the COVID-19 pandemic initially spread across the United States in March of 2020, the Salvation Army created new initiatives to best help those affected. Drive-through and delivery grocery services were created. Testing centers were established. The team also sought creative ways to lift families’ spirits while they were confined to their homes.

“We saw a Christmas drive-through so that people receiving food items also had the opportunity to have a socially distanced photograph with Santa Claus,” Sharon Bussey recalls. “[In the summer,] usually children would come to a camp for a week… So instead, what they did is they packaged items in a box and delivered them to all of the children who had registered for camp, and then did an online session with them.”

According to Steven Bussey, the pandemic united communities. Both volunteers and employees were committed to generating and implementing new ideas to meet growing needs.

“There was this accelerated experimentation that was taking place in many different locations,” Steven Bussey says. “There was a natural sharing of ideas.”

Meeting Needs on a Tight Budget

Photo courtesy of Salvation Army USA West

During previous crises, Salvation Army locations in one geography could divert resources to specific communities in need. However, COVID-19 affected communities across the globe simultaneously. “But the problem with a pandemic is that it wasn’t space bound [to one geographic location], it was everywhere,” Sharon Bussey says.

The pandemic also challenged the Salvation Army’s revenue stream. The organization generates revenue from its stores and adult rehabilitation centers. However, these in-person offerings were largely shut down. Bussey said the organization had to continue to fulfill its mission on a tight.

“I think that those are moments where you have to close your eyes and take a step of faith… We made a firm commitment that we would not stop doing what we were called to do,” Sharon Bussey said. “And so we actually cut down on any sort of other area that would limit us [or divert resources]…to basically say, ‘whatever we do, let’s serve those who were in need.'”

For a 150-year-old organization like the Salvation Army, long-term strategy is a vital part of organizational success. According to Steven Bussey, players in the for-profit space leverage competition and have developed ways to experiment and scale new ideas. These companies provide a strategic model for the Salvation Army to follow.

“If you are truly listening to your customer, [or in our case] the people who you’re seeking to serve…and then you find a way to…see consistent patterns or threats,” Steven Bussey says. “[Then, you can say,] ‘Okay, we need to address those things, those risks, and find ways to be able to solve those.'”