Fletcher Gill of Luke’s Wings: “If you don’t love it, you’re going to fail”

You know the saying “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The opposite is also true: if it’s anything less than love, then you’ll burn out and tap out. Every single time. I will admit, when I start burning out, I ask about the flights we’re providing, and […]

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You know the saying “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The opposite is also true: if it’s anything less than love, then you’ll burn out and tap out. Every single time. I will admit, when I start burning out, I ask about the flights we’re providing, and I listen to the stories. When I discover that we reunited a family with only a few hours left in the service member’s life, I remember why we do this. It’s like drinking from the holy grail.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fletcher Gill.

Fletcher Gill is the co-founder and CEO of Luke’s Wings and is the Managing Partner at The Genau Group, in Washington, D.C. Fletcher is a husband, father, and an active member of the community dedicating himself both personally and professionally to helping others.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I currently reside in Bethesda, MD with my wife and our two children. I grew up in Northwest D.C. and earned my Bachelor of Science in Accounting and International Business at Penn State University. My father passed away shortly after graduation and the news hit me like a punch in the stomach. One of the hardest parts about losing my dad was not having the chance to say goodbye, which is why I feel so strongly about what we do at Luke’s Wings. We give people the chance to say goodbye or offer support to carry them through recovery. For the past 13 years we have had one clear mission, and for the first four years of the organization’s inception, I only received a $1 annual salary to ensure every penny was focused on providing flights for those in need. The number one thing I believe in running this charity is staying accountable to the people I serve.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your nonprofit?

Luke’s Wings was founded in 2008 after I had lunch with a good friend of mine, Sarah Wingfield, who at the time was a Redskins Cheerleader Ambassador. In 2007, she was on a morale visit to Walter Reed when she met U.S. Army Sergeant Luke Shirley, a double amputee recovering from his injuries far away from his loved ones. Trying to start up a conversation, Sarah immediately noticed that Luke was disinterested in talking to anyone. However, his entire demeanor changed when his mom, who was there serving as his non-medical attendant, walked into the room. A few months later and, after learning more, we found that the government provides just three flights for loved ones to be present upon initial injury. Once those flights are purchased, usually within the first weeks of being injured, families and friends are financially responsible for their own transportation to and from the hospital. From this conversation, Luke’s Wings was created with the purpose of raising money to book flights for loved ones to visit their warriors at Walter Reed. Today, we now serve a long list of military medical facilities, VA medical centers, and hospice facilities across the country and have provided airfare for families across all 50 states and internationally. While our warriors receive exceptional medical care across the country, our complimentary flights provide critical support that goes beyond what a hospital can provide.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

Luke’s Wings saw a need and gap in the military community and stepped in to fill it. Soldiers were coming home from serving our country with life altering conditions and were left alone in hospital rooms without the physical presence of loved ones. By bringing families together, Luke’s Wings is able to boost morale of our service members and veterans, giving them the strength to recover faster and stronger. We have received countless testimonies stating how Luke’s Wings has changed their lives and helped them transition into their new sense of normalcy. We aim to educate our community on the needs of our service members and provide resources to better aid those who have given so much to our country.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

Every story Luke’s Wings receives touches your heart. We have received calls from a mother who wants to get to her son’s bedside after an injury, a wife who wants to be with her husband during procedures, and a family who urgently needs to be present to say their final goodbyes. One story in particular that stands out is from a service member who has been battling cancer due to exposure from JP5/8 jet fuel. He needed a flight to receive treatment at a facility that was across the country from his home and Luke’s Wings jumped in. He was fighting for a chance to live and was determined to watch his three children grow up. Luke’s Wings made it possible for him to fly out in the morning and receive the care he needed while also ensuring that he would be home by bedtime tuck his children in. With Luke’s Wings by his side, he has been able to beat cancer seven times and not miss out on any moments big or small, such as a birth of a child or a family dinner.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The three main things that you can do is to support, educate, and bring awareness to the needs of our military community. Be advocates for our wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from the beginning of their service through the rest of their life. Together, we can make sure our service members and veterans have the support for them and their families to battle hardships and celebrate milestones together.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is about creating your vision, setting the example, and showing your team how to accomplish it. It’s being the cheerleader for the mission, the first one in the office and last one out, but more than that, it’s getting comfortable with the idea that “you can’t do it alone.” So often we are taught to be independent and self-reliant, but I have learned that asking for help is the only way to accomplish your goal. It allows others an opportunity to participate and serve your mission. The more I ask for help, the more I find people who are eagerly looking for ways to help others.

To me, that’s the exciting thing: Pulling a team together, convincing the team members that we have a worthy cause and a common goal and that they should help me (and more importantly, each other)…then organizing the team in such a way that it functions just as well when I’m not there, as it does when I am there….in fact, perhaps, functions even better without me. I see that every day with our team at Luke’s Wings. All I do is bring the right people together, and then the magic happens. The team develops the workflow, the procedures, and the approaches. It’s amazing.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You must be patient and be understanding of how long it REALLY takes:

Textbooks talk about business development benchmarks at the 3 year mark and 5 year mark. They talk about how a business “succeeds” if it maintains into the 5th year. But never have I read a textbook that tells the truth about how long it REALLY takes. For example: did you know Chick-fil-A had its first location in the 1940’s? And it wasn’t until the mid-1960’s that it opened its first in-mall location? And it wasn’t until 1986 that it had its first drive through location? I remember my first Chick-fil-A sandwich in Tyson’s Galleria Mall in 1999, and thinking “this NEW place is awesome….it’s new and it came from nowhere, and overnight, they made this!!!” But I was wrong. It was 60 years in the making, and it was multigenerational. The same is true for non-profits. Luke’s Wings was founded in January 2008. How long does it take? We are almost into our 14th year, and: are we where we want to be? Yes and No. Yes; in so far as we have the perfect team of amazing people. And No; in so far as we’ve just scratched the surface in terms of what we’re capable of achieving, both in terms of donation revenue and also benevolent services provided. So, how much longer will it take? The answer is: “as long as it takes.”

2. You will need to move like water, but be ridged like wood:

In 14 years, every day, I’m challenged to learn something new. Right now, I’m trying to learn about a new CRM, a new email portal, and a new bank account. Every day, there is a new challenge I’ve never seen before, and with it, something new to learn. One must always be willing to move like water, and change and adapt, or be left behind. At the same time however, I have always been completely focused and steadfast in maintaining the same mission and goal: keep families together during hospital recovery. Period. (like the Chick-fil-A sandwich….it’s been the same since 1946!).

3. If you don’t love it, you’re going to fail. There’s just no way around it. It’s a fact.

You know the saying “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The opposite is also true: if it’s anything less than love, then you’ll burn out and tap out. Every single time. I will admit, when I start burning out, I ask about the flights we’re providing, and I listen to the stories. When I discover that we reunited a family with only a few hours left in the service member’s life, I remember why we do this. It’s like drinking from the holy grail.

4. The only opinion about you that matters is your own:

My mother always told me, “If you like yourself, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter one bit what other people think of you.” I had to tell myself that quite often in the early years, between 2008 and maybe 2012. There were always skeptics and nay-sayers and frankly, jealous people, who wanted me/us to fail. There were even people who made concerted efforts to diminish our reputation and cast doubt amongst the donor audiences. But it didn’t matter to me because no matter what, the only opinion that mattered (about me or Luke’s Wings) was mine.

5. Water the flowers and not the weeds:

While running a business, there are always positives and negatives. Put your energy and your focus into the positives. Water the flowers and not the weeds. For example: if someone quits, it’s easy to look at the negative (the loss) and it’s easy to put one’s energy into dwelling on it. However, this negative path only leads to a negative outcome. Instead, focus on the reality that now there is an empty desk and an opportunity to fill the seat with the perfect person….the person that will do great things for the cause. I try to refocus the energy into finding and hiring the new person and look at the positive in the situation. It’s not easy, but if you’re going to start a charity, you should know; this to succeed, one must have this attribute.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit?

With which prominent leader would I like to share the idea of Luke’s Wings? The easy answer follows: Any leader who would be willing to participate on our board of directors or board of advisors, so they could leverage their power and influence to help us achieve our mission. Similarly, any corporate leader who would support us financially on behalf of their company and their employees. This is what we need: $500 for every flight for every mom or wife or son or daughter, so they too can be by their loved one’s hospital bedside during their darkest and most challenging times.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “man can be destroyed but never defeated.” Or “family is everything.” The first quote comes from my earlier years, when I was scared and unsure of my future. The second quote is one which resonates with me more and more each day, in my current life, as I discover how truly special it is to have the love and attention of my children.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers visit the Luke’s Wings website, lukeswings.org, or follow along on our social media channels.

Facebook: @Lukeswings Instagram: @lukeswingsusa Twitter: @lukeswingsusa LinkedIn: Luke’s Wings

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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