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An army of soup, soap and salvation

Dorothy McBride earned an M.B.A. and Ph.D. in business administration, climbing the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. But at age 42, she decided to chuck her successful business and military careers to answer this job posting:

Invest two years of training, at your own expense, to earn low pay for long hours dealing with desperate people. Uniform required.

So did Don Ross, a lawyer who spent nearly three decades at General Electric. Carol Dilley Jaudes, one of the cast members of the Broadway hit Cats, signed up, too.

McBride, Ross and Jaudes now work for the Salvation Army, best known for its red kettles and ringing bells during the holidays. To these aging Baby Boomers, it's a way to have a second or third career that has more spiritual meaning.

The Salvation Army relies on them to do more for less. The work force of 2-million officers, employees and volunteers serves 30-million people each year, or about one in every 10 Americans. Management guru Peter Drucker dubs Salvation Army officers "venture capitalists" because their "investment in people gets incredible returns."

Drucker's enthusiasm helped inspire Robert A. Watson, recently retired national commander of the Salvation Army, and journalist Ben Brown, to write about the Salvation Army's strategy in a business context, not just a story of comforting the afflicted. The Most Effective Organization in the U.S.: Leadership Secrets of The Salvation Army draws its title from a Drucker quote about the group's ability to operate.

In an era of disposable companies, this organization has staying power. The Salvation Army started in America in March 1880 with just one man, seven women and two flags. (The group was founded 15 years earlier in England by William Booth.)

The Salvation Army bases its mission on the Bible and practices what some call a "holistic ministry _ soup, soap and salvation." Its canteens became familiar during disasters beginning in 1900 in Galveston, Texas, where a hurricane slammed the town and killed 5,000 people. (As the book was published, more than 4,000 of Watson's colleagues pitched in to help after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.)

The Salvation Army helps the military in times of war. During World War I, women known as "Sallies" baked donuts, darned socks and sang hymns with soldiers near the front lines.

At home, they have always helped needy families. That's how Watson first got involved with the Salvation Army. His father was an alcoholic and his mother turned to the Salvation Army for food and clothing for their six children. She got a part-time job with the group and the children attended Salvation Army after-school programs. Eventually, all six siblings became officers with the group.

Investing in families like the Watsons, then recruiting them as future partners, helped build the organization into a national network. The Salvation Army is now a $2-billion enterprise. Still, one of its greatest strengths is its leanness. Corporate headquarters has less than 100 people to oversee all U.S. operations. At least 83 cents of every dollar raised goes to services for those in need; the other 17 cents covers administration.

The blue uniforms worn by officers symbolizes that "we are all cut from the same cloth," Watson writes. In modern times, it's also cost-effective advertising, much like the red kettles.

And over-paid CEOs like Michael Eisner should take note: Watson and his co-CEO and wife Alice earned less than $74,000 a year, including taxable benefits of housing and transportation.

That's one of the main themes of the book: organizations are made up of people, who want to connect with something besides the obsession with quarterly profits and stock prices. Managers must recognize that and create workplaces that are challenging and fulfilling. Most lack enough joy and spiritual perspective. One bit of evidence offered by the author: the number of Dilbert comic strips posted near workstations.

At a time of too many dreadful management books, this one offers heart-felt advice from someone who spent his career helping others. Instead of relying on consultants, the Salvation Army's best management practice is to "Engage the Spirit," which is based on Mark 8:36. "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

Watson sees the increasing number of cadets over age 30 in Salvation Army training classes as proof of a greater shift toward seeking purpose, not just profits. Consider M.B.A. McBride, who believes she's part of a "a fairly significant move" of reaching out to others. "A simpler lifestyle serves your own spiritual and emotional well-being," she says.

You can see the ripple effect of each person who enlists. Look at the Salvation Army's Dallas operation. In one year, it provides emergency help to 76,107 people, serves 515,000 meals and helps 2,185 men trying to overcome drug and alcohol addictions, among other chores.

It also provides a lesson on warehouse management during the busy season. The Dallas chapter provides Christmas gifts for 200,000 needy children. The gifts of toys and clothing are provided by "angels," individual or corporate donors. In the week before Christmas, the Dallas Salvation Army workers distribute the gifts to 180 families per hour. The entire program is run by one full-time Salvation Army employee, who recruits volunteers to help during the crunch time.

Perhaps the message of selfless service is catching on. There's awaiting list for volunteers who want to help play Santa Claus.

Alecia Swasy, Times Assistant Managing Editor/Business, is author of Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble.

THE MOST EFFECTIVE ORGANIZATION IN THE U.S.:

Leadership Secrets of The Salvation Army

By Robert A. Watson and Ben Brown

Crown, $25, 256 pp

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