When Robbie was 12 and his sister Brittany was 13, they heard the story of a soldier returning from Iraq with a near $8,000 phone bill. They couldn’t believe that a man serving his country was unable to call his family for free. So they decided to do something about it. In 2004 with just $21 and some help from their parents, Cell Phones for Soldiers was born.
Today the nonprofit organization provides cost-free communication services and emergency funding to active-duty military members and veterans. They've provided more than 300 million minutes of free talk time and have recycled 15 million cell phones for the cause. Robbie, now age 25, is the recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service and was recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List.
Donate your used cell phone to Cell Phones for Soldiers here.
This episode is sponsored by the Tikker, the death watch that counts down your life (and tells the time). Use the promo code SHIN at the checkout to get a 10% discount on your purchase.
Robbie Bergquist and his sister heard about a soldier who had an $8,000 phone bill he racked up while calling home while deployed.
They had two cousins in the armed services and so the issue touched their young hearts
Back in 2004-05, Cell Phones for Soldiers raised money to pay off cell phone bills for soldiers. One bill was $15,000!
Shortly after, Cell Phones for Soldiers began to raise awareness within the armed forces in Afghanistan about the different cell phone towers and the different costs associated with them
When Robbie and Brittany got distracted, their parents encouraged them to keep going
Robbie and Brittany missed a lot of school. They missed out on soccer and cheerleading practices because of all their traveling on behalf of Cell Phones for Soldiers
They were getting a lot of media coverage and attention and were going on speaking tours at age 12 and 13.
By 2006, they had collected tens of thousands of old cell phones and they didn’t know what to do with them
They wanted to send the cell phones overseas to the soldiers but after a media appearance announcing the plan, they were asked to cease and desist by the State Department because insurgents could triangulate the calls
“The Department of State told us to cease and desist our original plan. We were very discouraged.”
Instead, they decided to recycle and sell the cell phones to purchase calling cards that they could send to soldiers
Calling from landlines using calling cards is better for security purposes
Cell Phones for Soldiers has a facility in Alpharetta, Georgia where they collect and refurbish used cell phones
They determine the value of the used phones and resell them
Unusable phones will be scrapped for basic materials and recycled properly to reduce the impact on landfills
An ex-Verizon executive came on board to work for the charity.
Five volunteers work at the facility
“You’re supposed to create a business plan, a roadmap, and benchmarks. But for us, it was a lot of trial and error.”
Robbie’s uncles were in the telecommunications business and came to help, providing the idea to recycle and sell cell phones
“Our meetings took place at the kitchen table.”
“You don’t need a board room or wear suits and ties.”
“My parents were a little naive as to how much traction we were going to get. They did not know we would be in all 50 states, collecting millions of phones.”
Cell Phones for Soldiers has 4,000 dropoff locations
Supporters hold collection drives where they spread awareness
Lake Orion High School in Michigan has a dropoff location and the student body turned in used cell phones and the SGA donated $1 per cell phone collected. They raised a total of $5,000 total!
Most of Robbie Bergquist’s arguments happened with his mother over the direction of the nonprofit organization
During one interview, his sister Brittany answered a question for Robbie and the rest of the interview went poorly. Robbie got upset at his sister and they started arguing in front of other people
“We were your average college students.”
Robbie was a NCAA D1 soccer player so he hired a PR company to support Cell Phones for Soldiers
His parents were full-time teachers
“We realized we couldn’t do everything. We were burning candles at both ends.”
They researched 5-6 different PR companies to pick the best one possible. The company specialized in nonprofit public relations and handling daily donor requests
Aspire Communications from North Carolina was the boutique PR agency that helped
36creative created the website for Cell Phones for Soldiers which has a zip code locator feature for drop off locations
“I worked on Cell Phones for Soldiers in between classes, after classes, before classes. There were a lot of weekends I spent in the library working on the charity. I missed a lot of classes in college because of the work.”
After Robbie Bergquist graduated from college, he started to handle the PR and marketing initiatives himself
Robbie reaches out to military news outlets because he wants to get in front of an audience associated with the military
Cell Phones for Soldiers became a full-time endeavor for Robbie Bergquist after college because he wanted to continue the momentum and the family’s legacy
“I was not as confident as I am today.”
Robbie Bergquist still wants to get into the sports industry one day
Veterans come home with many challenges, especially with assimilating, paying bills, or getting jobs
Cell Phones for Soldiers gives emergency funding or cell phones to those veterans in need
It’s important to make the cause valuable to the supporter
Cell Phones for Soldiers has to compete with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and other cell phone companies that buy back old cell phones. They also have to compete with online marketplaces like eBay
Robbie Bergquist went into his work with the understanding that he was going to make less financially going into the nonprofit world, compared with investment banking for example
“It was more valuable for me to support the military than have more money in my pocket.”
Sometimes Robbie forgets to tell a story because he’s told the story so many times he gets them all mixed up in his head
It’s important to stay passionate about telling the story. He stays motivated by calling the soldiers that his nonprofit organization benefits
Robbie Bergquist stayed in touch with a sailor who received a calling card from Cell Phones for Soldiers. The sailor called Robbie in the middle of the night. He told Robbie that he had heard about where the phone cards came from watching one of Robbie’s interview on TV. He had to remove himself from the room to go outside onto the deck to cry from gratitude. There were three other guys who were also crying. Robbie was a senior in high school then.
Forbes was quiet about naming Robbie in the 30 Under 30 List until the big announcement
“We don’t do this for the recognition. But when we get it, it brings so much value to our mission.”
Robbie Bergquist is starting an initiative that will give handsets and cell phones to low-income veterans. Cell phones are important for employment and medical reasons
Robbie Bergquist is passionate about self improvement. He stays in touch with the news
He tries to stay physically active at least one hour each day
Robbie says a heartfelt thanks to his family at the end of the interview