The past 15 years are the longest period of sustained conflict in America’s history. Never before have we asked so few to do so much for so long. While the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) do what they can to support our combat veterans, it simply isn’t reasonable to think they will be able to help every service member, veteran, and family member. The private sector and philanthropy have an important role to play in addressing gaps and developing and delivering innovative programming that solve real problems.
This notion was at the heart of the creation of many military and veteran-focused nonprofits some 14 years ago. Like all new ventures, in the beginning, it was all about purity, patriotism, and mission; ensuring that the families of the fallen, wounded service members and their families knew they would be taken care of, and never forgotten.
A dozen or so years later, as reflected in recent news reports and feedback from many warriors and family members, it is clear that a number of organizations seem to be losing their way.
“Like many fellow combat veterans, and members of the public, I care about only one thing: that we do what is required to ensure that our veterans have the opportunity to come all the way home,” explains Ken Falke, chairman and founder of Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness and the EOD Warrior Foundation and long-time veteran philanthropist. “My belief – based on my personal experience and those of so many others past and present – is that no one is stronger than those who have endured war. It is incumbent upon each of us, and ever more so those of us who have donned the uniform, to honor the promise of those recruiting ads that compelled us to join.”
With a remarkably generous public beginning to turn their attention to other pressing issues and needs, it is critical that we assure those who support our nation’s warriors that their money is being invested wisely, and that organizations are laser-focused on their mission and the constituency they serve.
With that mind, here are some key tips designed to reassure donors and guide organizations serving veterans:
- For Donors:
o If your priority is a focus on physical injuries – including severe burns, blindness, amputations, and paralysis – look for organizations that provide warriors and caregivers with the maximum amount of independence and comfort. Support organizations that provide caregiver support, home ownership assistance, adaptive cars, and other equipment that provides for mobility and dignity. The lives of those with physical injuries often get far more difficult and challenging with age – and long-term care and support strategies must be part of an organization’s strategy.
o If your priority is a focus on invisible injuries – PTSD, combat-related stress, TBIs – and their impacts, such as unemployment, homelessness, and suicide – insist on organizations that are measuring and reporting the impact of their efforts, using respected measurement tools. Seek to understand what makes them unique, effective, and sustained over the medium and long-term. Ensure they offer services for the entire family – because we know that PTSD is, in fact, contagious.
o If your priority is a focus on advocacy – don’t hesitate to ask your local congressional representatives who spend time in their offices advocating and look to major governmental and non-governmental organizations, like the VA and DoD, to see who is actually affecting policy change. Long-term military and veteran benefits that include issues like healthcare, pay, education, and housing should be at the forefront of advocacy group efforts. Membership size and demographics of organizations is also very important to understand.
o Stay local. Charities that really understand the needs of their community will in fact succeed in solving problems better than national charities. If you do want to support national organizations, ensure they are making a meaningful and sustained local difference.
o Don’t be afraid to ask about overhead. There is nothing wrong with an organization investing in fundraising, office space, and salaries. However, there is a balance – be mindful of organizations paying salaries to their CEO and others that are equivalent to that of the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of VA combined.
o Look for organizations that embody the military ethos. Men and women join the military out of a sense of service, passion, commitment, and mission-focus – not financial gain. Look for organizations and individuals who represent those values. You will know it when you see it.
o Insist upon supporting organizations that recognize the true potential of these men and women. We so often focus on helping warriors out of a desire to honor what they have done, instead of focusing on how those experiences have prepared them for all they can and will do.
- For Organizations:
o Remember why you exist. Go back and reflect upon the history of your organization. Many began with a simple idea – derived from something that helped a veteran or civilian in a time of need, who then sought to share that with others. Staying connected to humble origins facilitates mission-focus and allows all of your employees to remember why you exist.
o Reflect and mirror the community you are serving. As veterans, we were taught to do things together and not worry about who receives the credit. As organizations, we must continue to collaborate, and elevate mission above ego and logo.
o Focus on what you are good at. Far too many organizations are a mile wide and an inch deep. Be great at a couple of things rather than mediocre at a bunch of things.
o Be mindful about handouts that are more likely to create a sense of entitlement than a sense of adjustment. Focus on delivering real and effective programs that solve major challenges.
o Ensure that those you serve and civilians in your communities understand the true power and potential of our nation’s combat veterans. As it stands, 83 percent of Americans believe post-9/11 veterans are broken. This is not only false and tragic, but it jeopardizes our ability to recruit and maintain the world’s most powerful military.
o Nonprofit explains your tax status, not how you should run your organization. Run your organzation like a business, and ensure you have a plan for long-term sustainment that fills gaps that our government cannot.
“After 14 years, we simply have not made sufficient progress against the key challenges facing this current generation of warriors. We can – and must – do better,” adds Falke. “These men and women should be our Next Greatest Generation. Whether that occurs is up to all of us.”
As the nation’s first privately funded wellness center dedicated exclusively to combat veterans and their families, Boulder Crest Retreat is taking a leadership role in developing a comprehensive strategy to ensure that the road home from war is a journey filled with growth, purpose and continued service at home. Boulder Crest Retreat is developing the nation’s first non-clinical curriculum for post-traumatic growth, leveraging our breakthrough and innovative Warrior PATHH program. This effort will ensure that Warrior PATHH can be delivered in communities across the nation and also support our efforts to create similar world-class Retreats in communities featuring heavy concentrations of veterans.
The Retreat welcomes combat veterans who are active-duty, reserve and National Guard, veterans, family members and caregivers, and Gold Star Families. Boulder Crest Retreat is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization that is funded entirely by private donations by individuals and organizations from around the country. For more information about the retreat, please go to www.bouldercrestretreat.org. View a video about the Boulder Crest Retreat here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KztgmScOQLw.