For veterans coming home from America’s longest war ever—Afghanistan—and from the war in Iraq, the conditions are mixed when it comes to charity and philanthropy. To its credit, the Council on Foundations is trying to do something about that with the establishment of a “Community of Practice” on veterans’ philanthropy.

At the Council’s community foundations conference in San Diego this week, the logical connection to military and veterans’ issues was obvious. San Diego has one of the proportionally highest active duty populations in the U.S., with the presence of multiple Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard bases and facilities and the nation’s largest military population housed in group quarters. Combining active military and civilian employees of the military plus persons in the Reserve and National Guard, there were more military civilian people in installations in California in 2009 than in any other state.

All isn’t necessarily good for veterans in philanthropic circles—or in society overall, for that matter. A smaller and smaller proportion of the American population serves in the military; since the end of conscription in 1973, it’s now only 0.5 percent of the population, compared to 12 percent during World War II, over two percent of the population during the Korean War, and just under two percent during the Vietnam War. In Congress, a very small proportion of senators and representatives are military veterans, and we would guess that the percentage of foundation leaders and professional staff with military connections is pretty small as well.

While in San Diego, the participants at the Community Foundations conference get to have a tangible connection to a concentrated presence of members of the military and their family members, but for most of philanthropy, people in the military and recent veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq drawdowns are a population known from watching the evening news rather than from direct contact. It’s just a fact, a matter of numbers. It makes the need for the Council on Foundations to promote philanthropic support for veterans’ needs critically important, because most philanthropists are unlikely to have the tactile relationship with veterans that they have with other populations and other subject matters, such as health, education, housing, and the environment.


Charitable Challenges for Veterans

An indication of the challenge at the intersection of charity and veterans can be seen in this year’s Combined Federal Campaign, the charitable fundraising effort conducted among federal government staff, including people in the military. This year, for the 52nd annual Combined Federal Campaign, the fundraising target for the National Capital Region CFC has been shaved from the $15.2 million that was raised last year to $12.5 million this year, an 18 percent reduction. Of the two federations of military-related charities that participate in the CFC—which, by the way, are eligible for donations from military and non-military personnel in the campaign—Military Family and Veterans Service Organizations of America (representing 71 charities) reported that its charitable receipts were down 16.6 percent in 2012 from the previous year. (This was the first year for the Military Support Groups of America federation, representing 51 charities, so there is no comparative data.)

These charities are part of what Admiral Mike Mullen called a “sea of goodwill” of community leaders and local charities that want to help returning veterans transition back to civilian life. The sea of goodwill, however, is confusing for individual donors and institutional givers. Mullen and others suggest that there are 40,000 charities in the U.S. that purport to be dedicated to serving veterans and their families. That doesn’t count the numerous organizations that aren’t specifically dedicated to serving veterans, but do so anyhow because, when they offer housing, employment, and health programs, the users include both non-veterans and veterans. Navigating this sea is difficult, leading institutional givers to say that they value and appreciate the contributions of veterans in this nation’s overseas wars, but in terms of their grantmaking, they don’t “do” veterans.

That’s one part of the challenge. Another is the social and physical distance of most Americans from veterans. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said not long ago about the American public, “Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction, a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally”. As a result, the needs of veterans who return from Iraq and Afghanistan with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBI) often go unmet. Numerous sources debate the extent of PTSD and TBI among returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but figures estimating no less than 20 percent having PTSD are probably low, considering about half of veterans with PTSD do not seek treatment. Citing Veterans Administration numbers, Mother Jones reports that 239,174 veterans who have been diagnosed with PTSD, apparently over 228,000 of whom are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Despite the sea of goodwill, these veterans with PTSD face discrimination in getting jobs and other assistance due to what USA Today calls “PTSD bias.” Employers and others increasingly assume that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, making them potentially unstable and prone to violence, and discriminate unnecessarily and improperly toward soldiers, regardless of the severity or even existence of a disability. The press exacerbates this by making default judgments about “troubled veterans,” classifying Navy Yards shooter Aaron Alexis a troubled veteran with PTSD even though he had never been deployed overseas and had no diagnosis of or treatment for PTSD. There’s no evidence that persons with PTSD are more prone to violence than people without (see here and here). However, social distance between civilians and veterans makes the myths about veterans difficult to dispel.


The Military Response, Then and Now

In 2010, Major John W. Copeland and Colonel David Sutherland, on behalf of the Warrior and Family Support program of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a white paper using Admiral Mullen’s concept: “Sea of Goodwill: Matching the Donor to the Need.” Their white paper raised the challenge not only to 40,000 or so veterans’ charities, but the 400,000 URLs of organizations that purport to support men and women in or coming out of the military. They called for “communities and our nation to provide the ‘reintegration trinity’ of education; a meaningful and secure career; and the ability to access quality, long-term medical and psychological healthcare that is needed for our military veterans and their families to stay competitive and productive.” Their solution? Community-based efforts that “channel…the tide of this Sea of Goodwill to assist high-and low-risk Service members, veterans, and families as they adjust and reintegrate into civilian life…Prioritizing and linking the needs of warriors and families with donors in an organized fashion will allow a better application of resources.”

In their conception, the Sea of Goodwill would be planned and organized at the local level through “Community Action Teams” of nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies working from a blueprint of sorts that analyzed the “preexisting governmental structures, donors, and institutions that assist our veterans and their families,” identified the “gaps and seams that exist in resources, requirements, information, and understanding of the unique needs of Service members, veterans, their families, and the families of the fallen,” a categorization of the agency resources “against the trinity of education, employment, and healthcare,” and a strategy for communicating this inventory, particularly to donors, so that resources go where they are most needed. A number of entities followed the white paper with a “community blueprint” strategy for veterans initiatives, notably Points of Light. Colonel Sutherland himself subsequently established the Dixon Center at Easter Seals as a national home for the Community Action Team concept, to serve as a “clearinghouse for ideas, strategies and innovation that facilitate understanding, alignment, action and advocacy to more efficiently and effectively enlist and organize needed services, supports and opportunities.”

Nonetheless, the Sea of Goodwill doesn’t seem to have become much more settled. The number of nonprofits in the NTEE’s W30 category for military and veterans organizations is still large at 41,490, though down from 42,128 a year ago and 46,593 in August of 2010:

Size of org. by revenue

# registered orgs

July 2013



July 2013

LT $100,000





















GT $100m







Over 94 percent of these organizations operate, as of this year, on budgets of less than $1 million, making the typical veterans’ organization smaller than the typical nonprofit. To some funders, it looks cacophonous: in the words of one foundation executive, “a scattered disorganized field of NGOs.” For funders who might be interested in providing assistance to veterans, it is a confusing scene. In conversation after conversation, the frustration of funders with the field is audible.

Between 2008 and 2012, the most frequent and active grantmakers in the military/veterans space have been the Wal-Mart Foundation, several community foundations (Silicon Valley, San Diego, the DC National Capital Region, Texas, the New York Community Trust), bank and other corporate foundations (USAA, Bank of America, Verizon, Wells Fargo), and a handful of private family or institutional foundations (El Pomar, Perot). The top recipients by numbers of grants in the realm of organizations that provide services to veterans include the Wounded Warrior Project, Fisher House Foundation, the USO, Paralyzed Veterans of America, with the Wounded Warrior Project accounting for the largest proportion of the number of grants—approximately three percent of the total. Do these philanthropic distributions reflect what veterans need?

At the COF conference, the Joint Chiefs took advantage of the venue to release a new concept paper, a second stage in the military’s approach to sorting through the confusion and noise, promoting public-private partnerships. The unidentified authors take on the problem of 40,000 veterans organizations with a kinder take than many: “These organizations usually understand well local community problems. However, some of these private organizations are fatigued, frustrated with bureaucracy, or unaware of related efforts that could influence their communities.”

The paper also conveys a fear that many bring up in conversations off the record—that the drawdowns of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan “will likely shift attention away from the military…[and] may reinforce the misperception that the nation’s military has successfully returned home.” This could lead to a loss of charitable donations and volunteer efforts; in their words, “a reduction in the Sea of Goodwill.” Concerned that organizations working in their siloes would perpetuate “inefficient redundancies while Veterans and Military Families struggle during the transition and reintegration phases,” the authors recommend creating or bolstering formal public-private partnerships, “rigid enough to withstand external pressures to disband or abandon the effort when facing difficult circumstances but flexible enough to change focus and priorities when the needs of Veterans and Military Families shift within the affected community.”

It is not hard to feel the concern that uncoordinated efforts will have problems in dealing with the scrutiny of government agency auditors concerned about the accountability and outcomes of public funding. There is also the concern that superficial, ineffectual efforts will lead to a waning of public support for important veterans programs:

“Some communities wrongly confuse a strong public-private partnership with strong community support. Though community support in the form of free tickets to local events or festivals for Military Families or annual community-based military appreciation events are valued and indicate the strength of the American appreciation and patriotism, this type of support is short-lived, and fails to help identify and pursue sustainable solutions for the needs of reintegrating Veterans and Military Families. Communities have an opportunity to graduate their good will and appreciation into more substantive programs and services if our Nation hopes to redefine successfully reintegrated Military Families.”

This is a significant challenge for the 41,000 veteran-serving nonprofits and the many others that have popped up. Good-times charity efforts make everyone feel good, but returning veterans need a lot more than tickets, and are often reluctant to reach out for help. For wounded warriors in particular, asking for help sometimes feels like a stigma, or else they don’t know what help to ask for.

Amid mentions of a variety of public-private partnerships, the paper highlights three kinds: Community Action Teams (as described in the Copeland/Sutherland paper), exemplified by the Augusta Warrior Project, highly coordinated services and one-on-one support for military families; linking up with educational institutions, with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, a partnership of Syracuse University and JP Morgan Chase, as an well-respected model; and public policy advocacy for legislative change, including ideas such as helping veterans receive licensure or academic credit for the skills they honed in the military, increasing access for veterans and their families to high quality child care, helping veterans deal with issues of mortgage lending and foreclosure, and the creation of “Veterans Treatment Courts” for veterans involved in the criminal justice system.


The Meaning for Nonprofits and Foundations

At the Council’s Community Foundations conference, Colonel James Isenhower III, the director of the Warrior and Family Support Office, presented the white paper. A COF staff person blogging from the conference reported on examples of collaborative programs such as the McCormick Foundation’s work with Major League Baseball on their “Welcome Back Veterans” program, the San Diego Grantmakers Association’s role as a neutral convener “that brings people together to do stuff better and then to share what they learned,” and positive stories from other participants in the working lunch on veterans issues.

Given the stories and concerns in both of the Joint Chiefs’ white papers, the discussion sounds like it was motivated by caring and concern, but remained mired in storytelling, rather than crafting a system to get public and private sector charities coordinated in response to the presence of a couple of million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars trying to reintegrate into civilian life stateside.

The Council’s leadership—and community foundations’ leadership—on this issue should be crucial in going forward, especially if observers are right that the drawdown from the Middle East may lead to a lower sense of attention and urgency within the American public. First of all, the role of community foundations as the conveners of Community Action Teams ought to be obvious. While community foundations may not be the largest grantmakers in the military/veterans space, unlikely to match the multimillion-dollar grants of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, and others, they are the most active grantmakers for military/veterans issues, reflecting their likelihood to be connected to people and their needs. Between 2008 and 2012, while not necessarily complete, the Foundation Center’s online database of grants on the topic of military/veterans shows community foundations as very active and worthy of recognition:

Ranking of Foundations by Number of Grants for Military/Veterans 2008-2012

Foundation grantmaker

Number of grants

Wal-Mart Foundation


New York Community Trust


USAA Foundation


Silicon Valley Community Foundation


Community Foundation for the National Capital Region


Greater Kansas City Community Foundation


Bank of America Charitable Foundation


Communities Foundation of Texas


Verizon Foundation


San Diego Foundation


Miami Foundation


Wells Fargo Foundation


Omaha Community Foundation


Perot Foundation


Dallas Foundation


Minneapolis Foundation


Pritzker Charitable Distribution Fund


El Pomar Foundation


Grainger Foundation Inc.


Houston Community Foundation, Greater


Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program


Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta


Emerson Charitable Trust


Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation


Cleveland Foundation


Columbus Foundation and Affiliated Organizations


Denver Foundation


As the highlighting shows, the clear majority of active grantmakers in this space are community foundations, positioned to connect local resources to veterans’ needs not in a one-size-fits-all model, but crafted to the specific needs of the veterans population they are hopefully getting to better understand.

As grantmakers, they can also speak to the variety of institutional and family foundations that are sitting on the sidelines, expressing support and concern for veterans, but “don’t ‘do’ veterans” when asked to put their money where their mouths are. (To give some credit to that reluctance, the two Joint Chiefs’ white papers make the challenge here explicit. Successful veterans programs aren’t quick hits. Programs for hiring veterans don’t succeed simply by virtue of a day or two of meetings between veterans and employers. It takes one-on-one support, mentoring, and guidance over the long term to make veterans’ transitions to civilian life successful for them and their families.)

The second Joint Chiefs paper underscores the need of community stakeholders to come together on a “regular, recurring basis—working through actionable objectives.” Community foundations as grantmakers and facilitators can play a role in making these convenings truly collaborative and recurrent. In Orange County, California, for example, Carol Ferguson of the Orange County Community Foundation told NPQ about the efforts of the Orange County Military and Veterans Collaborative, a recent effort designed to overcome the fragmentation of veterans’ service providers. Though donor-advised funds and through their general grantmaking pools, community foundations can, in theory, catalyze the community-level teamwork that both white papers identify as crucial.

Nonetheless, despite the call for advocacy in the Joint Chiefs’ white paper and the recognition that public-private partnerships are necessary, the white paper seemed to underplay, if not overlook, critical public sector and public policy incentives. Both white papers entirely omitted the Veterans Administration, which is the main venue for returning veterans for finding resources and support. The VA has made public-private partnerships an important priority in getting its services to veterans in need, in recognition that the older bureaucratic style of VA service delivery wasn’t working. While there are many who are suspicious of the VA’s ability to carry this forward as it deals with its own internal cultural barriers along with prescriptive regulations and limitations in the laws promulgated by Congress, others report that the VA, particularly in the wake of the excoriatingly harsh commentary it received during the past couple of years for huge delays in adjudicating veterans’ claims, is making a valiant effort to turn things around. Moreover, unlike all other parts of the federal government’s discretionary domestic budget, sequestration has not adversely affected the VA budget. In fact, several VA programs have quickly increased in funding size, despite the nation’s budgetary woes.

One wonders what occupants of the White House can do, but on this score, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden can play a useful role with philanthropy. Their “Joining Forces” initiative focused on employing the veterans makes them a great bully pulpit for the philanthropic sector. The employment focus is particularly important since President Obama just approved new regulations (Section 503) requiring all of the nation’s 250,000 federal contractors to hire a minimum of seven percent of their workforces as persons with disabilities and the Vietnam Era Veterans Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) to fill a targeted percentage of jobs with veterans. Beyond these rules, for example, there are tax incentives for hiring persons with disabilities and incentives for hiring veterans. In public-private partnerships, the nonprofits and foundations need to have clear-eyed, factual assessments of the capabilities and incentives—and pulpits—available to their public sector partners.

Ultimately, the test for foundations in this space is going to be the content of the “community of practice” that the Council on Foundations is setting up. Interviewees suggested that this might be a point of contact for foundations to find information and resources about veterans programs and to upload and discuss their own programs and findings. The technology platform in a way formalizes the Council’s increasing interest in and commitment to issues about veterans reflected in a couple of convenings last year: one co-sponsored with the Philanthropy Roundtable, the other in a session with Senator Tom Harkin and Governor Jack Markell through the National Governors Association.

Stephanie Powers, the managing director of the Council on Foundations’ Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative, looks at the Joint Chiefs’ white paper and the Council’s community of practice as something of a timely convergence of interest. To Powers, the white paper is a “big marker for them,” a formal acknowledgement of the importance of public-private partnerships and the role of foundations as “the key partner.”

Convening community foundations as the venue for the Joint Chiefs makes a great deal of sense, given their informal and formal leadership roles at the local levels. Nonetheless, white papers and communities of practice become real only with intentional effort. Adding another Internet site for foundations to find information about veterans’ needs is fine, but to do more than distribute information generated by others and available on other websites, the Council might have to be more proactive. Public-private partnerships involve active players who see their mutual interests in joining forces, not passive entities reluctantly dragged to the table. Similarly, pronouncements of partnership beliefs from the Joint Chiefs are fine, but the military has to mobilize its own public sector allies in the VA and the Department of Labor to serve as active participants in the generation of real partnerships that change conditions for veterans, especially veterans with disabilities.