Since the start of World War II, the US has been actively engaged in conflicts and wars for at least 48 of the past 78 years, and constantly since 1991. According to the 2016 US Census, there were 19.5 million living veterans, and that number has likely decreased since the census was taken. Looking at the demographics of our veterans, it is interesting to note how each age group relates in proportion to its comparable age group in the total population.
The ranks of our older vets from WWII and the Korean War are sadly diminishing--that "Greatest Generation" represented more than half of the total veteran population, and a larger proportion of their own age groups. This suggests that more people knew someone their own age who had served in WWII or in Korea than those involved in the later, more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does that mean we are generally less aware as a nation of the sacrifices that our veterans have made, and of the difficulties they may face as they transition back to civilian life?
In 2016, there were 5.4 million “service-connected disabilities” in 2016, up from 3.84 million only three years earlier. These disabled veterans comprised close to a third of all disabled people in the entire census.
While facts and figures on homelessness can be illusive and sometimes confusing, both government and private organizations place the number of homeless veterans on any given night as between 20,000 and 30,000. Homelessness is a complex problem, with many roots and causes, but veteran homelessness has apparently declined over the last several years, although there have been questions about how those numbers have been determined.
Suicide is another tragic issue and there was some confusion generated when the VA recently (June 2018) addressed and updated its own publication in 2012, which led many other sources to report that "22 veterans commit suicide every day." By not counting active duty service-member suicides, the VA's new number is 20.6--offering statistical consolation, perhaps, but that decline in the average number is not at all comforting from a human standpoint.
Despite the cloud of confusion and controversy surrounding that depressing datapoint, the Stars and Stripes concludes, "The VA said in a statement that it’s working with the Defense Department and the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to publish 2016 suicide statistics in the fall. The agency said it’s part of an ongoing review of millions of death records that could lead to improvements in the VA’s suicide prevention programs."
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website suggests that: “The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, “veterans helping veterans” groups. Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves. Government money, while important, is limited, and available services are often at capacity. It is critical, therefore, that community groups reach out to help provide the support, resources and opportunities that most Americans take for granted: housing, employment and health care. Veterans who participate in collaborative programs are afforded more services and have higher chances of becoming tax-paying, productive citizens again.”
The Honorable Robert Wilkie recently became Secretary of the Veterans’ Administration and he will certainly have many challenges ahead of him as he takes leadership of this immense government agency. We should all be eager to see the best possible results from his and the agency’s efforts on behalf of our fellow veterans.
The VA will operate on a budget of close to $200 billion for 2019, and nearly 500,000 vets will receive homelessness and mental health benefits. More than 9 million vets will receive healthcare benefits, 6 million have group life insurance and pension benefits, 4.5 million will receive benefits for education, and nearly 5 million will receive some form of service-connected compensation.
Across the nation, there are 45,559 501c3 nonprofit organizations, founded and dedicated to charitable work on behalf of veterans and their various needs and challenges. While unfortunately 63% of these organizations are unable to make any grants or payments, 28% grant or spend more than $250,000 each year, and the remaining 10% are able to grant or spend more than $250,000 each year on veterans and their needs. Together they contribute $2.5 billion annually for the benefit of veterans.
Although the contributions of the charitable sector seem to be just a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $150 billion that veterans receive from federal and state government sources, these charities are the “community-based” nonprofits that have proved to be most effective, and if sufficiently funded, could have the greatest social benefits for us all.
Recent scandals and fraudulent activities publicized about certain veterans’ support organizations, 501c3’s, and their leaders, may have muddied the charitable waters for veterans’ support organizations, confusing or sidelining potential donors to them, but many local organizations are currently still doing an impressive amount of good work transforming the lives of local veterans on the scantiest of budgets.
Fundraising takes up an inordinate amount of the operational budget and staff time for these small nonprofits, and because they can’t afford to have professional fundraising FTE’s on staff, they have to raise money the hard way—events, auctions, raffles, walks, rides, and golf tournaments—realizing an ROI of approximately $3 for every $1 spent, and for too many veterans' nonprofits, consuming an inordinate share of their budgets and staff time.
Not only do we, as a nation, ask our servicemembers to risk their lives in performance of their duties, we also subject them to experiences and situations that can often haunt them for the rest of their lives. When they return to civilian life, we depend primarily on federal, state, and local government funding to help them deal with challenges they may face in the transition—but for many returning veterans, this is simply not enough.
We need more charitably-inclined individuals to look around their communities and identify those nonprofits that are smoothing transitions and enhancing opportunities for veterans. Hospitals may have “grateful patients”, schools and colleges may have “grateful alumni”, but we need to see more generous, patriotic individuals from a “grateful nation” who realize that they can get the same tax benefit from the local veterans’ homeless shelter that they would get from the hospital that saved their life, or the alma mater that made them who they are today—but with even more widespread impact.
There should also be opportunities for donors to give to larger nonprofits that are already engaged in healthcare, education, mental health, homelessness and other services for the benefit of veterans, which would allow them to earmark those gifts exclusively, or with preference, for the benefit of veterans.
Pete Congleton is a veteran naval aviator and a 25-year fundraising consultant, whose consulting practice, VertRep Consulting, LLC, seeks ways to help match small nonprofits with motivated donors who are eager to see their gifts have the greatest possible social impact possible.
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A Groton and Wesleyan grad, Pete flew helicopters on active duty in the Navy for six years before embarking on a career in charitable gift planning that has since spanned three decades. As the Gift Planning Director for Groton School, University of Hartford, Virginia Tech, and The Cooper Union from 1994-2018, Pete proposed, negotiated, consulted, or closed on more than $147 million of planned gifts from wealthy individuals. Pete now runs his own consulting practice and enjoys serving small non-profits, connecting them to wealthy prospects in ways they never could before.