By James Dao | New York Times | nytimes.com | November 8, 2012
GATHERING over a kitchen table and glasses of wine in early 2003, a group of officers' wives at Camp Pendleton, Calif., cobbled together a plan for helping Marines injured during the invasion of Iraq.
First they distributed snacks and toiletries at hospitals, then they bought plane tickets and special equipment for wounded Marines and their families. Volunteers all, the wives assumed that the war would end in 2004, allowing them to go happily out of business.
But the war not only continued, it expanded – and so did their endeavor. Today their organization, the Semper Fi Fund, has nationwide reach, having issued more than $66 million in emergency grants to over 8,200 service members since 2003. Last year, it raised $15 million, a record, with no letup in sight.
"Service members come back with catastrophic wounds," said Wendy Lethin, the fund's senior director of outreach and development and one of its founders. "We don't know what their needs will be 20 years from now. But we know we want to be there for a lifetime."
The Semper Fi Fund is one of the success stories from a decade of rapid expansion in philanthropy for veterans and military families. Since 2001, more than 7,800 nonprofit groups have registered with the federal government to care for troops, veterans and their families, according to the Urban Institute – a third of those in just the last three years.
The plethora of private organizations has brought comfort and vital services to thousands, filling gaps left by overwhelmed government agencies. But the rapid growth has come with problems.
Though giving to military and veterans groups has increased – a survey by the Foundation Center suggests it has more than tripled since 2001 – many veterans advocates say donations have not kept pace with the growing needs of new veterans. And with war in Afghanistan winding down and increasingly out of the news, many nonprofits worry that donations will decline as well.
"There is too much demand and not enough supply," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America, the largest advocacy group for the new veterans.
In many ways, the explosive growth of those nonprofits is a measure not only of national generosity and entrepreneurial spirit but also a more positive attitude toward veterans, certainly since Vietnam.
But now, the ability of many nonprofits to survive may depend on their willingness to consolidate services and coordinate fund-raising with competing groups.
"I've culled a network of over 25,000 organizations," said David Sutherland, a retired Army colonel who is now director of the Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Community Services, a private nonprofit group. "Getting them to work together so they are not all overlapping and chasing the same dollars is the challenge."
Pick a veteran need or niche, and there is probably a group serving it, whether it be operating homeless residences, counseling the mentally ill, awarding academic fellowships, finding jobs or running athletic events for the disabled.
Many remain mom-and-pop operations. But a few – like the Semper Fi Fund, Blue Star Families, the Wounded Warrior Project, Operation Homefront, Homes for Our Troops and the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund – have blossomed into national organizations with multimillion-dollar budgets, following the path of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the U.S.O. during previous wars.
Unlike its older siblings, this new generation has been less about advocacy and fraternity and more about providing services. Though the Department of Veterans Affairs spends more than $115 billion a year on health care, disability compensation and pensions for the nation's 21 million veterans, its programs have been stretched by a flood of ill, disabled and unemployed veterans, young and old.
Yet many potential donors do not realize that the safety net is often frayed, nonprofit leaders say. "The feeling among potential donors is that the V.A. has everything covered," said James McDonough, a retired Army colonel and senior fellow for veterans affairs at the New York State Health Foundation. "So why should we fund other initiatives?"
Nancy Berglass, director of Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund, said the small percentage of Americans with a personal stake in the wars – 2.3 million troops, less than 1 percent of the population, actually deployed – has also created obstacles to fund-raising.
"Our nation has not been asked to appreciate or contribute to the volunteer military," Ms. Berglass said. "The lack of engagement from the public is now bearing bad fruit."
But Ms. Berglass, who is widely viewed as godmother to a bevy of veterans organizations, said money was not necessarily the crucial factor. More cooperation and better research to identify effective programs would make limited resources go much further, she said.
"We need groups to be asking: Can we define a common end, and if so, how can we work together for the most efficient delivery of service?" she said.
Community-based alliances that tailor services to local needs rather than creating overlapping organizations are the most effective, she said, citing collaborative efforts by New York Community Trust and Lincoln Community Foundation in Nebraska.
The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which has long supported veterans services nationwide, has even begun concentrating its giving in the Chicago area, working with state government to help veterans navigate a confusing array of programs.
"We realized that to be effective working with veterans, you have to focus locally," said Eli Williamson, director of veterans programs for the foundation.
Because of concerns about a decline in giving, some groups have conducted collaborative fund-raising campaigns. Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America, for instance, recently created the Veterans Support Fund, a venture with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, also known as TAPS; the National Military Family Association; Operation Homefront; and Operation Mend. (A fifth group will be added in November.)
The fund will try to raise $30 million over the next few years and distribute it evenly among the nonprofits.
"This centralizes things for the Johnny Rich guy who says, 'I don’t know where to start,'" Mr. Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said.
Competition for dollars has also created friction. Bill White has helped raise money for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the Fisher House Foundation, which build therapeutic centers and lodging for wounded troops and their families. He complained recently that the U.S.O., for United Service Organizations, had started programs that overlapped with his groups' work, sowing confusion in the donor world.
"Because they've got to raise money, U.S.O. goes out and does what we're doing, putting us in direct competition for the same funding," Mr. White said. "That is to the detriment of veterans."
Sloan D. Gibson, president of the U.S.O., which was created when six nonprofit groups combined during World War II, said the group had long provided services to the wounded troops and their families, though it remained perhaps better known for entertaining troops and running airport welcome centers.
The group is now building family community centers at military medical centers at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. – places where the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund is also building centers for treating traumatic brain injuries. Mr. Gibson said the U.S.O. had consulted with both medical centers to ensure it was not duplicating services.
"It is precisely in our mission footprint," Mr. Gibson said. "If we aren't adapting to meet that kind of mission need, then shame on us."
The largest single donation made to veterans services in the last decade, and possibly ever, came from the philanthropist David Gelbaum, who over three years starting in 2006 gave nearly a quarter of a billion dollars through the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund.
The fund is widely credited with fertilizing scores of nonprofits, helping them grow strong roots not just by providing big grants but also by requiring them to focus missions and demonstrate effectiveness.
"It really did get us engaged in strategic long-term thinking," said Bonnie Carroll, the founder and chief executive of TAPS, which assists survivors of troops killed in service. With a grant of $6.5 million over three years, TAPS's staff grew from a handful of workers to 53 people today.
After the deployment fund dried up in 2009, however, one of its grantees shut down. And while some large corporations and foundations have jumped into the void, including Wal-Mart Stores and Home Depot, many nonprofit leaders complain that some of the biggest-name donors have not.
The newness of the field and vast array of groups occupying it have made some large contributors wary, philanthropic experts say. More than ever, those donors expect the groups to demonstrate impact before they write checks.
"There are millions of little organizations all over the map doing different things," said Paul Rosenberg, a partner in the Bridgespan Group, which advises nonprofit groups and donors. "So for donors, one challenge is deciding where to put money to maximize results."
Eric Greitens, a former member of the Navy SEALs and chief executive of the Mission Continues, which pays veterans to perform community services while applying for college or permanent jobs, said more corporations and foundations seemed willing to give, but only to groups that could demonstrate impact.
Goldman Sachs, for instance, gave Mission Continues $6 million over five years because it believed that the group was not simply helping individual veterans but also training future leaders. Several of its fellows went on to create new organizations, including Team Rubicon, Student Veterans of America and Veterans Farm.
"They saw many organizations, but they wanted to make an investment in one that could shape the field," Mr. Greitens said.
For that reason, some nonprofit leaders say they encourage people who want to start new groups to think instead about joining existing ones.
"We expect 2013 and 2014 to be tough years in fund-raising," said Amy Palmer, chief programs and field operations officer for Operation Homefront, a nonprofit based in San Antonio that aids military families.
"If we were asked to start Operation Homefront today, I wouldn't do it," she said. "There are too many people in this space."
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 19, 2012
An article on Nov. 9 about the growing pains of veterans' relief organizations misstated the number of grantees of the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund that shut down after it was phased out in 2009. Only one of its grantees shut down, not "some."