Tulsa World – Nonprofits aid veterans, families

November 12th, 2013

Posted: Monday, November 11, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 4:33 pm, Mon Nov 11, 2013.
By CASEY SMITH World Staff Writer | Comments | Link to Article

Tulsa, OK - When their military family moved back to Oklahoma last year, Sgt. Legrand and Carrie Strickland were determined to find a way to send their teenage sons to private school.

They wanted Noah, 16, and Nathan, 15, to be in a stable, Christian environment. One where class sizes were small enough for students and teachers and parents to really get to know and understand each other.

Legrand and Carrie Strickland walk through the Folds of Honor offices Thursday. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World

Legrand and Carrie Strickland walk through the Folds of Honor offices Thursday. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World

Nathan Strickland works in his ninth-grade history class at Rejoice High School on Thursday. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World

Nathan Strickland works in his ninth-grade history class at Rejoice High School on Thursday. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World

"I don't think people realize what a struggle it is for military kids," Carrie Strickland said. She pointed to frequent moves and — in Noah and Nathan's case — a father who spent 52 days in the hospital for severe injuries caused by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Legrand Strickland lost both legs above the knee, his jaw was shattered and he suffered a traumatic brain injury.

The Stricklands, of Owasso, knew about organizations that help with military children's college costs but were not aware help was available for primary education costs until they were contacted by the Folds of Honor Foundation. The Owasso-based nonprofit grants scholarships to spouses and dependents of military members who are severely disabled or killed in action or the line of duty.

"That was a huge blessing for us," Carrie Strickland said.

Noah and Nathan Strickland now use their scholarships to attend Rejoice Christian Schools, and their parents are thrilled with their academic, athletic and social experience in the community over the past year and a half.

"The school has been very supportive and they understand the needs of my kids, and I don't know if we would have received that at a public school," Carrie Strickland said.

Efficient giving

Whether it's Veteran's Day, the upcoming holidays or any time of the year, many people who give to charity want to help those who serve or have served the country.

Folds of Honor Foundation's most recent tax return shows that in 2011, nearly 89 percent of the organization's spending went to program service expenses like the scholarships the Strickland boys receive. Since 2007, the registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit has granted more than 5,000 scholarships of up to $5,000 for primary, secondary and other educational purposes.

Nonprofits have management and general expenses just like any organization. However, potential donors can spend limited charitable dollars as efficiently as possible by choosing nonprofits — such as Folds of Honor — that spend a relatively small portion on fundraising and non-program uses.

It's also important for donors to make sure the organization they're giving money to is a legitimate charity. It's common for fraudulent organizations to claim to help service members because of the tenderness people have for military members and families, said Sandra Miniutti, spokeswoman for charitable giving adviser Charity Navigator.

An emotional tug absolutely exists that may lead potential donors to look with less scrutiny at organizations claiming to be nonprofits associated with veterans and service members, Miniutti said.

"I think that's why we see so many nonscrupulous charities with this type of nonprofit," Miniutti said. "Who doesn't want to support our heroes?"

Whether appeals for donations are made by telephone, by mail or online, this is the time of year when such appeals will increase.

"It's important to do your homework before you give out your credit card," Miniutti said.

Charity Navigator's tip sheet for evaluating nonprofits recommends choosing organizations that spend at least 75 percent on program services. That can be determined by examining a charity's "Form 990," a report most nonprofits must submit to the federal government.

The last three years of an organization's Form 990 returns are available free through a website operated by another charity watchdog, Guidestar.org. Forms for the past three years should also be available upon request at an organization's headquarters.

Jim Ernst, accountant at Folds of Honor Foundation, said the nonprofit is in the final stages of preparing its 2012 tax return and also undergoes an annual financial audit that is available for public inspection. Audits are important because they keep organizations accountable, he said.

"It's good the public can see it," Ernst said. "It provides transparency and keeps everybody honest."

Longterm need is great

Semper Fi Fund's most recent Form 990 shows that 94 percent of spending went to program service expenses, and the nonprofit has received exceptional ratings from national charity evaluators.

The charity provides immediate financial assistance to injured service members and their families. Semper Fi Fund also provides injured service members with items and programs that aid recovery, such as water softeners that make living with burns more bearable and a rehabilitative sports program.

There is no limit on the number of times or amount of assistance the Semper Fi Fund will provide a service member, said Wendy Lethin, senior director of outreach. Lethin is one of the Marine Corps spouses who founded the nonprofit in 2004.

"That's what makes us unique," Lethin said. "We're not just once; we pledge a lifetime of support."

Since 2004, the fund that started with $500 has grown to provide more than $82 million in assistance to more than 10,500 service members, Lethin said. Close to $700,000 of that aid has gone to about 100 Oklahoma service members to whom Semper Fi Fund has provided assistance so far.

Cpl. Gregory Coates of Tulsa, a combat veteran from 2001-2005, is one of those Oklahomans who have been helped.

"Semper Fi Fund saved my life by supporting me so that I could attend different treatments that greatly helped me in my recovery," Coates said.

The Semper Fi Fund's biggest challenge is making the public aware of the organization and the needs it works to fill, Lethin said.

To keep fundraising costs down, the fund does not spend money on marketing like direct mail and television spots, instead asking groups and individuals to host fundraising events in their communities, Lethin said.

Injured service members and their families' need for support is great and will exist for years to come, Lethin and others said.

"This Veteran's Day, we ask everybody to reach out. Not only thank a veteran, but do think about how you can help someone. Give a commitment to our veterans. They committed to helping our country; it's time to make a lifetime commitment to them."

Additional scholarship availability

Since 2002, Children of Fallen Patriots has granted college scholarships totaling more than $5.8 million to children of those killed in the line of duty or while engaging in other types of military service, said Tabitha Bonilla, programs manager for the charity.

So far the Florida-based nonprofit has made sure that 377 children and their families across the country have not needed to take out student loans or use savings to pay for college.

Children of Fallen Patriots is helping Taryn Crotty pay for her final semester at Oklahoma State University. Her father, Lt. Col. Thomas Crotty, served in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the U.S. Army National Guard. He died three years ago after battling leukemia.

Taryn Crotty reached out to Children of Fallen Patriots last year after her post 9-11 benefits ran out because she was worried about taking on student loan debt. Children of Fallen Patriots not only helped with school costs, but also her housing and insurance payments.

"They know me and they know my situation, and I know that they truly care about where I'm at and how I'm doing in my life and education," she said.

Members of the nonprofit's board of advisers and directors pay all of the organization's operating expenses, so 100 percent of donations go to scholarships, Bonilla said.

Children of Fallen Patriots says it will continue this policy for as long as possible.

Check the spending breakdown

To check the portion of spending a nonprofit used for program expenses, look at the organization’s “Statement of Functional Expenses” on its Form 990 tax return. The information is found on page 10 of the charity’s Form 990.

  • Find “Total Functional Expenses” on Line 25.
  • Divide column B (program service expenses) by column A (total expenses). Then multiply the result by 100.

The resulting figure shows the percentage of a charity’s spending that is going toward the services it’s raising money for.

Source: Charity Navigator

Learn more or to donate

Folds of Honor Foundation: 918-274-4700 foldsofhonor.org

Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation: 1-866-917- 2373 fallenpatriots.org

Semper Fi Fund: 760- 725-3680 semperfifund.org

Casey Smith 918-732-8106

casey.smith@tulsaworld.com