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11/9/12 - The Trust's efforts to help NYC veterans are cited in NYTimes

The Trust's efforts to help veterans are mentioned. Learn more about our New York City Veterans' Fund.

After Two Wars, Growth Pains in Veterans' Aid

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. Read more>>



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