Lessons and Opportunities
Lessons from the field
Here are simple summaries of some of the key things you can learn from today’s best giving for vets—as presented in detail in the 12 case studies you’ve just read.
Call of Duty Endowment
CODE ignores name brands and good intentions and instead focuses its money in a disciplined way on charities that can demonstrate concrete, measurable returns. The endowment makes just one kind of grant—growth funding, solely for nonprofits that help veterans find work—which makes assessing and comparing nonprofits much more manageable. Every grantee passes a two-part audit examining organizational strength, financial stability, program delivery, and impact before qualifying to apply for a large grant. Recognizing that every nonprofit is different, CODE is still able to settle on a common group of outcome measures: number of veterans placed, quality of work (salary and full/part time status), and cost of placement.
Schultz Family Foundation
The Schultz Family Foundation built a single end-to-end employment pipeline that can carry veterans to many different types of industries and employers. Schultz and its nonprofit partners are able to connect individuals to training programs for high-demand careers starting months before they leave the service, thanks to some complicated coordination with partners in the Defense Department. Their program starts from the needs of real employers with open jobs, and reverse engineers training programs that give future vets and military spouses marketable skills.
Kohlberg and Kisco Foundations
The Kohlberg and Kisco Foundations boosted college education of veterans by mixing direct services with policy efforts. Mr. Kohlberg gave out hundreds of scholarships to veterans all around the country, then helped recipients tell their stories to legislators who had the power to create a new G.I. Bill as useful to veterans as the one Kohlberg himself had used to prepare for his business career. Today’s Post-9/11 G.I. Bill owes its existence in no small part to these efforts. Kohlberg’s more recent work combines direct services with research and policy efforts to make sure that schools are serving student veterans well.
Stick with what you know and who you trust—it can be a great way to move into a new philanthropic field with relatively little risk. Bill Ahmanson had decades-long funding relationships with two dozen private colleges and universities in Southern California, where he had funded everything from scholarships to science centers. He knew higher education could launch former servicemembers into successful civilian lives, so he gave each of his schools a recurring grant and a challenge to find ways to attract veterans to their campus. He gave them wide latitude to use the funding as they saw fit, but required annual reports on how they improved their capacities to “recruit, retain, and educate” veterans. This high level of trust opened schools up to experimentation and new programming.
J. A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation
Philanthropy in a rural state has advantages and disadvantages—there aren’t as many top-performing nonprofits, but there is great potential to have a clear impact. The Idaho-based Albertson Foundation has decades of experience navigating those waters and brought its knowledge to bear when it decided to go to work on veterans’ issues in the state. Not finding organizations in Idaho that fit its needs, the foundation recruited well-established national providers to stand up local chapters and offices. Albertson provided substantial management, advertising, and institutional support beyond funding to help the imported service providers adjust their work to Idaho’s needs and nature.
The Heinz Endowments recognized early in the game that helping veterans succeed in civilian life would not only boost a worthy population, but also benefit the wider population in any community where veterans were helped to succeed. Heinz invested in a needs-assessment to understand what would most benefit Pennsylvania veterans, and what gaps needed bridging. It found too much existing focus on crisis management, so it planted its flag on prevention of problems and programs to make veterans productive citizens. Along with its portfolio of charities specializing in empowering individuals, it invested in a formal referral system to smoothly connect vets to different charities for varying needs
Bernie Marcus has made an indelible mark on the lives of the relatively small number of catastrophically injured veterans—to whom he has committed massive resources so they can have a measure of independent living. For those who need complex concussion care, he is providing free, world-class clinics outside of the V.A. bureaucracy. And for the large majority of veterans who transition into civilian life with simpler yearnings for continued purpose and camaraderie, he’s funded a portfolio of organizations that extend esprit de corps into life after the military.
Cohen Veterans Network
The needs of veterans and their families for periodic help with mental health are not dramatically different from civilian families—many Americans wrestle at times with depression, child development issues, anger management, stress disorders. When Steve Cohen decided he wanted to support a provider of excellent assistance with these challenges he couldn’t find an impressive network. So he built a team to launch one. The Cohen Veterans Network pinpoints areas of high need around the country, then works with local partners to stand up a high-quality clinic open to veterans, military personnel, and their families. Cohen simultaneously funded a separate research initiative that will use experience from the clinics to advance understanding and treatment of syndromes like traumatic stress disorders.
Jonas Family Fund
The Jonas family put its money on long-term real-world effectiveness rather than sentimental, photogenic programs. They asked what the biggest practical barriers to improved health care are for vets, and got an unglamorous but extremely concrete answer: there aren’t enough nurses with expertise in the area. With this discovery in hand, they stepped even further in an unglamorous direction, up the training pipeline. If you want more, better-trained nurses, you have to have more good nursing professors who know something about vets. The family began to supply stimulative funding that is spurring the instruction of tens of thousands of nurses, and improving the quality of research on the intersection between nursing and the medical needs of former servicemembers.
Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation
Getting into any new field of philanthropy always poses risk—how do you pick the right priorities, find good operators, and review your own work? The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation navigated this after realizing it was already backing work with veterans through other grants, and that it could create a freestanding vets emphasis by building on those existing grant streams and areas of expertise. So it stuck close to topics where it already had experience—disability, health, job training. It also clung tightly to its mission and charter, for instance, by favoring capital projects and general operating expenses, and not giving to higher education (priorities that came from its founders). It recruited an expert advisory committee, and started off with small grants broadly distributed, allowing it to gradually learn which providers respond best.
USAA triangulated three factors: What veterans and military families (upon whom their original business was founded) need. What their foundation is expert at providing. And what other corporate funders weren’t addressing. Consultants, employee surveys, and peer comparisons were then employed to pick precise focus areas: military caregivers, financial preparedness of veterans, and jobs for vets and military spouses. The foundation then adjusted all of its operations—from its technology backbone, to its advisory groups, to the employee matching-gift campaign—to serve the new strategy.
The Independence Project is an example of the way intermediaries can organize donor collaborations that are big and savvy enough to attack deep, complex problems. This effort is using private philanthropy to experiment with dramatically new approaches to veterans enmeshed in the V.A. disability program, which discourages healing, self-improvement, independent activity, and work. It is reimagining ways that an outdated but entrenched program could be reformed so injured vets are able to rehabilitate themselves and become proud, self-reliant citizens.
Opportunities for donors
Now it’s your turn. We hope that the sterling givers profiled in this book inspire you to make your own mark on the field. To start you off, we’ve listed below some ripe opportunities. Excitingly, many of these opportunities are already being pioneered by donors eager to partner with additional funders and expand good work. In other instances, there are chances for philanthropists to open new doors and originate important services for the first time.
- Expand the nonprofits identified by the Call of Duty Endowment as being most effective at getting veterans into jobs. A list of charities awarded its Seal of Distinction can be found at CallOfDutyEndowment.org. Some concentrate on particular regions; many serve veterans all around the country. You could support ongoing operations, bring the employment supports to a new place, or work with special sub groups like Reservists or candidates for engineering and tech jobs.
- Fund programs that help military spouses find work. Some organizations that support veteran employment, like Hire Heroes USA and Corporate America Supports You, also serve military spouses. Others, like Blue Star Families, focus specifically on military spouses.
- Fund a nationally representative study of the employment situation of veterans. Current government survey methods use weak definitions of employment, don’t capture large enough samples to be meaningful, and don’t capture hard-to-define problems like underemployment.
- Support existing efforts to begin training servicemembers for high-demand careers just before they leave the military. The Schultz Family Foundation’s Onward to Opportunity program has already organized pathways, found training and job-search providers, organized employer partners, and gotten difficult government approvals.
- Support charities that train veterans to start and run businesses, like Syracuse University’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans, or peer learning environments and incubation spaces for veteran entrepreneurs like those provided by the Robert McCormick-funded Bunker Labs.
- Contribute to programs that match veterans and servicemembers with civilian career mentors who help them prepare for the labor market, like American Corporate Partners.
- Fund advocacy and programs that improve the translation of military certifications to civilian career fields, so that veterans can get recognition of the skills they have built up during their service. The Kresge Foundation has supported work along these lines through the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
- Support rigorous evaluation of promising employment programs. Many of the most exciting ones serving veterans still lack gold-standard evidence.
- Fund rigorous evaluations of public programs serving veterans—approximately 90 percent of all government programs have never been rigorously evaluated to determine effectiveness. Philanthropies like the Laura and John Arnold Foundation have invested heavily in measuring whether government programs are accomplishing what they set out to do.
- Support advocacy work to remove perverse incentives to employment built into many benefits for veterans, like disability compensation. This is a problem that plagues safety-net programs generally in America, but it is especially tragic when very young, public-spirited, abnormally experienced and talented veterans are sidelined by poorly designed entitlements.
- Support programs explicitly dedicated to moving veterans from dependence on government programs to self-reliance, meaningful careers, and community engagement.
- Underwrite advisory counseling for veterans (preferably before they even leave military service) to improve their understanding of opportunities in higher education before they use their benefits, commit to schools, accumulate debt, and enter career paths that may not be optimal.
- Fund high-quality universities to expand their outreach to veterans and adjust their application processes for these non-traditional students.
- Fund a private university to expand the number of Yellow Ribbon slots (scholarships that cover the difference between G.I. Bill funding and private-school tuition) that it offers veterans. Because the V.A. matches any dollars universities invest, your money will be doubled.
- Fund academic bootcamps where veterans headed to college can refresh the skills they will need to succeed and graduate—for most it will have been years since stepping foot in a traditional classroom. Individual schools could provide this as a pre-orientation program. National organizations like the Warrior Scholar Project could expand the services they deliver to more students.
- Sponsor on-campus groups that provide veterans with peer support through the national chapter-based Student Veterans of America.
- Expand evidence-based programs shown to help student veterans navigate the challenges of college life and improve student retention rates, like the Bristol Myers-Squibb Foundation-funded Peer Advisors for Veteran Education.
- Support research into factors that promote student veteran success, as the Kisco Foundation is doing with community colleges around the country.
- Help high-performing employment organizations connect with student veterans as they approach graduation and find suitable careers.
- For student veterans whose G.I. Bill has been used up and who still have one or two semesters of schooling left to complete, create a revolving interest-free student-loan fund, or one in which payments represent a set percentage of income. You’ll help bridge a funding gap without sinking veterans into unpayable debt, and the revolving nature of the fund will allow many veterans to benefit in the long run.
- Invest in efforts that help veterans get college credit for study, skills, and certifications they earned in the military. Forcing students to retake courses they mastered in the military is a waste of veteran time and taxpayer dollars. Some funders like the Ahmanson Foundation and the Albertson Foundation have already supported this on a school-by-school basis. Others, like the Lumina Foundation, have taken a broader approach, funding the Midwestern Higher Education Compact to set guidelines which member schools follow, through the Multi-State Collaborative on Military Credit.
Physical and Mental Health
- For the catastrophically injured, fund surgeries that the DoD and V.A. will not cover or cannot provide in areas like facial, limb, and genital reconstruction. UCLA’s Operation Mend has been offering plastic surgery and other reconstructive services to veterans for years now thanks to the support of generous donors like Ron Katz and David Gelbaum.
- Expand high-quality mental-health clinics that provide free, culturally competent care to veterans and military families in communities around the country, focusing on a range of adjustment-related conditions. Steve Cohen has already put cash on the barrelhead to organize a network of these clinics, pay for their launch, and conduct quality assurance. Contributing to the Cohen Veterans Network will leverage the substantial investment already made.
- Support intensive diagnostics and treatment for veterans who suffer long-term symptoms of concussion and brain injury. The Marcus Foundation has taken a lead role in organizing and vetting top-shelf clinics around the country like the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center. Help to expand this network of veteran concussion clinics.
- Help to stock the pool of healing talent serving veterans and military families by sponsoring medical, psychological, and social-work programs teaching about this population. The Jonas Fund has supported veteran-focused researchers to become nursing professors to expand competence among nurses; the University of Southern California School of Social Work has a focus on vets; and the Cohen Veterans Network trains young clinicians.
- Support research into the effectiveness and cost of non-traditional approaches to pain management and mental-health conditions. Many well-intentioned programs exist, but few have enough evidence for veterans and their doctors to know what works.
- Support research and treatment of prescription-drug abuse in the veteran population. Although up-to-date research is limited, veterans today are likely facing the same problem with opioid addiction as Americans more broadly.
- Press for policy changes that would make it easier for community clinics and other health-care providers outside the V.A. apparatus to receive reimbursements for serving V.A.-eligible patients.
- Family caregivers who spend significant time helping injured servicemembers perform the functions of daily life are often overlooked. Bolster organizations like the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which raises funds to support research and services to aid relatives and friends who provide crucial care to injured veterans.
- Underwrite programs that help military families reconnect after deployments or other strains of military life. The Marcus Foundation and others have invested heavily in Boulder Crest, a retreat program that offers veterans and military families a chance to communicate and recharge.
- Fund research on ways to enhance the life quality of military families, like the work done by Blue Star Families. In addition to alleviating pressures on this population, it strengthens national security when servicemembers don’t have to choose between family success and their military career.
- Support programs that help military spouses find work—their constant moving makes it particularly hard for them to locate and hold jobs and advance in their careers.
- Help charitable efforts, like the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, that comfort Gold Star Families who have lost loved ones in military service.
- Support organizations that promote healthy social activities for veterans, and mix them with community peers, leaders, and mentors. Team Red, White, and Blue provides very popular athletic outings through chapters all around the country—with many positive effects on physical and psychological health, community spirit, peer networking, family life, and social integration.
- Engage veterans in civilian service through organizations like The Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, or The 6th Branch. These serve community needs at the same time that they build purpose, camaraderie, and connection among veterans.
- If you aren’t sure what the biggest needs of veterans in your area are, conduct a thorough needs assessment. Organizations like the Center for a New American Security, RAND, and the University of Southern California’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families all have experience running these.
Housing, Legal, and Financial
- Contribute to the building of adaptive smart-homes for the most catastrophically injured veterans. The numbers are not overwhelming—it is possible in the next five years to provide every catastrophically injured veteran with a home that allows independent living. Philanthropic leaders like the Marcus Foundation have already identified partners that get the job done quickly and efficiently.
- Support legal clinics that help veterans with routine civil legal problems like divorce, child support, landlord disputes, business licensing, financial liens, and so forth that can interfere with work, family life, and peace of mind. The Bristol Myers-Squibb Foundation-funded Connecticut Veterans Legal Center has been a national leader here.
- Expand opportunities for veterans in pre-trial diversionary programs (most commonly in the form of Veteran Treatment Courts).
- If you provide emergency financial assistance, structure it as an interest-free loan, and pair the funding with financial coaching to help make sure veterans and military families don’t fall into the same money traps again.
- Support a fellowship in journalism to report on veterans from the perspective that they are civic assets, not victims.
- Support longitudinal research on the particular identities, strengths, and needs of veterans who volunteered for service in the post-9/11 era. They are different in important ways from previous generations of veterans. Nonprofits like the Henry Jackson Foundation and its Veterans Metrics Initiative can be helpful in pulling together factual information needed for customizing nonprofit work to be as effective as possible among a particular population.