How Philanthropy is Helping Veterans Navigate the Workforce

As Lekendric Doyle faced the end of his naval career, he wasn’t sure where to go next. But when he connected with the D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families, everything clicked into place. The organization, based out of Syracuse University, has several programs for veterans looking to jump in, or back in, to the workforce. For Doyle, it was the Onward to Opportunity program that stood out.  

Doyle had no college degree, but through IVMF, he had the time and opportunity not only to get his project management certification, but also to complete his ​Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and his ​bachelor’s degree. Today, Doyle works for aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. 

IVMF, Doyle says, “gave me the opportunity to seize my own time, and without doing that I would not have been successful in my endeavors. 

“Time was the key piece, and the mentorship from the program, to really help me achieve that,” he adds.  


Problems Persist During Transition Out of Service 

For other veterans, the transition is not so easy. Only one in four have a job ready when they transition out of the service, per Pew Research Center. “Finding a job after their military service affects nearly 200,000 veterans every year,” CBS reports. “A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study from 2016 found that 53% of veterans are unemployed for four months or longer after leaving the military.” 

Many veterans lack the degrees or certifications necessary to find gainful employment. Some find themselves out of a job, while others flounder at a poorly paying and unfulfilling career.  

This continuing problem isn’t due to a lack of effort in the nonprofit world. But it may be made worse by some nonprofits that refuse to do more than throw money at the problem.  

The most infamous example is the Wounded Warrior Project. In 2016, the nonprofit came under fire for spending “lavishly on itself,” per a New York Times exposé. The “country’s largest and fastest-growing veterans charity,” the paper reported, “has spent millions a year on travel, dinners, hotels and conferences that often seemed more lavish than appropriate.” 

Top executives were subsequently fired, and the organization tried to rebrand. But a massive budget with little oversight is a recipe for disaster, nonprofit leaders say. Luckily, there are many veterans organizations committed to getting a real return on their investment.  


Putting Veterans on the Path to Success 

IVMF works with veterans and military spouses to help them succeed in the civilian workforce ​primarily ​through three programs:​ career training, entrepreneurship training and navigation of community services​. Onward to Opportunity, the career training program that helped Doyle, offers 40 different learning pathways, from training in information technology to business management and customer service, free of charge.  

“It’s an excellent opportunity to help veterans transition, and it provides a supportive environment where you can start to look outward from the military and gain a grasp on what there is out in the world for you as a veteran,” Doyle says.  

IVMF has built a diverse alumni network as well as an impressive slate of corporate partners, including Walmart, J.P. Morgan​ Chase, Fiserv​ and USAA.  

Maureen Casey, chief operating officer for IVMF, says despite their unique skill sets, veterans can face a disconnect with ​potential ​employers, who aren’t always sure ​how military skills translate to the private sector.​​     ​ 

“We need to ensure that there’s some cultural competency​ on both sides [employers and veterans]​,” Casey says. “Some of ​[veterans’]​​ ​challenges are going to be unique. We just have to help them overcome them​,​ and we know they will be very valued community members.” 

Importantly, she explains, IVMF measures its success not ​only ​on the number of veterans it serves, but on their outcomes.  


How Philanthropists Can Fund Effective Organizations  

As philanthropists research organizations that help veterans find meaningful careers in the civilian workforce, Aaron MacLean, senior director at the Paul E. Singer Foundation and a board member at Philanthropy Roundtable, warns them against adopting a dangerous mentality.  

“It’s easy to see ways in which a disconnect [between employers and veterans] could appear,” he explains. “But it’s important that philanthropists resist buying into a victimhood model or mentality about veterans.” 

MacLean, who was an active-duty Marine for seven years, says although veterans may need unique assistance, they are not victims.  

“You see in a lot of places in our society this notion of a veteran as this wounded bird that needs very special care and treatment to be reintegrated into society,” he says. “Generally speaking, that’s just false. I think, if anything, veterans are valuable to any employer.” 

After all, veterans certainly develop many soft skills that could be beneficial to a potential employer. But they have hard skills, such as logistics, as well. The key is the transition.  

“But I do think it would be possible to do harm, operating with an attitude where you’re encouraging people who are not victims to think of themselves as victims,” he says.  

If traps for organizations focusing on veterans in the workforce include wild spending and lack of oversight, plus the danger of embracing a victimhood mentality, who should philanthropists look to as a success story?  

Dan Goldenberg, executive director for the Call of Duty Endowment, says the nonprofit spent its first ​three​​ ​years as a “typical corporate philanthropy​ effort​.” They wrote big checks with little to show for them, he says, and large​, well-known​ nonprofit partners failed to show impact.  

​​In 2013​, the endowment moved to an accountability-based model. “W​e’re deeply skeptical about​​ ​trust-based philanthropy,” Goldenberg says.  

This doesn’t mean underperforming nonprofits are left out to dry. In fact, the opposite is true.  

Call of Duty Endowment currently supports 10 nonprofits with a turnover rate of “maybe 10% per year.” It ​assesses​​ ​the groups every quarter, ​reevaluating annually, ​looking for a strong ratio of veterans served to veterans placed​ into high-quality jobs​. ​This gives the nonprofits opportunities to improve. ​ 

​​For example, a number of grantees that were off track in their placement numbers turned out to have unsophisticated outreach capabilities, Goldenberg says.​ ​T​he quarterly evaluations helped the endowment ​identify and address this critical gap​. It was able to connect those groups to social media experts, ​fund​​ ​website improvements ​and​​ ​automate client service functions. ​The nonprofits were back on track within a year.​ 

“​Conversations like this​​ ​are super helpful for coaching these nonprofits, but also for ​channeling targeted resources to improve their performance,” ​Goldenberg​​ ​says.  

To ensure its money is going to the right place, ​the ​Call of Duty Endowment also doesn’t partner with organizations ​that haven’t passed its formal performance assessment and also presented audited financials.​​     ​ 

“If you love an organization, you need to invest in systemically evaluating their performance,” he says. 

Organizations that are held accountable continue to get better, Goldenberg says.  

“​While we started with impact results similar to U.S. government programs, today o​ur grantees​ ​place veterans into jobs for 1/13 the cost of the federal government’s efforts. Last year, every $618 placed a veteran in a job.​ This has enabled us to fund the placement of 125,000 veterans—that’s a group two-thirds the size of the U.S. Marine Corps.”​​     ​ 


An Urgent Need to “Step Up” for Veterans 

While the government pours billions of dollars into the Department of Veterans Affairs, many veterans find it is too slow to meet their needs, or they are ineligible for VA support.  

“Federal agencies do what they can, but it really needs to be a public-private partnership to fill in the gaps,” Casey says. ​The VA isn’t always able to provide certain kinds of support to families​, making IVMF’s support of military spouses key for transitioning families.  

This is not to mention the VA scandal from a decade ago when an internal audit revealed tens of thousands of veterans were waiting 90-plus days to receive health care. Despite the controversy, the VA is still being criticized for its wait times.  

The infamous failure of the government when it comes to supporting veterans leaves the door open for policy philanthropy, MacLean says. But “the lower hanging fruit, and what philanthropists who are interested in this subject should challenge themselves to do, is to be what philanthropy can be: the flourishing of civil society to take on challenges in ways that civil society can actually do best.” 

The philanthropic sector certainly isn’t lacking in veterans’ organizations. Typing the word “veteran” into Guidestar yields more than 36,000 results. With so many options, the lack of accountability in some veterans’ nonprofits has harmed others, as less successful organizations essentially siphon funds from more successful ones.  

“There are too many veteran nonprofits​ and ​precious few market forces to hold them accountable​.​​ ​​At the same time, ​the amount of money going into the space​,​ if anything​,​ is decreasing,” Goldenberg​ says​. ​“As a result, high-performing nonprofits are under-resourced, and low-performing organizations with big names are kept on life support.”​ 

Meanwhile, there is an urgent need for results.  

“The way we treat our veterans has become a national security issue,” Goldenberg says, adding that for the last two years, each military branch besides the Marines has missed its recruiting goals. “The perception is that veterans have bad outcomes after their service.” 

That perception, he emphasizes, “is not a true story.” As Casey notes, veterans are much more likely to be entrepreneurs than the general population. According to Small Business Administration data from 2022, veterans owned nearly two million businesses and employed more than five million people.  

“We should step up when they return and ensure they have every opportunity to thrive post-service,” Casey says.  

And while high-profile scandals may have turned some philanthropists off from supporting veterans’ charities, they can still make a great impact if they find the right groups to support.  

“There’s a saying in the military that amateurs focus on tactics, professionals focus on ​logistics​. Same for philanthropy,” Goldenberg says.  

When funders throw money at the problem without oversight, they risk seeing their money wasted on overhead, excessive spending or programs that sound nice in theory but don’t really work. When funders and nonprofits work together to focus on measurable outcomes, they can help people like Doyle find a new career — and truly change people’s lives. 

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