Veterans Philanthropy:
Considerations When Giving to Veteran-Related Charities

By Cynthia Strauss

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The needs of veterans and their families are vast and complex. Government departments such as Defense and Veterans Affairs, while providing a tremendous amount of support to veterans and their families, have been challenged in recent years to meet the enormous needs of this sector. Philanthropy is a key resource to complement government efforts and address unmet needs to improve services to veteran-related causes.

When I first approached this space, I had heard that giving to veteran-related charities is not straightforward, but did not know why. To learn more, I reached out to experts on veterans and military philanthropy for their advice.

We know all good grant making has its challenges, but through my conversations with these experts, I discovered that veterans philanthropy is extremely challenging. Let me explain: donors to this sector, unlike in many other types of philanthropy, must account for the “double heart.” The desire to help individuals (one heart) is compounded by feelings of patriotism (the second heart). This can lead to less critical donor decision-making, which also supports numbers of charities flourishing despite less effective programs and management. Only when we strip away much of the emotion and look at the complex problems veterans face with a critical eye can we as donors make the lasting difference we seek.

Below are four of the most important things I have learned about veterans philanthropy.

1. Focus on reintegration.

Veterans returning home from service face a range of issues, from cultural reintegration to adjusting to life with a serious medical issue. However, veterans philanthropy often focuses on thanking veterans for their service, and does not address the more pressing challenge of helping veterans successfully and sustainably transition back into civilian life.

To address reintegration, experts recommend stepping back to take a holistic view, determining whether the organization focuses on short-term needs or solves for the long-term issues that affect veterans.

“Consider the incentives that programs create. Much of veterans philanthropy is sentimental in nature, thanking veterans for their service. This feel-good charity, however, can seriously interfere with and discourage healthy reintegration. Philanthropists should ultimately ask themselves if their grants empower veterans to realize their potential and give veterans the tools to succeed as self-reliant civilians.”

Thomas Meyer,
The Philanthropy Roundtable

“We need to spend more time focusing on engagement strategies that prevent and intervene early rather than focusing on the end result like homelessness and residential treatment programs. While these services are needed, more effort and attention needs to be placed on the front end so that we can have an impact on homelessness, substance abuse, and other issues that disproportionately affect veterans.”

Anthony Hassan, USC Center for Innovation and Research
on Veterans and Military Family

“The challenges veterans face–whether finding meaningful employment, reentering formal education, accessing medical care, or reconnecting with family and community–should be addressed in ways that recognize their tremendous potential, and develop their significant talents.”

Thomas Meyer,
The Philanthropy Roundtable

2. Act locally.

Reintegration is about supporting these well trained individuals in the communities where they live. While veterans receive support from the federal government, some of the most effective solutions are being implemented at the local level and in collaboration with other groups. It is best to approach veterans philanthropy by focusing on issues you know best, with solutions that are implemented locally, in your target community.

“When thinking about veterans philanthropy, consider collective impact groups–small groups of stakeholders who have the resources and existing relationships to work well together and play to the strengths of the community. These groups are flexible and dynamic, and use data to refine their strategies to become effective agents for community change. Collective impact initiatives can help guide community practitioners, build networks, inform policy, and identify broadly applicable and effective solutions that rely on promising preventive strategies.”

Anthony Hassan, USC Center for Innovation and Research
on Veterans and Military Family

Start with what you know and bring that expertise to bear on the challenges and opportunities facing veterans and military families. Rather than considering veterans a wholly separate category of grant making, think about how your overall giving strategy might benefit from adding a veterans component.

In areas where veterans are disproportionately affected by certain challenges, smart giving can allow service providers to dedicate extra resources or tailored programming to this population. Taking advantage of preexisting human service infrastructure can make for more effective and inexpensive interventions.

Recognizing your niche and built-in expertise as a funder can also help narrow what may seem like an overwhelming field. It will help focus your energies on specific programs and concrete interventions, and avoid wasting resources on vague all-encompassing proposals or silver-bullet answers outside of your area of expertise.”

Thomas Meyer,
The Philanthropy Roundtable

3. Give with heart…and head.

With any philanthropy, it is sometimes difficult to cut through emotion and assess causes with a critical eye. With veteran-related issues, assessment is even more challenging: donors give to veterans issues not only because we care about the cause, but also because it demonstrates our patriotism and gratitude for veterans’ service – the “double heart” challenge that I mentioned.

However, it is crucial that donors assess this space with the same clear head with which they assess other charitable causes, looking for a charity’s impact and outcomes.

Focus on outcomes. Veterans philanthropy is a fairly young field and often lacks sophistication, particularly around evaluation. For this reason, donors should pay particular attention to measurement – not only of the services delivered, but the outcomes achieved by the programs they support. Beyond ensuring their own dollars are well spent, donors’ understanding of which programs work for what reasons will be tremendously helpful to peers and service providers in this fast-developing space.”

Thomas Meyer,
The Philanthropy Roundtable

“There is a critical need to develop a new and coordinated set of policies, practices, and programs to create a comprehensive, effective, and efficient system that empowers all constituents to deliver extraordinary services to our veterans and their families. Veterans philanthropy would benefit from investment in a stable and trusted collective impact group that plays a catalytic role in building a supportive environment, acting as the touchstone for creating more efficient and coordinated community support systems, focused on prevention and early intervention for veterans and their families.”

Anthony Hassan, USC Center for Innovation and Research
on Veterans and Military Family

4. Learn more.

Veterans philanthropy is complicated, but a thoughtful strategy can be instrumental in creating important, lasting change in the way services are provided to veterans and military families.

Below are resources from some of the experts who helped me in my philanthropic journey. This veterans philanthropy research may help inform your giving and ensure that it is as effective, significant, and meaningful as possible.

As with any thoughtful grant making, we suggest you support only charities that you recognize, confirm that the organization has 501(c)(3) public charity status, and do not respond to unsolicited inquiries or provide personal information.

Investing in the Best
Nancy Berglass, Center for New American Security

Serving Those Who Served: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Assisting Veterans and Military Families
Thomas Meyer, The Philanthropy Roundtable

USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Family
Anthony Hassan, Director, USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Family

Philanthropic giving is personal in nature and with that in mind, Fidelity Charitable does not recommend one charity over another. However, we hope that the information included here will help offer some guidance when tackling this important issue. In that same spirit, we can offer key questions when considering support to any charity:

  • Does the charity offer relevant services?
  • Does it have a proven track record with the target population or cause?
  • Is their financial performance and governance strong and transparent?
  • Does it have a track record of collaboration and established

Although complex, the issues facing veterans are not insurmountable and your giving has the potential to make a positive impact. Whether you are new to this space or already give to veteran-related causes, I hope these insights help to guide you in your philanthropic strategy.


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