Op Ed

Thinking about Supporting Veterans Services?

April 28, 2016

There are over 40,000 registered non-profit organizations in the nation which serve veterans and the military. This statement drives me crazy. While technically true, it gives the impression that there is an abundance of services and the general public and philanthropic communities need not concern themselves with veterans. This is not the case.

What are these organizations?

Phil Carter of the Center for a New American Security has broken it down in his report, Charting the Sea of Goodwill. The report steps back and looks at the landscape of veteran support and addresses truths that I am happy to see revealed.

First, almost 80%, or 33,347 of those 42,035 non-profits counted are local posts of veteran’s organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. These individual posts serve a vital purpose for their local communities, members, and their local veterans, but generally do not provide a menu of regular services.

Just 3,035 of the 42,035 non-profit organizations cited may or may not engage in regular services and have staff or provide a consistent array of services such as housing, employment and training, legal assistance, or health and social services. These organizations may operate in very different ways and deliver very different kinds of services and supports, from support for survivors to peer engagement.

How are organizations like Swords to Plowshares supported?

We and our partners in veteran services rely on a combination of government, foundation, and private funding to deliver our services. In recent years, we have seen an increase in popular support of veterans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans placed a tremendous burden on active duty, reserve and National Guard forces. We as a nation, saw the injuries and the economic stresses of current-era veterans and recognized the legacy of unmet needs among veterans of previous wars. Our mission was clear: intervene quickly to support newer veterans and take steps to address years of neglect, particularly chronic long-term homelessness in older veterans.

That said, as the Sea of Goodwill reveals, public sentiment in the form of philanthropic investment saw only a very slight and brief increase which has leveled off. The significant majority of funding for community-based veteran organizations, including Swords to Plowshares comes from federal grants and contracts. That funding has increased since 2001, notably through the campaign to end veteran homelessness. The VA’s pledge to end homelessness has been a tremendous success with the adoption and expansion of focused programs including Supportive Services for Veterans and Families (SSVF) which provides for rapid re-housing and eviction prevention, HUD/VASH vouchers which provides permanent supportive housing.

What’s next?

We know that the increase in government support both directly within the Department of Veterans Affairs and for grants and contracts with community-based organizations is going to decline. In some cases, that is appropriate. In 2014, the VA rolled out a surge in SSVF funding in 56 communities across the country. These funds were distributed to community-based organizations who could quickly intercede to rapidly re-house veterans and their families or prevent eviction. During the same timeframe, the VA had gotten into the permanent supportive housing field through the HUD/VASH vouchers program. These programs coupled with Department of Labor employment grants, and the commitment of localities through the Mayor’s Challenge helped localities begin to design and expand systems to address the stream of homelessness. So long as these ongoing systems functions well, the initial investments can be viewed as start-up costs.

That is not to say that the veteran services field is not deeply concerned about the future of veteran support. It certainly does not help when we hear news that an organization whose assets are far and away out of sync with the general field and has not lived up to its donor’s expectations. We worry that as the wars recede, so will public and private support, and worse, that individual supporters will distrust the field as a whole.

I encourage all to continue to support programs for veterans, whether through your elected officials or in your community. Do your homework. Every non-profit should provide easy access to their financials and you can check them out on Guidestar, as well. Look into their services and impact, their history and connection to your community. Then make your decision to support veterans in a way that works for you and to ensure that they are not forgotten as the fresh memories for war recede.

Amy Fairweather directs Swords to Plowshares Institute for Veteran Policy (IVP) which conducts public policy research regarding veterans’ health, access to benefits and socioeconomic well-being. She has worked in the field of public health policy, in particular with and for trauma survivors, since 1999. Ms. Fairweather serves as the chair of the California Governor’s Inter-Agency Council Health Committee. Amy received her undergraduate degree from Mills College and her Juris Doctor from the Hastings College of the Law. She is a member of State Bar of California.