One of the best panels at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference, “Supporting Our Military Families: Partnerships, Innovation, and Entry Points,” addressed how philanthropy can most effectively address the needs of military families. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have this challenge, if U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan hadn’t led to the creation of more than two million new veterans, and the needs of military families would disappear as this nation winds down its presence in Iraq and hopefully does the same soon in Afghanistan?
Convened and led by Bess Bendet of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the panel offered serial “aha” moments for the foundation representatives who attended, many with existing programmatic efforts addressing the needs of veterans and their families. (Note: The Council’s Stephanie Powers came into the session at the end and noted that the Council institutionally is concerned about veterans and their families and looking to work with its members and the Veterans Administration to bring some concentrated attention to what foundations can and should do through public-private partnerships).
Here are a few of the notable “aha” moments:
- Steve Lawrence of the Foundation Center (based on what he described as very preliminary data): Out of $21 billion in grantmaking by the top 1,300 or so foundations in the country in 2010 (with grants of more than $10,000), grantmaking specifically identified as connected to military veteran and military families was about $65 million, and maybe one-fifth of that really focused on military families. It may be that many more foundations, by virtue of their programs and geography, assist military families but don’t record their grantmaking that way. But no one would have possibly suggested that foundations are much engaged in helping veterans and their families.
- Bendet: Blue Shield didn’t really aim to create a program for military families. It was really looking at addressing problems of domestic violence and encountered the high rate of domestic violence and other problems among the families of returning veterans. Many foundations can help military families through their more topical family, youth, and education grantmaking; they don’t have to start a military/veteran mission to get there.
- Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: He suggested that there might be some 40,000 nonprofits that profess to provide support to veterans or their families. But which ones are good and reputable, and which ones can and should Iraq and Afghanistan veterans turn to? There’s no way of sorting through them at the moment.
- Kathy Roth-Douquet, founder and CEO of Blue Star Families: Many of those charities send care packages, which is fine, but there are much deeper challenges facing veterans and their families. She says it is very difficult for military families to know which groups are active and legitimate.
- Roth-Douquet: As government employees, members of the military cannot advocate, but their families can. She created Blue Star Families to give families of active duty service members “a seat at the table” to advocate for solutions. Founded only three years ago, Blue Star Families now has 50,000 members in 50 chapters around the world. The regular military family lifestyle survey the group conducts reveals that military families volunteer three times more frequently than nonmilitary, a reflection of the self-help resilience orientation of military families.
- Rieckhoff: Since 9/11, 2.4 million people have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but their specific kinds of needs might not be well served by existing veterans organizations whose constituencies are Vietnam vets in their 60s, not Iraq/Afghanistan vets in their 20s. As members of a professional military, they are different –older, with a much higher proportion of vets who are married with families—than the 19 year old draftees who typically served in Vietnam.
- Rieckhoff: Iraq/Afghanistan vets, he suggested, don’t quite trust or turn to the military or the VA for assistance. “The VA is not getting the job done,” Reickoff said. His figures are that only 55 percent of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans use the VA, yet they have “an explosion of needs,” including a 17 percent unemployment rate among IAVA members. To help Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, there is a question of cultural competence, groups that might work well with Vietnam or Korean veterans might not possess the skills and approaches needed to be effective with the newer veterans of the past 10 years of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
- Roth-Douquet: She noted a 26 percent unemployment rate among military spouses is a contributing factor to difficulties in veterans’ reintegration back into their communities and families. She also suggested that the problems of demobilized members of the military occur over a long period of time; for example, mental health problems manifesting themselves over a period of seven to nine years.
Rick Cohen is a columnist for NonProfit Quarterly.