During “Supporting Our Military Families: Partnerships, Innovation, and Entry Points,” a session at the Annual Conference, Bess Bendet of the Blue Shield of California Foundation shared that the she has tried to convene funders who support programs for military families and veterans, but turnout has been sparse. Nancy Jamison of San Diego Grantmakers is starting a military families funders support group, a logical step in an area where perhaps 8 percent of the population has a connection to the military, but there are plenty of communities where veterans and their families are clustered and could be gaining the kind of attention that Jamison and her members are trying to generate. So why has the foundation community focused so little attention on the needs of military families and veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan war?
The session’s panelists were notably polite in their comments about the reticence of foundations to put major resources toward the needs of these populations, with possible explanations ranging from problems of the visibility of military families and of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans to insufficient knowledge of their problems and challenges. Another might be the presumption that the Veterans Administration, a mammoth federal agency and the only federal department receiving increases in appropriations, is handling the need, unaware that the VA is often a bureaucratic Rube Goldberg contraption for veterans to navigate.
I’d like to suggest three more possibilities that weren’t mentioned:
<!--[if !supportLists]-->1. <!--[endif]-->Organizations prey on veterans: Kathryn Roth-Douquet of Blue Star Families talked about the “chaotic” array of groups offering to help military families and the effort of her organization to create a “community blueprint” to help families identify those that are using “best practices.” Maybe that was a euphemism, but it doesn’t take much to encounter nonprofits that simply prey on veterans, highlighted in state and federal investigations for soliciting and misusing charitable donations. This warrants Congressional attention no less than the charitable accountability issues identified by the Senate Finance Committee in 2004, but sustained attention on Capitol Hill hasn’t been forthcoming. Foundations could put some resources out to the nonprofit sector to push state AGs, the IRS, and a few Congressional committees to turn the spotlight on the abuses. In this case, the nonprofit sector is not cleaning up itself and foundations, consciously or unconsciously, might be steering clear because of suspicions of the probity of the groups they encounter.
2. They aren’t us: With a professional, volunteer army, military families are less visible and more isolated from the mainstream population. IAVA’s Paul Rieckhoffpointed out that unless foundations are being intentional in their grantmaking about Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, they are unlikely to reach that population. As an example, he said that there are all of two housing projects in the nation that have been constructed for Iraq/Afghanistan veterans. Few foundations probably have much personal, tactile interaction with veterans and military families to be that intentional. But if philanthropy is going to focus only on the issues and populations that grantmakers know from personal experience, that is a deeper problem than their insufficient support of veterans and their families. As the plenary session on the vanishing middle class noted, grantmakers often operate within more elevated and comfortable economic and social spheres different from the profile of Americans in need. They have to look at the populations who “aren’t us” to realize that they should be on the radar screen of foundations.
3. Ambivalence about the military: It is sort of de rigeur to refer to the military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as heroes and heroines, different than the public attitude toward the veterans returning from Vietnam. Our society has gotten better with its nomenclature and syntax, but that doesn’t mean that the treatment of this era’s returning veterans and their families has been hugely better. Although the VA continues to grow, it is not necessarily seen as a resource or ally—at least not one that’s easy to access—by this era’s war veterans. Both Rieckhoff and Roth-Douquet agreed that military families and veterans don’t want to get their information from official channels, a ringing statement about the decline of faith of some Americans have in government institutions. This era’s veterans and their families are falling between the cracks because for all the “heroes” talk, society isn’t responding to, much less owning up to their needs. Foundations, no less than the rest of society, don’t significantly address the slice of American society that is connected to today’s military, especially due to service in the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Foundations would be well-advised to think of Blue Star Families and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association, headed by remarkably thoughtful and articulate leaders in the examples of Kathy Roth-Duquet and Paul Rieckhoff, as venues for philanthropic support of communications and advocacy of the needs of military families and Iraq/Afghanistan veterans. Based on the examples of Bess Bendet of the Blue Shield of California Foundation and Nancy Jamison at San Diego Grantmakers, there are plenty of avenues for foundations without “military” or “veteran” in their mission statements to engage the population that has served this nation in two increasingly unpopular recent wars. One can only hope that the U.S. eschews future militarism and foundations don’t have to contemplate what they might do to help some future war’s veterans and their families.
Rick Cohen is a columnist for NonProfit Quarterly.