The needs of military veterans continue to grow while the support for military veterans settles to a "new post-9/11 norm." As this occurs, veterans' charities will need to re-think their models and innovate to continue to meet this growing mission of veteran support.
An Un-Sustainable Model
Since before World War II veterans' charities and support organizations in America have generally operated under one of three revenue models -- revenue from member dues, donations or a combination of the two.
In the years since 9/11, goodwill and support for veterans and veterans' charities has as dramatically increased. In parallel, the number of veterans' charities in America has surged to the point where some estimates place the number of veteran non-profits at over 60,000. This includes the growth of what some call "mega-charities" with annual revenue of over $100 million.
I would like to believe that the explosion of veterans' charities is driven exclusively by desires of good individuals to make a real impact in the lives of veterans. But reports show that there are many unscrupulous individuals and organizations focused on enriching themselves while relegating their veteran support mission to little more than an afterthought. While the vast majority of veterans' charities are aboveboard, negative publicity on the few bad apples results in some potential donors to become weary of supporting veterans' causes.
As robust as the "Sea of Goodwill" has been, it will almost certainly plateau and potentially even subside as donor attention wanes. This seems inevitable even as the long-term needs of American's veterans will likely increase in the years to come. As a result, veterans' charities face an uncertain future. They must figure out how to drive the revenue they need to sustain operations as their power to drive revenue through cause marketing and fundraising declines.
We must also look at Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) that have existed back into the 1800s. The elder statesmen of the VSO community, American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Disabled American Veterans and a few others are generally tied to a membership model that, for younger generations of veterans, may not be sustainable in the future.
The Growing Need
According to the Veterans Administration FY 2013 report, there are 3.84 million veterans who have a VA disability rating, with the number still on the rise. Studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent of the 2.8 million US troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a related condition. Even though our engagement in armed conflicts may be subsiding, the needs of veterans will continue for decades to come.
Additionally, many of the scars of war do not show themselves until years later. My own spinal injury from the Army did not show the worst of its effects until nine years after I left the force.
These urgent needs comes at a time when our government's ability to support veterans is drawn into question.
The reality is that even though the conflicts throughout the world may begin to drawdown we are at the dawn of a new era of veterans facing many unmet needs in the decades to come. So the urgency for America to come up with sustainable ways to meet veterans' needs has never been greater.
The Solution: Self-Sustaining Veterans Charities
I would challenge veteran's charities to usher in a new paradigm of self-sustaining organizational models. These self-sustaining models reduce the need of donations to provide their support to veterans and create more ability to raise funds on their own. This model also frees the organizations of the constraining requirements placed on them by funding sources. In other words, the veterans support organizations are free to do what needs to be done to help and support the veterans.
There are already many emerging models of veterans support organizations that are adopting the self-sustaining model.
Real Examples of Self-Sustaining Veteran Organizations
Rags of Honor is a custom screen print organization in Chicago Illinois staffed by homeless and unemployed veterans. The money made from the sale of the shirts not only goes to pay the living wage of the veterans working there, but also feeds into support services for the veterans and other worthwhile veterans charities.
An organization like this has the opportunity to grow and get to the level of an operating surplus, which could revolutionize how veteran support is conducted in this country.
As these veterans support organizations innovate, they can also serve as solutions for other complex societal issues. Another Chicago-based veteran nonprofit is called Leave No Veteran Behind.
This organization was started by two no-nonsense Army veterans from the War on Terror. Their approach is to employ hundreds of veterans in programs that meet community needs. For example, veterans are employed to walk the streets of the Southside of Chicago on high crime days. These patrols have no law enforcement jurisdiction whatsoever, however statistics have shown this reduces crime in those communities just by their sheer presence.
Veterans are being employed, and the community is benefiting. Moreover because the organization is providing a valuable service they are receiving revenue to self-sustain.
The Challenge Ahead
While these examples of veterans' organizations are still relatively small, the impact they are having in the lives of veterans is real.
This new model of veterans' charity still requires the accountability and governance that is already lacking in much of the nonprofit sector. As a starting point, I believe all veterans charities should begin to report what percentage of the revenue comes from self sustaining, value creating activities. This is not revenue from an endowment, but revenue from services and goods that provide operating budget for their organizations.
I challenge more veteran organizations to fundamentally re-engineer their operating model to consider self-sustaining paradigms that can help them better support veterans in the years to come.
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