Donations Concentrated in Handful of Charities
Where does the money go that Americans have contributed to charitable organizations supporting the military, veterans and their families during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
The number of such charities has more than tripled from just 583 in 2001 to more than 1,900 over the decade that followed, according to a News21 analysis of tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service. More than half of the public’s donations — about $6 billion — went to just 12 of those charities. They include those established more than a century ago and some founded more recently.
“The fact (is) that 1 percent of the charities get 86 percent of the revenue that comes into the sector each year,” said Ken Berger, president and chief executive officer of the independent charity review site Charity Navigator. “The vast majority of charities are minuscule — they’re $25,000 or less and they’re very local, volunteer efforts.”
The surge of support for veterans in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11 is what Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called a “sea of goodwill.”
“There’s a desire across the country to assist our returning veterans and their military families,” said Kimberly Mitchell, who served as deputy director of the Office of Warrior and Family Support under Mullen from 2010 to 2012. She retired from the Navy in 2012 to help found the Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Community Services.
No organization better exemplifies the post-9/11 growth among veterans’ charities and the public response than Wounded Warrior Project, which ranked ninth in the News21 analysis of donations received. Founded in 2003, it may be the most well-known charity developed specifically in response to the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has promoted and marketed itself perhaps better than any other charity on the News21 list.
From its first tax filings in 2005, in which it reported about $240,000 in contributions between April and July of that year, Wounded Warrior Project increased its yearly donations to more than $10 million in 2006 and nearly $150 million by 2012. The percentage of those donations going to Wounded Warrior Project’s programs and services decreased from 80 percent in 2005 to around 73 percent in 2012, with less than 65 percent going to its programs in 2008 to 2010.
Charities that perform the best generally spend about 70 percent or more of their money toward the programs and services that fulfill their mission, according to charity experts and watchdogs. Administrative and fundraising expenses should typically be about 30 percent or less. The News21 analysis found that of the 12 charities that raised the most in donations from 2001 to 2011, seven spent 75 percent or more on programs or services that benefited veterans or the military.
For example, the Northern California Institute of Research and Education received more than $9 million in federal grants since 2007 for research into treatments for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The Henry M. Jackson Foundation has received $2.6 billion over the last decade or more — most from the federal government and American taxpayers to support medical research and education programs.
Not only has the foundation collected more than 20 percent of all the money given by the public to military- and veterans-related organizations, it received $407 million in government grants in 2011 alone. Most of that money has paid for a variety of research efforts, none more so than the U.S. Military HIV Research Program, its largest collaboration with the U.S. government.
Through the HIV research program, the U.S. military conducts research in labs around the globe, such as in Kenya and Thailand, according to Lisa Reilly, communications director for the program. “We’ve been working 40 or 50 years with the local population on studying infectious diseases that affect them, that would affect our troops if they went there,” she said. “We work with the militaries there to try to prevent HIV, but then we also try to develop a vaccine that we can test in these endemic parts of the world.”
Another organization, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, provided almost $15 million in grants and scholarships to the spouses and children of service members killed in the line of duty from 2003 to 2010. Since 2006, it has spent nearly $100 million constructing facilities for physical rehabilitation and traumatic brain injury research and treatment at military medical centers.
The Fisher House Foundation and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society offer aid to military veterans or their families during tough times. Fisher House Foundation builds accommodations at military bases and VA medical centers for the families of service members and veterans receiving medical treatment. Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society provides financial assistance and other programs for active-duty and retired members of the Navy and Marine Corps and their families.
From 2001 to 2011, the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society raised more than $185 million and spent about 3 percent on fundraising, compared to some in the top 12 that spent more than 30 percent of their money soliciting donations. About 85 percent of what the relief society spent went to its programs and services for active-duty and retired sailors and Marines, or their families, mostly through programs that provide interest-free loans and grants for education expenses or financial emergencies.
In addition to the tens of millions the society distributed in loans and grants each year, it also kept in reserve about $125 million in publicly traded securities, according to tax records. Those assets would be used to fund disaster relief efforts, as in 2011, for example, in the aftermath of a quake and tsunami in Japan that affected Navy personnel and families stationed in the area, according to Shelley Marshall, the society’s communications officer.
“Most charities have an amount of money that they have to deal with to provide their programs and services that year, and if they run out of money that’s the end of their services; well, we don’t have that option,” Marshall said. “The Navy and Marine Corps have said, ‘You need to be there when we need you.’”
The society has provided free, in-home nurses for Navy and Marine Corps personnel and their families for more than 90 years, according to Ruthi Moore, director of nursing for the society. In 2006, it created a new nursing program specifically to meet the needs of injured sailors and Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families.
“We are currently the only program in the entire country where a registered nurse will make a face-to-face visit anywhere in the country, free of charge, to any Navy or Marine Corps family,” Moore said. “The military doesn’t make house calls.”
The program serves about 1,700 families and gets about 15 new referrals a week, she said. “And we will follow them for as long as they want us to, so it’s not a case of, well, this week we’ll get rid of two and pick up one,” she said. “This week we’ll pick up five and keep going.”
Another of the charities that rose to the top of the News21 analysis is Fisher House Foundation, which directed more than 95 percent of its spending, about $230 million, to its programs from 2001 to 2011 — mostly on building projects and scholarships for military children. It spent on average 1 cent to raise $1, among the best rates in the top 12, while increasing contributions nearly 1,000 percent from 2001 to 2011. It also reported spending an average of about $330,000 on fundraising each year, but raising an average of more than $22.5 million in contributions.
Cindy Campbell, vice president of community affairs at Fisher House Foundation, said the foundation did some marketing and promotion, but that volunteers did most of the fundraising. She attributed the low fundraising costs to its focus on core programs.
“We have a laser-like target of what we do — we don’t step on what others are doing,” she said. “We have a very clear mission of what we do.”
Gloria Conway traveled more than 100 miles from Port St. Lucie, Fla., to be with her husband at the Miami VA Medical Center, where he was having his aortic valve replaced in mid-July. She stayed at the Fisher House there for about a week during his recovery. “It’s an amazing, amazing service,” Conway said. “While I’m at Fisher House, I don’t have to worry about anything. I’m taken care of here and my husband’s being taken care of in the hospital.”
The foundation’s goal is to have a home at every VA medical center in the country, Campbell said, so that any veteran’s family that needs a place to stay will have one. She anticipates that need won’t be going away soon.
“This is a group of veterans who are really going to need serious support from the VA Medical Centers across the country,” Campbell said. “So now we have a group of young men and women who will need care for the rest of their lives.”
Erica Borggren, an Iraq war veteran and director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said the number of organizations offering services for veterans has created challenges for veterans and the agencies that serve them. “There are so many organizations — so much goodwill,” Borggren said. “Keeping track of it all is really difficult. If it’s difficult for those of us providing the services, how is a struggling veteran supposed to navigate it?”
Borggren and her staff helped develop an effort called Illinois Joining Forces, launched in 2012 to coordinate the nonprofits and government departments serving veterans. The goal, she said, was to create a “no-wrong-door system,” so that veterans will be referred to the agency or charity that can best help them.
Mitchell, the former Navy officer, said donors should focus their giving on charities that produce long-term results.
“There’s a lot of organizations that are banking money because of their brand name,” she said. “They’ve been able to get lots and lots of marketing, so what I encourage people to do is look at GuideStar or Charity Navigator and ask warriors and their families, because they’ll tell you the truth.”
Campbell said the work of supporting veterans and service members back at home is just beginning.
“We have 2.5 million veterans from this war, this war,” Campbell said. “At a time when people are thinking, ‘The war is over, we don’t need to do this anymore,’ it’s out of sight, out of mind. This is actually when Americans need to really step up.”
Chad Garland was a Donald W. Reynolds Foundation Business Journalism News21 Fellow, and Andrew Knochel was a Hearst Foundations Fellow this summer for News21.