Perhaps the most commonly asked question I receive on Twitter is which veterans organizations people should donate to. There are billions of dollars donated every year in the name of helping veterans. But which ones are the best? Which ones are trustworthy? Are people really to believe those flashy, expensive commercials during the nightly news?
With the onslaught of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, raising money in the name of helping veterans has become the new “stop breast cancer,” a multibillion-dollar endeavor with corporations partnering up with veterans organizations on everything from paper towels to NASCAR tickets. As a wounded warrior, I have experience with many of these organizations and can help wade through the decision making process. As I travel the country interviewing military personnel for various stories, I always make it a point to ask which organizations helped them. By using that information, and my own personal experience, in addition to the publically available charity rating statistics, I composed the following list of organizations. While this list is by no means all-encompassing (there are hundreds of organizations), it will serve as a short safe list. For those looking to research an organization outside of this list, I’d first check an organization’s rating at Charity Navigator to see if their financials are up to par. A word of warning though. Just because an organization has highly rated financial records doesn’t necessarily mean they are doing anything substantial to help the troops.
Fisher House Foundation – When it comes to veterans organizations, the one that should be at the top of everyone’s list is the Fisher House Foundation. At every military installation with a hospital there is at least one Fisher House. The Fisher House is a way for military families to live together during a soldier’s recovery instead of forcing them to live separately, at great burden. As their website explains, they have the daily capacity of 812 families, and served over 22,000 families in 2013 alone. (I lived in a Fisher House for nine months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a much better atmosphere for my recovery.) Another great facet of the Fisher house is their Hero Miles program. The program relies on donated frequent flyer miles to fly family members and friends at no cost to meet their wounded loved ones. So far the program has provided a whopping 40,000 tickets to wounded, injured, and ill service members and their families, worth nearly $63 million. The Fisher House also offers grants and other forms of temporary housing assistance. As if you needed another reason, the Fisher House foundation was the organization that stepped up to cover the missing death benefit gratuity for military families burying their loved ones that our inept political class claimed could not be paid during the government shutdown. In case you are wondering about their financials, the Fisher House Foundation sets the bar with an incredible 96% spent directly on programs.
Operation Homefront – Operation Homefront covers exactly what the title suggests, the home front. As their website states, Operation Homefront assists military families during difficult financial times by providing food assistance, auto and home repair, vision care, travel and transportation, moving assistance, essential home items, and financial assistance. You might have seen them on the news during the holidays as they helped feed hungry military families. A harsh reality of military life is there are some junior enlisted members using food stamps to feed their large families.
Project Healing Waters – Project Healing Waters birthed shortly before I got to Walter Reed in 2006. It was started as a way to help rehabilitate soldiers with extreme physical wounds through fly fishing and fly tying. (I can tell you from personal experience that rehabilitating through fly fishing and fly tying is much more exciting than some of the things they make you do in therapy.) As one might expect, there are a variety of activities to apply the skills learned. There are outings, fishing tournaments, and even multi-day float trips down rivers. They have since moved from being a single entity in DC and branched all over the country, helping veterans of all ages and wars with a variety of injuries.
Armed Forces Foundation – Armed Forces Foundation has a variety of programs such as providing troops with financial assistance, educating on TBI and PTSD, and a variety of activities for troops to participate in. I covered one of their trips, a once-in-a-lifetime high-roller trip to Las Vegas for wounded warriors from Walter Reed. What struck me most about the trip was the freedom that the participants had to cater the activities to themselves. If a wounded warrior was there with their spouse, they could go off and get a massage together or do something to strengthen their marriage. Most trips for wounded warriors use the one-size-fits-all military approach, and have a strict list and schedule of activities that don’t always work for a variety of injuries and conditions. It was also the only trip I’ve witnessed where the organization actively worked with the whole community, businesses, even the media, to put the wounded warriors up on a pedestal and show them overwhelming gratitude during their stay so they could forget about their appointments and problems for a little while (considering Faith Hill and Tim McGraw dropped in on the warrior’s final dinner to personally say thank you to them, I’d say they accomplished that goal.) The Armed Forces Foundation is another organization with excellent financial status, spending over 90% of funds directly on the troops.
Semper Fi Fund – Semper Fi Fund helps injured Marines in a variety of ways through service member and family support, adaptive housing and transportation, education and career transition assistance, and specialized and adaptive equipment. As a competitor in the Warrior Games for the Army Team, I was struck by how much assistance the Marine Corps team received from Semper Fi Fund. The more I spoke with the Marines, the more I learned what a great organization Semper Fi Fund is. In fact, the organization’s efforts at helping wounded Marines have proven so effective they decided to start a new program called America’s Fund, designed to help wounded warriors from all branches of the military. Their financials are easily up to par as well, spending over 94% directly on programs.
Team Rubicon – I did a story on Team Rubicon’s efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy as veterans helped residents rebuild after the destruction. The organization’s purpose is basically twofold: mobilize a large yet nimble quick reaction force after natural disasters, and give veterans a sense of purpose again as they reintegrate into society. This unique approach to helping veterans has proven worthwhile, helping a number of troubled veterans come back from the brink as they realize there is still life and purpose after service. If you need another reason to support them, just remember that this organization might someday be coming to your rescue when disaster strikes.
Soldier’s Angels – this volunteer organization had a substantial impact on my recovery. Whether it’s mailing care packages to troops overseas, giving First Response Packs and blankets to new wounded warriors traveling through Germany on their way back to the states, or giving out laptops with voice recognition software to arm amputees in Walter Reed, this organization understands the needs of wounded warriors, and gets the job done.
VFW, American Legion – the brick-and-mortar veterans organizations that came about during your grandfather’s generation are generally safe to give to. Many of them have local chapters that are active within your own community as well, so you can directly see how their money and efforts are spent.
Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund – Normally I wouldn’t mention an organization that exists and operates within only one state, but this organization is so unique and successful at its mission that I feel it necessary. Launched in 2005, this organization is one-of-a-kind, and operates only in Minnesota. The mission of the organization is simple: raise funds, and turn around and give it to Minnesota troops in the form of modest grants. (Larger grants are given to troops who are severely wounded and need greater assistance.) The funds have been proven time and time again to help families of deployed soldiers cover expenses while their loved ones are away. Even if you don’t live around the State of Minnesota, this is still a great organization to give to.
I know that if I simply leave a couple organizations off of the list, I’m going to get peppered with questions asking why and whether or not they are safe to give to. So here are some veterans organizations I WOULD NOT donate to.
Wounded Warrior Project – It pains me to write this. When I was a patient at Walter Reed in 2007 it was a small, nimble organization that was effective at helping wounded troops. A WWP rep would talk to me weekly and sit in on my occupational therapy appointments to see if they could help. A couple years ago I noticed a drastic change in the opinions of other wounded warriors, especially those coming through Walter Reed. Since then I have interviewed wounded warriors from coast-to-coast and everywhere in between, yet can’t seem to find anyone with a high opinion of the Wounded Warrior Project, or anyone who has been recently helped by the organization. Over the years the organization became a giant fundraising behemoth with high-dollar pull-at-your-heart-strings commercials featuring paid celebrities. The organization seems to have abandoned the virtue of selfless service upon which our military is based, paying rather high salaries to its staff. Throughout my interviews I noticed that opinions in the wounded warrior community range from mild annoyance to distrust of the organization. I interviewed the wife of a fallen Navy SEAL who wanted to have a fundraiser for the organization but decided not to when representatives told her she would first have to pay a sizeable fee upfront, and the organization would not provide any funds to the families of the fallen Navy SEALs she wanted to help because they don’t pay grants to individuals, only other organizations. I spoke with a Marine amputee in Quantico who said their trips and outings have become nothing more than an excuse to get drunk on someone else’s dime. He told me he was so disgusted that he asked the organization to stop using his photo for fundraising, but they refused, citing the media release he signed. While competing in the Warrior Games, I asked a number of my fellow competitors what they thought of the organization. I learned that the only people in the games who have ever been helped by the organization are those who appeared in their commercials (they don’t sponsor the games, either). The Tampa Bay Times dug into their financials and discovered that only 58% of their funds actually go to programs. While that is better than some, it is far below the other organizations I have listed. And as I mentioned previously, the organization does not actually give grants directly to wounded troops, only to other organizations that help the troops, like Operation Homefront. This begs the question, why give to the Wounded Warrior Project and fund expensive commercials when you can give directly to those organizations and cut out the middle man? I hope that one day the organization sees serious reforms and begins using the incredible $155 million they brought in last year to help wounded troops more effectively.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America – IAVA is an organization with a great name, but comes up lacking in most other aspects. One would think that an organization that consistently lobbies the government for veteran causes, such as employing more veterans, would follow their own lead and make a point to ensure its staff is composed of more veterans than civilians. My personal impression of the organization is that it’s a lot more about promoting its leader, Paul Rieckoff, than actually helping veterans. That would be in tune with his past, when he was caught wearing a bronze star and SF patch he did not earn (ironic for someone who lobbied for stolen valor laws). Furthermore, the “nonpartisan” IAVA has proven anything but under the leadership of Rieckoff, and at times seems more intent on divisiveness – especially when dealing with other veterans organizations – than helping veterans as a whole. Unfortunately, IAVA doesn’t meet the standard on integrity.
Paralyzed Veterans of America – I’m only mentioning this organization because their commercials flash across my TV screen every five minutes during the nightly news. Their financials are absolutely horrendous, with an incredible 62% spent on advertising and only 33% on program expenses. With over $100 million in revenue in 2012 alone, that is a whole lot of money that is not going to veterans who so desperately need it.
VoteVets – I have been following the activities of VoteVets for quite a while. VoteVets is nothing more than a progressive organization pushing a long list of progressive causes under the guise of being a veterans organization. So unless you’re into that sort of thing, I’d send your money elsewhere.
PurpleHeart Foundation (Military Order of the Purple Heart) – With only 30% spent on programs, this organization has consistently received low ratings. Since the start of the Iraq War, Military Order of the Purple Heart has been mired in controversy. With little executive oversight, hundreds of thousands of dollars were wasted or allocated to questionable dealings by organization members for their own personal gain. According to their recent IRS filings, the organization is bleeding millions of dollars as they spend far more than they are bringing in. As a largely inefficient organization mired with corruption, I do not see the Military Order of the Purple Heart making it on the safe list anytime soon.
I know a lot of people prefer to donate to some sort of veterans organizations to help the troops. But there is another more effective and personal way you can do so. Simply find a veteran in your community, and find out what their needs are. This might be something as simple as taking them out to lunch, buying them groceries to feed their family, or even writing a monthly check. While this might not be as exciting as supporting an organization with high dollar commercials, and won’t earn you a free keychain or hat with an organization’s logo, it’s the only way that 100% of your funds will go directly to veterans. And you won’t have to take an organization’s word for it, because you can see the results of your efforts first-hand. Just make sure that the individual is really a veteran. The unfortunate reality is there are a number of fakers among us.