When you hear “the 1%,” you likely think of our society’s shorthand for those with extreme wealth. It’s unlikely you think of the 6,900 Vermonters who have served in the armed forces since September 11, 2001. These and the other 2.7 million post-9/11 veterans represent 1% of the U.S. population and sometimes call themselves “the other 1%.” They, too, have a wealth of experience and skills to share.
And while many veterans have transitioned to civilian life with ease as community leaders, it’s no secret that many other veterans need wellness, education, and employment support as part of a successful reintegration.
The good news: from the 40,000+ organizations exclusively focused on the veteran and military community to the myriad charities that support veterans as a part of their overall outreach, there is a sea of goodwill in this space that represents $3 billion annually. Unfortunately—and unsurprisingly—the sea of goodwill is often murky and difficult to navigate.
How, then, should philanthropy chart its course? What are funders’ best roles supporting veterans, specifically those post-9/11 veterans who are actively reintegrating? That was the question posed by two dozen funders this week in Washington DC. Most of those in attendance are members of the Philanthropy-Joining Forces Impact Pledge, a coalition of 35 funders dedicated to supporting America’s veterans and military families. Brought together by the inspiration and leadership of First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, the pledge members represent a combined investment of over $280 million over five years. I was honored to represent the McClure Family (a multi-generation military family) and the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation at the convening.
With the guidance of military, government, and nonprofit sector leaders, we considered promising approaches.
- Fund local. Federal and national-level funders are up to date on the latest evidence-based strategies and models, and can provide some funding. But because 80% of transitioning service members return to their home community, the best solutions will be home-grown. Funders would be well served to research the local DNA of a community before funding a new model or program. Seek context expertise in addition to content expertise; learn who the trusted local organizations and leaders are, and where there are gaps or overlaps.
- Establish a standard of excellence. Funders are positioned to influence the strength of the sector. In this case, a successful sector depends on trusted public-private partnerships, on shared measurements between organizations, and on a sensitivity to not perpetuating the image that all veterans are somehow wounded. Research from the George W Bush Institute tells us that the most effective programs invest in culturally competent staff and systems, focus on individualized case management, and create social connections in the community.
- Amplify the best programs. When you find a program that meets the above criteria, fund and share! Which brings us to the Community College of Vermont.
At the request of the Council on Foundations, I was honored to speak on behalf of the McClure Foundation. To an audience of congressional and White House representatives, national funders, and veteran service organizations, I shared the story of how CCV has moved the needle in supporting Vermont’s veterans.
Back in 2010, the McClure Foundation realized how aggressively for-profit online universities were courting servicemen and women with the hope of securing a piece of their GI benefits. We knew that the transition from active duty to the college classroom can bring challenges and that veterans deserve high-quality support and advising from the application process to graduation day. We also knew that for-profit online universities weren’t positioned to offer that support. Enter CCV with its 12 locations statewide, its singular administration, and its impressive track record supporting nontraditional students. With $300,000 from the McClure Foundation over five years, along with partner funding from other Vermont philanthropists, CCV hired veterans as Veteran & Military Resource Advisors who in turn help produce demonstrable successes for and with CCV’s student veterans.
Those who know first-hand the capabilities of veterans will not be surprised by these success metrics:
- Enrollment of military-connected students at CCV was 250% higher between 2011 and 2014 than it was in the three years prior to the funding.
- Veterans and military-connected students persist from semester to semester at higher rates than the overall student population—amazing considering that 50% of the student veterans are first-in-family to go to college.
- CCV’s veteran students graduate at a higher rate than the national average for veterans. And many of those grads want to give back. Two veterans who were in the program are now working as veteran student advisors at other colleges and universities in Vermont
Kyle Aines, CCV’s longest-serving Veteran & Military Resource Advisor and a veteran himself, joined me in DC to report on the good work he leads for and with veteran students. He says his work relies on community-based partnerships for student referrals, on persistent engagement with veteran students inside and outside CCV locations, and on veteran sensitivity training for all CCV faculty and staff. For more information about the work of Kyle’s team, visit ccv.edu/veterans.
The McClure Foundation is a proud supporting organization of the Vermont Community Foundation, where fundholders support veterans’ issues—among myriad other issues—across Vermont. At the core of their work is the understanding that funders are better together; that when working collaboratively, we maximize the impact of our philanthropic resources and our collective knowledge and interests. If you would be interested in learning about best funding practices in the veterans’ space and about organizations doing good work in Vermont, please let them know.