Veteran non-profits: Why too much good can be a bad thing

For red-blooded Americans, few topics pack as much emotional punch as veterans in need

Veteran non-profits: Why too much good can be a bad thing

Charles Bowman, North Carolina market president for Bank of America, talks about the upcoming NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bank of America 500 Sprint auto race and a promotion for the Wounded Warriors Project during a news conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012. The race will be held on Oct. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

For red-blooded Americans, few topics pack as much emotional punch as veterans in need.

Sound the clarion call and pockets open, people volunteer, and non-profit organizations are formed seemingly overnight.

This response, while a credit to America’s patriots, is also a major problem.

Too much good?

More than 200,000 non-profits offer services to vets in need. Of these, more than 40,000 are focused exclusively on veterans. This massive ecosystem of well-intentioned aid represents many organizations that are efficient and effective. But it also includes many that are not.

The steady churn of good intentions, big dollars, new programs and national guilt has muddied the waters of aid. By the time veterans start looking for help, they need it quickly. To be faced with hundreds of organizations that are impossible to tell apart is often more frustrating than helpful.

Though tens of billions of dollars were spent in grants, donations, and veteran-focused aid in the public and private sectors last year, more than 57,000 veterans remain homeless on any given night, and many continue to struggle with unemployment, underemployment, food insecurity, and untreated mental injuries.

Although it would be unfair to characterize ineffective organizations as leeches, the uncomfortable truth is that low-performing non-profits are siphoning away much-needed resources from lean, effective organizations.

Good intentions do not always equal good outcomes.

Measuring Success

Measuring non-profit success is complicated business. It cannot be measured quantitatively alone. Sheer numbers don’t indicate the quality, scope, or impact of the services provided. A non-profit that builds homes for wounded veterans may only reach 30 vets in a year, but their impact is lasting and profound. On the other hand, a non-profit that reaches 10,000 veterans in a year may be offering no more than branded pens, posters and platitudes.

The benevolent sector in general suffers from poor oversight and lack of transparency. Still, some measures of efficacy exist.

Organizational loyalty. How many veterans are willing to align themselves and their reputations with a particular organization? Team Rubicon, a veterans’ disaster relief organization, has seen explosive and sustained growth since its inception. And the loyalty doesn’t end there – some volunteers are even getting the non-profit’s logo tattooed on them. Vets who interact with the organization come back to volunteer again and again. Disaster-ravaged civilian communities that have been rescued by vets in gray t-shirts also show great depth of loyalty to the organization, often becoming outspoken advocates for the organization on social media and in the news.

Fiscal responsibility. Recently, the Wounded Warrior Project has come under fire for the fact that nearly 40% of its donations are spent on marketing and other administrative costs.  While their effective marketing campaigns empower them to give generously to other veteran non-profits, it’s tough to sit comfortably with the knowledge that more than $20 million was spent on advertising in 2012.

Smaller organizations are plagued with the same issues. Someone running a non-profit that only brings in $150K per year still has to eat. Chances are that the bulk of donations are being used to pay for the administrator’s bread and milk. This doesn’t make the founder a villain, but it should make us question whether our dollars could be better spent at higher-functioning organizations.

Visibility. Some non-profits provide an incredible service, compassionate staff, and well-funded programs, but vets don’t know about them. Marketing, while expensive and often tricky, is a double-edged sword of effective program management. Vets have to find a service to use it, and great program directors aren’t also automatically great directors of marketing and PR - nor can they always afford them.

Product-market fit. If the major issue for veterans in Nebraska is food insecurity, but donors are attracted to the sexier concept of funding a marketing campaign around veteran employment, will the most relevant issues ever be addressed by the non-profit community? Chances are low.

Together we need to find a way to stop throwing money into the black hole of goodwill, and instead create a credible, easy-to-navigate resource space for veterans in need.

Join the Conversation

Got an idea about how to cull the non-profit population to better serve veterans? Ideas about how to better organize the space? I’d love to hear them!