Philanthropy for Veterans Has a Command Post in Washington

Over two million Americans have served in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan over the past eleven years, and they've come home with a staggering array of problems. 

And while philanthropy barely paid attention to veterans after Vietnam, it's been a totally different story this time around. A large array of funders has stepped forward over the years to help veterans adjust to civilian lifefrom individual mega donors like David Gelbaum, who's given a quarter billion dollars, to a host of corporate and private foundations, including many local funders who see the new frontline challenges that veterans are dealing with in communities across the United States: homelessness, employment, PTSD, war injuries, and substance abuse. But funders have an eye on the abilities of veterans, too, and how to help mobilize the potential of these Americans to improve U.S. society.

We write all the time about veterans philanthropy here, so we know just how much is going on. And we also know that when an issue has this many moving parts, strong coordination is key.

Well, the Council on Foundations is on the case, making itself a nexus of conversations about veterans philanthropy. And this spring, it launched the Veterans Philanthropy Exchange, an online platform for stakeholders in this area. 

I spoke recently with Vikki Spruill, CEO of the council, to hear how this effort came about and where it's going. 

Spruill has led the council since July of 2012. Prior to this post, she was the president and CEO of the Ocean Conservancy, a science-based education and citizens empowerment organization. She is also the child of a military family, so she knows firsthand some of the difficult experiences that military families face.

Spruill talked about how the council came to start the Veterans Philanthropy Exchange. In 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen spoke at the council's annual conference, and Spruill credits Admiral Mullen with calling the philanthropic field into action for veterans and their families. She talked about how community foundations from regions all over the nation, led by the Lincoln Community Foundation, came up with a model for addressing the issues that veterans needed help with.

"In 2012, the council worked with Blue Shield of California Foundation and assembled a group of philanthropic, federal officials, and nonprofit leaders and started to talk about how we could help veterans transition back into the community better," she said.

This past spring, the council joined with the White House and launched the Philanthropy-Joining Forces Impact Pledge. In total, more than 30 organizations joined together to pledge over $170 million dollars to help veterans and their families.

Through its Public-Philanthropic Partnership program, the council has established formal liaisons with the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Joining Community Forces office of the National Guard Bureau. The council's goal in maintaining these relationships is to increase the awareness of these government agencies about the role of philanthropy in helping the nation's veterans and military families as they transition from service to community. At the same time, it provides an avenue for foundations to contribute to the public policy discussions in Washington on these critical issues.

All this led to the creation of the Veterans Philanthropy Exchange, a new platform for funders to work together. "We gather information and we share information and we share best practices," Spruill said. "We're really creating a virtual community with folks from the business community, government, and the philanthropic sector."

When asked if this platform is for all nonprofits doing work for veterans, Spruill responded that it's a service for the council's members first, but "then we can invite other guests in, and have people speaking and sharing resources. We have about 100 members now, and it continues to feed new conversations."

Spruill added: "The council is really uniquely positioned to bring our members together around issues of concern to them and to find ways to network and share and magnify their individual efforts."

In terms of issues that stand out for veterans, Spruill talked about "reintegration back into family life" and how the council, in an effort to reach out to the community, invited veterans to share their experiences during a dinner at the council's annual conference. She also talked about how the roles have changed for veterans and often "it's the female partner in the marriage who was serving and coming back, and it was the Dad who was home taking care of the kids."

Spruill stressed the importance of addressing mental health, housing, and disability as just a few of the challenges faced by veterans and the nonprofits who work with them. "There's really not an issue that doesn't touch veterans," she said.

Spruill's stepped-up leadership on veterans issues this year comes at a good moment. Earlier this fall, the council was zinged by long-time philanthropy expert Pablo Eisenberg, who wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

The Council on Foundations, the most prominent trade association in the grantmaking world, has been in the doldrums for a long time, beset by weak boards, declining membership, a lack of clear values and mission, unsatisfactory services to its member organizations, and a failure to stand for principles and ethics in grantmaking.

Eisenberg based that assessment on over three dozen interviews. 

Spruill responded with a letter to the Chronicle that said, in effect, "I'm working on it." She cited efforts to make the council more nimble and relevant, and pointed to the Veterans Exchange as an example of a useful initiative. 

We don't have an opinion on the broader questions being asked about the council. But Spruill definitely has a point on its veterans work. Doing right by these Americans is among philanthropy's bigger projects right now, and one of its most complicated, involving collaboration with a range of public and private partners. Under Spruill, the council has put itself right at the center of that action.