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Donors to Veterans’ Causes Face Crowded Field of Charities


WASHINGTON — When Howard Schultz, the chairman and chief executive of Starbucks, and his wife decided three years ago that they wanted to give millions of dollars to veterans’ causes, they had one basic requirement: The organizations had to have track records of quickly helping veterans and their families overcome their most pressing issues.

The Schultzes decided to get involved in giving money to military causes shortly after Robert Gates, the defense secretary from 2006 to 2011, joined the Starbucks board in 2012. Mr. Gates made the family aware of the types of challenges service members were facing as they returned to civilian life.

“To us, this isn’t about sympathy or charity for those who have served,” Mr. Schultz said in a statement, “it’s about doing what’s best for our country, by providing them an opportunity to employ their leadership and problem-solving skills, and their values and discipline, on the home front.”

But finding such groups in a crowded field of veterans’ charities was not easy. The Schultz Family Foundation spent several months working with a consulting firm to survey the roughly 40,000 charitable organizations in the country dedicated to helping veterans and their families.

Mr. Schultz; his wife, Sheri; and members of their foundation visited military bases and hospitals and met with current and former military officials, veterans and enlisted men and women to discuss their needs. The foundation ultimately produced a 26-page document, “Military Landscape Analysis,” that provided a map for navigating the world of veterans’ causes.

“As with all of our giving, we approach these investments with a business lens,” said Daniel Pitasky, executive director of the foundation, which has given $15 million to veterans’ causes in the last three years. “This is particularly important within the veteran landscape since it’s grown so quickly since Sept. 11. At times, this sea of good will can make it difficult for veterans and their families to navigate and for funders to determine best practices that will lead to real impact.”

The research compiled by the Schultz foundation demonstrates some of the difficulties donors face in a part of the philanthropic world that is still relatively young. In the years since veterans began returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, new charities have rushed to fill perceived gaps in the care they receive from the military and the Veterans Affairs Department and to claim a piece of the influx in philanthropic support for veterans.

The result, experts who have studied it said, has been a charitable sector riddled with underperformers, highly inefficient organizations and fraud.

“What we’ve seen since the late aughts, there’s been a bubble and probably not for the best,” said Thomas Meyer, a director at the Philanthropy Roundtable, who wrote “Serving Those Who Served: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Assisting Veterans and Military Families.”

Mr. Meyer said people wanted to give to veterans for various reasons, but they often revolved around a similar theme.

“A lot of folks that we work with, they see that after 15 years of war, the burden of keeping us safe has fallen on a fairly small numbers of families,” he said. “They look at the folks who have really spent a lot of time working for something larger than themselves and say, ‘It is my responsibility to do the same thing, to support them.’”

That swirl of cash, intense interest in supporting those returning from the wars, and a lack of long-established organizations to serve as models for best practices have conspired to create what another watchdog, Daniel Borochoff, the president of CharityWatch, called a “minefield” for potential donors.

“It’s an emotional give, and people are very sympathetic toward veterans, and so they don’t think it through,” Mr. Borochoff said. “This is a ripe opportunity for a bad operator to take advantage.”

Even the most basic matters related to veterans’ charities can be complicated. Many have overlapping missions, and others have like-sounding names, including Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of the Vietnam War. And many nonprofit organizations that market themselves as veterans services groups distort the actual needs of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Meyer said, drawing money away from what is needed most, including job placement and other programs that can help provide a sense of community and purpose during the transition back to civilian life.

Excessive overhead is another problem. Many charities dedicate a significant part of their funds to raising money, which often is outsourced to third-party solicitation companies at high costs.

“In large part, these images of catastrophically injured vets that are so emotionally moving have kind of taken over the public image,” Mr. Meyer said. “But they are not representative of 99.99 percent of veterans who are getting out of the military.”

Mr. Pitasky said that one of the challenges for Mr. and Mrs. Schultz and the foundation was that they knew little about the complexities of the military and the issues that troops and veterans faced, so they had to take time to learn how that world operated. The foundation was particularly interested in finding charities that had long relationships with the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments because they knew how to handle forming partnerships with them.

“Since 1 percent of our country volunteers to serve, their successful transition to civilian life requires us to help ensure that the many Americans who have little or no connection to the military better understand, and appreciate, the assets our veterans bring to our businesses and our communities,” Mr. Pitasky said.

The 26-page document produced by the Schultz Family Foundation identified the areas where veterans and their families needed the most help: post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and economic stability. In the year that followed, the Schultz family began giving grants to organizations like One Mind, which studies brain injuries; Warrior Canine Connection, which provides trained therapy dogs to war veterans; and Dog Tag, a Washington-based group that teaches veterans how to run a business.

Most potential donors cannot spend months working with consultants to identify the best way to allocate their money, and Mr. Pitasky said they should press foundations for answers to even the most basic questions.

“No matter the size of your investment, ensure that your contribution counts,” Mr. Pitasky said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, talk to folks in the field and do a bit of research.”

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