According to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, demand for services by veterans peaks about four decades after a conflict ends. The year 1978 was relatively quiet for active American military personnel, besides a brief Air Force involvement in South Zaire. Yet today, in 2018, the demand for veteran services is as high as many observers can remember it ever being.

Statistically speaking, veteran service organizations (VSOs) should be in a period of regeneration, as they prepare for the growing needs of military families and veterans. The millions of veterans involved in the myriad conflicts that came after 1978 — including the wars and conflicts in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and of course Afghanistan and Iraq — will continue to need support today and into the future.

Yet, on the whole, these military-serving organizations aren’t growing; quite the opposite, Despite 16 straight years of war and no end in sight, giving to VSOs was down last year for the 15th year in a row — from .18% of all philanthropic giving to .13%. Similarly, the number of nonprofit organizations focused on veterans and military families continued to decline in 2017, to around 41,000 from a high of 48,000 less than a decade ago.

Additionally, there were noteworthy turnovers in leadership in the VSO community that will have significant impacts on service consistency and organizational sustainment. For example, the executive director at San Diego based non-profit zero8hundred left after three years, and the leadership at a leading women-focused veteran nonprofit has turned over for the third year in a row. One NAVSO member and partner, R4 Alliance, had to close its doors despite years of hard work to build a sustainable model. Other organizations that have served broader populations for decades defunded their programs focused on veteran reintegration.

Why the shift? Money. Years of hard work failed to develop enough sustainable revenue to keep the organizations or veteran-focused programs alive. Many fundraising campaigns that organizations relied upon experienced significant year-over-year decline, with annual corporate sponsor campaigns yielding only a fraction of the donations and many individual donors moving on to other cause areas.

Given NAVSO’s work with such a large number and wide variety of veteran-focused nonprofits, government agencies, and funders, we have a unique bird’s eye view of trends. This broad, holistic view of the marketplace is why I don’t despair. There was, and is good news. While the 2017 statistics and trends for VSOs may seem bleak, I believe there are larger forces at work.

‘Right-sizing’ veterans’ services

One of those forces may be a natural right-sizing of the veterans’ services marketplace. Many nonprofit organizations, once founded on a passion for helping our military families, simply failed to offer practical and necessary services, were duplicative, or just plain didn’t understand how to sustain a tax-advantaged business. And yes, there should be an emphasis on the word “business.” While they are nonprofits and do receive a tax advantage, a solid business-minded strategy and team must be in place along with excellent fiscal discipline in order to keep the doors open.

Passion gives energy and a sense of purpose, but it is not a strategy. As the deployments have slowed, the visibility and sense of urgency in local communities have waned. While failure is disappointing for the organizations’ founders, I submit that it is likely better for the veterans and their families to have, in some cases, fewer higher-quality options.

Working with and through the VA

Political change has put a different lens on veterans and military families, with a renewed focus on improving the VA from the inside out. Only time will tell how these policy changes impact the veteran community, but in the short term, they are a direct reflection on how Americans, not directly affiliated with military service, feel about our community and decide to invest their charitable dollars in veteran causes.

In the last congressional session and early on in this new one, Congress introduced legislation aimed at helping veterans and military families get the care and support they need. However, if history has taught us anything, it’s that the VA can’t go it alone. Veterans, their families, and the nonprofits that support them rely heavily on their communities to help. No discussion of 2017 would be complete without acknowledging the funders who helped bridge the gap or even doubled down on their efforts last year, to support veterans and military families.

Succeeding under tough conditions

I believe that the community writ large is still engaged and moving in the right direction. NAVSO, like many other organizations, had their best year yet. Resources earned, veterans served, outcomes measured: Many were solidly up. Our exclusive grant prospecting tool, Grant Map, helped members find new sources of diverse and sustainable revenue and our relationships with funders hoping to get a better return on their grants helped several NAVSO members garner an additional $325,000 in Q4 of 2017 alone. For VSO sustainability and ultimately impact, the bottom line is about the bottom line.

Implementing ‘lessons learned’

One more piece of encouraging news: There is now a playbook. The Military Family Research Institute (MFRI) at Purdue University and NAVSO member, directed by Dr. Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, and the Center for Deployment Psychology, directed by Dr. David Riggs, just published a groundbreaking book, A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families. In this book, leaders from a wide variety of sectors and organizations reflect on the lessons they learned as they worked successfully to support military and veteran families since 2001.

This research will help current and future leaders examine their organizations and put mechanisms in place before they are needed. Dr. MacDermid Wadsworth and her colleagues posit that with better “battle planning,” there can be faster responses, better coordination, fewer missteps, and — most important — more effective support for families. Being able to measure an organization’s impact will increase funding, as evidence, metrics, and measurement always trump passion.  

I remain not just hopeful but optimistic about the future of veteran service organizations. Still, as much as I hate to say it, I agree with the experts that we haven’t fought our last war. If Dr. Shulkin is right, we can expect a dramatic uptick in demand for veterans’ services in a few years, and that demand will continue for the foreseeable future. If you’re part of a nonprofit that serves veterans and their families, your resources are probably already stretched thin. You may be wondering how in the world you’ll cope when demand increases again.

The time to strategize is now. By learning from those who are surviving and thriving under difficult conditions — and from those who have failed, and leveraging modern tools and technology, I am confident that an organization can continue to meet today’s needs — and build a strong foundation that will allow well-meaning VSOs and funders to meet the needs of tomorrow’s veterans and their families.