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march/april 2008

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BY MARC LEEPSON
Thirty years ago, a brash, new veterans’ service organization was founded in Washington, D.C. Vietnam Veterans of America quickly qualified as a 501(c) (19), the special, tax-exempt, non-profit designation given by the IRS to organizations made up of war veterans that have programs that help needy and disabled veterans and their families and do community service work. But soon after that, VVA added a new component, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which was organized as a 501 (c) (3).

“There was always a question about the fundraising abilities of a c-19,” said Skip Roberts, who served as VVAF’s executive director in the late 1980s. “All the other veterans’ service organizations had foundations; that’s how they raised funds outside of membership dues. I don’t think any VSO can survive just on membership dues.”

At first the Foundation was used, Roberts said, “as a checking account mechanism to fund VVA.” Then, beginning in August of 1987 when Bobby Muller stepped aside as VVA’s first president and headed the VVAF, the Foundation began making charitable contributions. That included providing grants to homeless veterans’ programs and the Vets Vote! program, which worked, Roberts said, “on voter registration and other ways to get veterans involved in the political process.”

The bulk of VVA’s operating budget still was funneled through the Foundation. Most of that income came from the VVA Household Goods Solicitation Program (the thrift stores around the country associated with VVA) and the Combined Federal Campaign, in which federal government employees and members of the military contribute to charities through payroll deductions.

The Assistance Fund Is Born
That situation lasted until 1990 when VVA and the Foundation parted ways. The main bone of contention was control of the Household Goods Program and the Combined Federal Campaign. That year the Household Goods program ended its relationship with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (now known as Veterans For America), and began working directly with Vietnam Veterans of America.

The following year, VVA’s Board of Directors established a new VVAF—the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund—as a separate but affiliated 501 (c) (3) charitable organization. The Fund remains a vital part of VVA today. Aside from providing money for VVA’s operations, the VVAF also has an important humanitarian and education mission: to help veterans and their families by awarding grants to organizations in three main areas: outreach projects, benefits assistance, and housing programs for the homeless. Since 2003, VVAF has provided some $2 million in grants to some seventy charitable projects in twenty-seven states across the nation. Back in 1991, the Household Goods Program stayed with VVA, but a two-year legal battle with the old VVAF ensued over which organization would be the beneficiary of the Combined Federal Campaign funds. VVA’s new Fund was able to get off the ground by soliciting “start-up funds from VVA’s State Councils and chapters,” said Joe Sternburg, VVAF’s long-time executive director, “but the loss of CFC contributions was a devastating blow to those who had worked so hard to get the organization off the ground.”

Finally, in 1993, the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund received good news. It took an act of Congress, but the Combined Federal Campaign funds were once again directed to the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund. It was an important victory and one that allowed VVAF’s charitable work to expand significantly.

VVAF, which has its offices today at VVA’s national headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, then began in earnest to do its charitable work, as well as provide significant financial assistance to VVA and to the VVA State Councils.

Helping homeless veterans quickly became one of the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund’s top charitable priorities. In 1992, VVAF began funding non-profit organizations that help homeless veterans and their families all around the country. The first effort along those lines was supporting an ambitious homeless veterans housing program in West Haven, Connecticut, in cooperation with the VA’s Connecticut Healthcare System and the Connecticut Department of Social Services. That relationship continues to this day.

The other early 1990s programs VVAF supported included helping to finance a Symposium on Women Veterans and the Mass of Reconciliation and Remembrance held in conjunction with the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial; distributing food to flood victims in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri; and supporting VVA’s nationwide network of hundreds of paid and volunteer accredited veterans’ service representatives. VVA service representatives help disabled veterans, without charge, to obtain the government benefits to which they are entitled.

Many charitable organizations have received VVAF grants, including the Kenny Nickelson Memorial Foundation, which runs homeless programs in California; the Minnesota Council for Veterans, which administers transitional living houses for homeless veterans; the Veterans Emergency Relief Foundation in New York; and VVA’s own nationwide Veterans Against Drugs program.

Funds also have gone to bush pilots who fly into the Alaskan wilds to supply veterans who live in extreme rural areas; to stand-downs in several states in which indigent and homeless veterans and their families receive benefits counseling, medical assistance, dental care, clothing, hot showers, clothing, household supplies, and other basic essentials; to mobile medical and dental facilities to provide services to homeless veterans; to vocational training programs for incarcerated veterans; to emergency relief funds that help veterans and their families; to counseling and group therapy services for veterans and family members affected by post-traumatic stress disorder; and to therapeutic horseback riding and trail riding programs for veterans and individuals with disabilities.

VVAF grants also go to a wide array of community-service programs across the country. These include endeavors such as educational scholarships for veterans and their families; the Toys for Tots program; student education about the Vietnam War; and playgrounds for disabled children.
Changes Are Coming

VVAF today is more involved than ever in fundraising. The Fund has relied heavily on the Combined Federal Campaign contributions, and that funding stream has diminished in recent years. “Over the years, those funds have dwindled from a high of $700,000 a year down to barely $300,000,” said VVAF President Keith King.

In order to continue funding its charitable endeavors and high-ticket items such as the VVA Service Representative program, King said, the Fund needs to find new sources of revenue. “In the past, fundraising was not a priority,” he said. “Today, we find ourselves in the position where we must aggressively pursue fundraising or simply cut the program donations.”

An in-depth study of the VVAF’s fundraising options revealed that the organization’s name itself had become an important factor in declining revenues. “The words ‘Vietnam veterans’ had become a hindrance,” King said. “The fact is that today Vietnam veterans are in their sixties and getting ready to retire, and there is a new generation of warriors to take care of. Those who give to charities want to make sure that the young veterans are being taken care of.”

The upshot is that the Fund has come up with a new name. Some time in 2009 the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund will become known as the Veterans Support Foundation (VSF). VVAF, in fact, already has begun the transition by including the VSF name and logo on its new web site and printed material, and by submitting the new name to the Combined Federal Campaign. But while there may be a new name, the mission remains the same.

VVAF leaders believe that the name change will spur more Combined Federal Campaign donations. But they also are working on other fundraising efforts. That includes the Michael Manning National Veterans Program, a coin can collecting endeavor that began last year in cooperation with the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the USA. “Thanks to the leadership of the Elks, this program is now being rolled out nationwide,” King said. “We have also made this program available to chapter and state councils to earn funds for themselves.”

Another fundraiser was the publication last November of the commemorative VVA book celebrating the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “Most of our members know about The Wall book, which we produced with Boston Publishing,” King said. “It is an outstanding publication, and we need every VVA and AVVA member to buy two or three copies. Give them to your local library, VA hospital, your family, and other veterans. This is an important effort that will help fund and support our programs.”

With a new name and with new sources of funding, VVA’s leaders believe that the organization’s charitable foundation will remain viable for many years.

 

 

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