Bumble Dee/shutterstock
Bumble Dee/shutterstock

During extraordinary times, there’s always the fear that funding for some deserving groups and causes might be pushed aside, as foundations and donors fully commit to meeting urgent needs.

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, a polarizing national election, and a rising racial justice movement, a number of corporate and private foundations have maintained steady support for American citizens who were willing to lay down their lives for the principles of democracy. In fact, in 2020, several have increased their backing for veterans issues, and integrated veterans causes into their COVID-19 response.

Funders of veterans issues demonstrate consistent devotion to the cause, even as the public’s relationship to the military has evolved over the years. Sentiments toward people in the U.S. military seem to have mostly shifted away from the complicated feelings exemplified during the Vietnam era. Since the twin towers fell, 91% of Americans say they are proud of those who serve.

Some of that is likely attributable to an appreciation for an all-volunteer force, who’ve stepped up to defend the country’s safety and security since the draft ended in 1973, allowing others to stay home. At the same time, the call of duty is now being heard by a shrinking number of citizens. While an estimated 11% of Americans served in World War II, for comparison, active forces now represent just half of a percent of the population.

Those dwindling personal connections threaten philanthropic support for veterans’ causes, as noted in previous coverage in Inside Philanthropy. Leaders of private philanthropies that support vets have typically served, or had family members who’ve served, in the armed services. And while less than 5% of corporate foundations make supporting veterans a top five priority, those who do typically recruit heavily from the military, or serve them as clients.

Still, the round-up that follows demonstrates a deep loyalty from funders with ties that bind, with many increasing support and finding new ways to serve vets.

Resilient commitments 

Steve Cohen, Wall Street billionaire and owner of the New York Mets, is driven to support veterans issues by some close family ties. His father served in the Pacific during World War II, and his son served in the Marine Corps, including a tour in Afghanistan.

In 2016, Cohen made one of the largest commitments to the cause to date: $275 million to help military vets and their families navigate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and mental health issues through the Cohen Veterans Network, which offers free treatment at health clinics throughout the U.S. In just three years, Cohen was already more than halfway toward his goal of opening two dozen centers, and had started funding research.

When the pandemic hit, challenging service delivery in physical sites, CVN quickly pivoted to telehealth. President and CEO of Cohen Veterans Network, Dr. Anthony Hassan, says remote services were always seen as a core part of care, easing transition: “In January, approximately 18% of our clients utilized telehealth for their care. Since the pandemic, up to 98% of clients are now utilizing telehealth. Our clients are reporting similar or better outcomes since shifting to this remote model and are staying in care longer.”

The network also stayed the course on geographical expansion, opening virtual sites in five cities from March to October in Jacksonville, Florida; Jacksonville, Carolina; Anchorage; Honolulu; and Lawton, Oklahoma. The 19 Cohen Clinics now operating across the United States have treated more than 23,000 veterans and family members.

GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons’ ties are also personal. After struggling in high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and was wounded in action during a tour of duty in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart. His unwavering support has echoed the Marines’ motto, Semper Fi, and actually increased this year by almost $1 million.

Other notable 2020 awards come from the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, a $10 million commitment to Semper Fi and America’s Fund, and a $2 million commitment to Team Rubicon. There may be more to come. The foundation describes itself as still actively funding.

In 2016, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore announced a new $2 million priority area for grantmaking, and began investing in programs that support the mental wellness of veterans transitioning into civilian life. Part of an overall health portfolio that includes aging and access to health care, projects include retreat programming, post-traumatic health therapy and supporting coordinated resource networks with a single access point to service providers.

The foundation has also stepped-up for vets during crises. It awarded Team Rubicon, which deploys vets to disaster-stricken areas, $100,000 when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. And its COVID-19 response included a $25,000 operating grant to the Baltimore Station to support veterans facing obstacles to regaining self-sufficiency, and $25,000 to Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, to provide shelter and other acute services to vets.

Corporate commitments

A finite number of corporate foundations support vets. But those who do did not waver in their support this year, even as the companies that fund them were challenged by a global health crisis—making a case for establishing formal giving vehicles that aren’t subject to the vagaries of market forces.

Boeing is weathering a pandemic that drastically reduced airline traffic across the world. Like many companies that support them, Boeing has close ties to veterans and the military. Vets represent 15% of its workforce. Since 2010, it’s hired more than 13,000 of them. And veteran-owned business sub-contracting in 2019 totaled nearly half a billion dollars.

So it’s no surprise, then, that Boeing and the Boeing Company Charitable Trust is a leader in supporting veterans causes, investing $27.4 million just between 2017 and 2019.

Recognizing the challenging time, Boeing president and CEO Dave Calhoun confirmed its commitment to global veterans communities and their families on Veterans Day, announcing investments of more than $14 million to 97 veterans organizations—leveling up support despite a raging pandemic.

Home Depot also has long and deep ties to the military community. Thirty-five thousand of its associates come from the armed forces. Seventy-eight percent of stores and distribution centers are within 20 miles of a military base.

Those connections have resulted in more than $350 million in giving toward veterans-related causes, and a commitment from the company and its foundation to invest a half a billion by 2025. All in, programs have improved more than 48,000 veteran’s homes and facilities in 4,500 cities.

The company continued to stand up for veterans in a trying year. “We have all been affected in some way by the events of 2020,” Chairman and CEO Craig Menear noted on Veterans Day, “but one thing that remains constant for the Home Depot is the respect and passion we have for serving our nation’s veterans and their families.”

The Home Depot Foundation and the company responded to 2020’s unique challenges in unique ways. As part of its second annual Operation Surprise campaign, the foundation committed to working closely with nonprofit partners to identify impacted veterans across the country, to provide “surprise” mortgage payments. It also deployed resources to launch a program that guarantees employment opportunities to associates who have to relocate when their spouses are redeployed, and employee volunteers, who are participating in socially distanced volunteer service projects in communities across the country.

Walmart, another one of America’s largest employers of vets, recently exceeded its “welcome home” commitment to hiring 250,000 members of the military transitioning to civilian life.

Walmart.org, the combined philanthropic efforts of the company and its foundation, largely focuses on supporting career services and resources for veterans and military spouses. Representative grants from the Walmart Foundation include $100,000 to WoVeN, which funds programs that create pathways for women service members transitioning from their last year of service; $2.5 million to Texas Veterans Network, a program of Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans & Military Families; and $150,000 to Wreaths Across America, which coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and thousands of other locations in all 50 states.

Rather than reduce its support during the pandemic, Walmart made supporting veterans part of its COVID-19 response, committing nearly $1 million to Hire Heroes USA/Operation Homefront. Funds focused on providing employment resources for rural and equity populations, and racial opportunity development.

But the most stalwart supporter may be the financial services company USAA, and its foundation, for good reason. One in four of its 35,000 employees are veterans or military spouses. And the company’s 13 million members all served, or are serving, in the U.S. armed forces.

The company’s philanthropic arm, the USAA Foundation, fully aligned investments with veterans causes in 2014, after a rigorous evaluation of strategy and measurement. Its ordinary work addresses veterans issues of homelessness, inclusive medical care, and employment strategies, and a signature program that supports military family resiliency, including families of the fallen.

When COVID-19 hit, USAA stuck to its guns, making the single largest commitment in its 98-year history—$30 million—to supporting military service members, vets and families impacted by the virus. Support included $20 million to military aid societies, including $5.75 million to Army Emergency Relief, $4.5 million to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, and $750,000 to the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States.

The national elections may also have yielded results for the ties that bind. More than 30 leading philanthropies and corporations made commitments to the Philanthropy-Joining Forces Impact Pledge, an initiative to support veterans and military families led by then-First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden. Funding ended this year, but judging by the loyalty shown by other funders, another push may well rise in its place.