The End of an Era or Opportunity for Renewal: Veteran-Serving Nonprofits

By Dr. Alicia Schatteman

                         

With Veterans Day coming next month, a day dedicated to honoring all of those who have served in the U.S. armed forces, the question is, are Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legions really valued by the veterans they desire to serve? What caused the declining membership of these veteran-serving nonprofit organizations nationwide long before we spoke of a pandemic?

The Chicago Tribune recently posted an article that the American Legion post in Wilmette will close due to a lack of funds.  Some would say this was inevitable.  Five years ago, the Tribune reported that the same post was selling its building.  In the 1970s, this post had nearly 250 members but that has dwindled to a little more than a handful in a town with a population of 27,000.

The Census Bureau estimates say that there are nearly three-quarters of a million veterans currently living in Illinois. Over a third of these veterans served during the Vietnam War.  Illinois veterans also have a higher rate of unemployment compared with veterans nationwide.  There seems to be plenty of needs among veterans.

Growth of Veteran-Serving Organizations

Since 2001, more than 7,800 nonprofit groups have registered with the federal government to care for troops, veterans, and their families, according to the Urban Institute — a third of those between 2009 and 2012. According to a news report by The New York Times in 2012, the phenomenal growth of these organizations has also made the funding landscape much more difficult.  They predicted that “the ability of these organizations to survive depends on their ability to consolidate services and coordinate fundraising with competing groups”.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the national organization, was founded in 1899 by veterans of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. The American Veterans of Foreign Service (predecessor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States) was established in Columbus, Ohio, September 29, 1899, by Spanish‑American War veteran James C. Putnam. In 1914, the VFW was formed and received a congressional charter in 1936. Today, there are over 11,000 VFW organizations across the United States, including nearly 400 posts here in Illinois.  The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. Focusing on service to veterans, service members, and communities, the Legion evolved from a group of veterans of World War I. Membership grew to over 1 million, and local posts sprang up across the country. There are nearly 30,000 American Legion organizations with a membership of nearly 2 million in more than 13,000 posts worldwide.  There are about 1,700 American Legion organizations in Illinois.

Financial Challenges

VFWs and American Legions have survived on revenue from food and bar sales, and various types of gambling.  Unlike many other types of nonprofit organizations, these veterans organizations did not adopt more traditional fundraising methods to build support for their mission.  Likely many people purchased food and drink at a VFW, played a game of chance, and didn’t even consider the mission they were supporting.  As nonprofit organizations pursue these kinds of revenue sources, they may neglect the traditional fundraising methods and the power of donations over transactions.  Donations support missions and seek impact. Transactions are simply transactions.  If someone doesn’t purchase what they are looking for in one place, they seek it out somewhere else, just like the current video gaming in Illinois.  In COVID, those traditional sources of revenue have all but dried up. The buildings are closed for hall rentals, spaghetti dinners, and various forms of raffles or gambling.

In Illinois, several VFW’s participate in regular Queen of Hearts raffles.  Reporters acknowledged the lifeline of this funding to many VFWs starting in 2017.  Many raffle pots are now in the millions.  Some veterans groups didn’t know they needed a raffle license to operate these games. “Under the Illinois Raffle and Poker Runs Act, cities are in charge of crafting their own raffle ordinances, which must also comply with state code. Municipalities and counties do not have to pass raffle ordinances, but without one, they cannot issue legitimate raffle licenses”, from a news story in 2017.

With so many veteran-serving organizations out there and many new to the scene in the 2000s, these newer organizations are less about advocacy and fraternity and more about providing services to the veterans.  It is unclear if the VFW and the American Legion posts can continue to evolve and survive the next century.  For the sake of our veterans, I would like to believe they can.

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