By James R. Knickman
President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
During the recent Philanthropy New York conference on resources for returning veterans, it struck me that very few of the funders in the room had an explicit mandate or mission to support veterans. And yet, nearly 80 people attended the meeting to hear from other funders, advocates and policymakers about the issues facing our returning veterans and their families. I was encouraged to see that so many of New York’s philanthropic organizations recognize that opportunities to meet veterans’ needs cut across a whole range of interests: health care, mental health services, education, employment, housing…the list goes on and on.
People are often surprised to hear that we at the New York State Health Foundation include veterans as an area of focus. And I’ll be honest: when our Board first encouraged us to take on this strategy, it seemed like a bit of a stretch. We’re a health funder, not a veterans funder.
But as we dug deeper, we realized that meeting the needs of returning veterans and their families is, in part, a community health issue. We knew that there were some significant mental health needs for this population—veterans returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, for example—but we also learned that most veterans want to get health care and mental health services in their own communities. It makes sense: a huge proportion of the 85,000 New Yorkers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are returning to neighborhoods, rather than to military bases.
As we learned more about the unique needs and preferences of returning veterans and their families, it became clear that devoting resources and energy to this area was very much on mission for us. And I expect that’s true for a whole range of foundations in New York State.
At the New York State Health Foundation, we’ve realized over the last few years that we can make a difference in veterans’ health and well-being without huge financial resources. Since 2008, we have made only 10 grants, totaling approximately $2.5 million, in this area. For example, we commissioned a needs assessment to better understand the needs and preferences of New York’s returning veterans and their families. We supported the replication of the Buffalo Veterans Treatment Court (which focuses on rehabilitation rather than incarceration) and funded the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester to spread its model of comprehensive community-based services for veterans.
But in addition to making grants to replicate and spread good models—and perhaps more importantly—we have focused on two approaches that require relatively minimal financial resources: first, leveraging Federal dollars to support New York’s veterans, and second, hammering the idea that the Veterans Administration should direct more of its resources to the types of community-based services that veterans say they need and want.
The government already spends billions of dollars every year on health care and services for veterans; our Foundation’s financial resources are miniscule by comparison. But we do see a role for our Foundation in ensuring that those dollars are spent well, on effective, well-coordinated programs and services for our returning veterans and their families. And it’s a role that fits squarely within our mission to improve the health of all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable.
With some creative thinking, I expect that most foundations, while staying true to their core mission, could find an avenue to support the 85,000 veterans who are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan to their families and communities in New York State. For those who have served and sacrificed so much, it seems like the least we can do.