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Service Charities Adjust Funding for Wartime Requirements

May 15, 2008
by Robert K. Ackerman
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The ongoing conflict in Southwest Asia is changing the thrust of many charities that support warfighters and their families. As patterns of need have emerged over time, charities are shifting their focus toward specific activities that address those needs.

The charities are not abandoning their original purposes. Instead, they are taking on new roles that are increasing in importance. And despite the slow economy, people are responding to charities’ appeals on behalf of men and women in the armed forces.

However, the public is taking a closer look at military support charities. The American Institute of Philanthropy recently gave a sizeable number of veterans and military charities failing grades, and an additional number are cited for managing their funds poorly.

But among the military charities that received the institute’s highest rating, an A+, is the Fisher House Foundation. The foundation is raising funds for a new generation of houses that reflect the new reality of caring for the wounded. A total of 38 Fisher houses, which provide lodging for the families of wounded warfighters during treatment, are in operation, mostly around U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force bases. Five new houses are under construction, nine are in planning or design, and six are slated for a 2009 start.

Jim Weiskopf, executive vice president for communications, explains that Fisher House’s current and future construction plans represent a major shift in focus. Four of the five houses currently under construction are at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals, and all six of the planned 2009 houses are at VA facilities.

This shift in emphasis toward locations at VA hospitals in part reflects the medical care that wounded personnel now receive immediately after injury. Modern military medicine is able to save many wounded warfighters from injuries that probably would have been fatal during the Vietnam War. However, the severity of these now-survivable wounds often requires long recuperation periods.

More warfighters are receiving long-term rehabilitative care for traumatic injuries such as burns, brain injuries and amputations. This is where the VA-sited Fisher houses come in. Having family support present during a long-term rehabilitation often aids in patient recovery. Fisher houses are increasing in areas where they can bring families to the severely injured warfighters for an extended period of time.

Each new house costs about $4.5 million to $5 million, and the public has been “wonderfully supportive” of the program, Weiskopf says. CharityWorks, the organization that is leading the Fisher House drive in the Washington, D.C. area, is hopeful that its fundraising goal of $2 million will be met, says CharityWorks’ Deanna Belli. Many companies are helping in their own ways, she adds. These efforts include setting up internal programs for employees to contribute.

Belli has observed that people are discerning about which charities they support, and Fisher House’s A+ rating has helped it. “People are asking a lot more questions before they write the check,” she observes. Charities that have very low overhead costs tend to receive more under this “trust but verify” approach.