These charities claim to help veterans, but donations go towards raising more money

The stack of fundraising letters grows every week.

Butch Kelly is on a fixed income, but gives to charity when he can. So when he first got a letter from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, he sent a check.

“You see ‘disabled veterans’ and think, ‘Wow, these people are doing good works,’” Kelly said.

The Disabled Veterans National Foundation’s website is slick, with video and testimonials of their work helping veterans.

But when looking at the organization's tax filings, less than 25 percent of every dollar — less than a quarter — is actually going to programs that support veterans.

Daniel Borochoff monitors nonprofits at Charity Watch. That group gives Disabled Veterans National Foundation an “F” rating. Another watchdog, Charity Navigator, gives them 0 out of 4 stars.

The group raised $27 million in 2016. The majority of the money went to fundraisers and mailings.

The Disabled Veterans National Foundation’s headquarters are in suburban Washington D.C. More than a month ago, Action News Jax first reached out asking to talk to them about their finances.

They've repeatedly refused our requests for any kind of interview, but they did send us a letter, which can be seen below. 

It touts the military record of Purple Heart recipient Joseph Vanfonda, who has been “working to revamp the organization’s operations, programs, staff and fundraising practices.”

But Vanfonda won't talk to Action News Jax, and for charity watch, the proof is in the numbers, and the Disabled Veterans National Foundation isn’t alone when it comes to sending a minority of their money to veterans.

The Veterans Support Foundation also gives less than a quarter of every dollar to veterans.

Their President, Keith King, told Action News Jax that the organization provides housing for veterans in need.

“We’re proud of what we do,” King said. “Once we have the money in the house, how we take care of that money, what we do with that money, is as important — if not more important — than what it costs me to raise that money in the first place.”

King says money problems forced his charity to turn to telemarketers. Those telemarketers now get half of every dollar he raises.

“We had gotten to the to a point to where we were looking seriously to simply shut our doors,” King said.

That’s what Charity Watch says should happen.

“They should go out of operation; they're just siphoning money out of the giving pool,” Charity Watch said.

That’s why Kelly now has a special place to put the mail that keeps coming from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.

“I just put it in the shredder,” Kelly said.


The Disabled Veterans National Foundation’s letter to Action News Jax: 

Thank you for the chance to respond to your questions about DVNF. 

You are correct, DVNF has made many changes and continues to make more.  We have professionalized the organization in many respects, starting with the hiring four years ago of Joseph VanFonda as CEO, upon his retirement, with the rank of Sergeant Major, from a 27-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps. A recipient of the Purple Heart, VanFonda remained on active duty after being injured in combat. His final assignment in the Marine Corps was serving as the Regimental Sergeant Major for the Wounded Warrior Regiment, responsible for the coordination of non-medical case management for combat and non-combat wounded, ill, and injured Marines. 

At DVNF, Mr. VanFonda who has been working to revamp the organization’s operations, programs, staff, and fundraising practices. 

As you and I discussed on the phone, charity evaluation sites are generally only able to rate a very large number of charities (more than 9,000 in the case of Charity Navigator) by using algorithm-driven data metrics and several yes/no questions.  They simply don’t have the resources for close evaluation of the effectiveness of individual charity’s programmatic activity.  Organizations like DVNF that don’t have large numbers of corporate donors and wealthy individuals and rely instead on direct mail—with its high overhead costs for printing, mailing and postage—often end up with zero stars even though they may run very fine programs that provide significant benefit to a large number of people.  We believe this is the case with DVNF. 

Also, please consider three other points about DVNF’s Charity Navigator rating: 

  • DVNF has low administrative costs.  Charity Navigator awards the highest score on this metric for organizations whose administrative costs are less than 15% of their total budget.  DVNF's percentage is just 8.3%. 

  • DVNF does not pay exorbitant executive salaries.  Charity Navigator says that an organization whose CEO's compensation is 1% of the organization's budget is an example of "tighter expense control."  In DVNF's case, the CEO's compensation is less than half that:  0.49%. 

  • DVNF also has strong year-to-year growth in program expenses, a good thing.  Charity Navigator awards the highest score on this metric for organizations whose growth in spending on programmatic activity exceeds 10%.  DVNF's score is 11.4%.

  • DVNF is committed to transparency and accountability.  Charity Navigator awards four stars, the maximum, for any organization with a 90% score or better on accountability and transparency.  DVNF's score is 96%.  Moreover, DVNF is a participant in the GuideStar Gold Transparency Program. 

One important indicator of DVNF’s progress in professionalizing the organization over the last few years is the fact that we have been awarded grants from several corporations and governmental agencies.  These grants are a vote of confidence in the value of our service to veterans and in the integrity of the organization. 

Another factor that offsets to some extent the high cost of direct mail is the fact that DVNF gets great “bang for the buck” for its programmatic spending.  So, for example, the Health & Comfort program, which sends shipments of health and hygiene supplies, clothing and toiletries to veteran stand-down events and veteran shelters around the country, distributes mostly donated products.  So, for a modest expenditure of staff time and transportation costs, many thousands of veterans benefit.  More than 20 stand-down events received distributions in 2017, and organizers tell us that these free distributions help to attract veterans to their events, where they can get other vital services like health screenings and benefits assistance from the VA. 

Similarly, the “Tailored for Troops” program distributes free suits and other business attire, donated by a corporate partner, to unemployed veterans who will have a much better chance at higher paying jobs if they can dress professionally.  That program also has impact that is out of proportion to the cost. 

Another program that leverages our expenditures for maximum impact are our Capacity Building Grants, where DVNF selects highly promising veteran-service organizations and awards grants that are designed build the scale and long-term effectiveness of the organizations’ programs that directly serve veterans.  In 2017, 59 organizations were supported with significant grants.  These included organizations that provide very specific services one-on-one to disabled veterans, like adaptive bicycles, service dogs, advanced prosthetic devices, art therapy, etc. 

All told in 2017, DVNF supported more than 50,000 veterans through our programs, and we hope to keep doing even more to support the men and women who served in defense of our country going forward.

Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. 

Best regards,

Timothy Gilles

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