“Doing good while getting sand kicked in your face”
by Ken Smith
I was searching the internet the other day and came across a story online about a group collecting money for homeless Veterans outside a shopping center. What I found interesting was the tone of the story. I had some free time, so I called the writer of the article and asked for some background. What I learned from that conversation with the writer set me on a journey of my own, researching and digging online to figure out what this Veterans group was really doing.
Some postings online were vicious in their tone and some actually alleged the group was a scam. I started digging around some more and what I found was just the opposite. It appeard to me that most of the negative online stories were the result of a single vet, or a small group of vets who were steamed that a new vets group called the “Veterans Support Organization” were out on the streets in 17 states, collecting donations for homeless veterans and attempting to do some good. I shouldn’t say a New Veterans group, as they have been around for years, but they were new to me.
Now, I was born at night, but not last night, and truthfully, there were some horror stories about this group that were true, and yet, as I dug deeper, I found, that whenever there was an issue that smacked of duty or honor, this group went to work immediately to fix the problem. Unlike some traditional veterans organizations, the problems they faced didn’t fester for weeks or months, the problem was addressed, fixed, or the offender was fired. It seemed that in my research, each time I thought this group was on the ropes and about to fold, the same thing became apparent. The founder of this group would look at the problem, step back, make a decision and keep the group moving forward one step at a time . You gotta like that attitude. I then started to review all I could find out about how this group started, why it started and what has happened over the years.
To be honest, I had to look past the barnacles on the hull of this boat from its early days. What I personally look for in a veterans group that is raising money is “Intent”. Does the group have good “Intent” and if it does, what does it do with the money it raises and is anyone making a million dollars running the store? You can find this information online these days and the more I dug, the more I found great intent, sometimes sloppy execution but nobody making a million dollars a year.
I know a thing or two about intent. Intent is evident with some of the great veteran advocates I have met and worked with over the years. Harold Russell, Jan Scruggs, Greg Bresser, Bill Pitman, Sid Danial’s, Dick Snyder. All of these Veteran advocates share a common denominator, Intent, intent to commit good and that is what I found from looking at this group from the outside in.
Finally I called the founder (Richard VanHouten) and a few days later he called me back. I started our conversation off by telling him that I knew more about him and the group he ran than he knew about me and that I was a journalist for Veterans Today and was writing a story about his group. Now, my experiance tells me that when I introduce myself like that, one of two things are going to happen.
1. The group circles its wagons and does everything in its power to stone wall me from any useful information, usually sending me to their general counsel who demands all questions in writing and informs me that the answers have to be vetted by the executive committee and they don’t meet for another six months, in essence, screw.
2. The person who is in charge says “Fire away” and states, what answers do you want to know? That’s what this guy said to me. I can tell you and the other readers of this article that its refreshing when you hear that from someones lips. I knew that I had tons of questions to ask this guy and started my grind of digging to get to some of the answers that were tough and hard hitting. This guy didn’t blink.
When I asked about problem areas that came up in my research, he was honest. Jeez, Ken, he said, I was not aware of that problem in our chapter in New York until it was reported. I took the guy working for us at his word, and while he was in New York, I was in Florida trying to run all 17 state operations, and I wish I could be in twenty places at the same time, but I can’t. I can tell you however that when I found out about this problem, I IMMEDIATELY fired the guy, took control of the situation, took personal responsiblity for the problem, apologized to the donors who support us, and I set up a policy to help me flush out any other kind of scam employee that slipped in under our wire. I made the mistake of taking this Veterans “Word” as his bond and for that, I am responsible. I have a guy up there in New England now who is as honest as the day is long and is doing a great job. You should call him, his name is Matt .
I did call him.
I got the guy right on the phone and after a few minutes of small talk he said to me, look, nobody is going to retire doing this work, and nobody is making a million dollars, and just this week alone, I am almost sure, I will be working 70 plus hours raising money for Veterans. I could tell from his voice, his “Intent” was there, and his heart was in his work. That’s what I needed to know. He told me that he was a combat Marine from Iraq and he knew the work he was doing was important.
Now, I know a thing or two about running a homeless shelter and a few things about homeless veterans. I am the founder of the largest shelter for Homeless Veterans in the Nation and was the executive director for a number of years. The New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in downtown Boston has serviced well over 40,000 veterans since it opened. That makes me somewhat knowledgeable about the inner workings of shelters and it gave me a front row seat on how to do things right and how to do things wrong in respect to fundraising. I did them both.
I met my wife while working at this shelter, and even now, after years of doing other things, I know how important it is to have the backing of your wife when you do veterans advocacy work. Mostly because everyone is taking shots at you, day in and day out, and some days it is the faithful support of my wife that gives me peace and understanding when the bullets are flying.
Richard has a wife, her name is Michelle. She too is a vet and she also works at the “Veterans Support Organization, doing all the things that I am sure that the founder (Richard) is lousy at. Bookkeeping, payroll, day to day issues of running a group with a staff in 17 states and I admire someone (especially a wife), who takes the cause of her husband to heart and helps him to keep everyone grounded. That’s not something you see everyday. The VSO is lucky to have her work ethic and her attitude of excellence.
For this kind of dedication, I found those online who said “Its a Mom & Pop” veterans organization and between the two of them, they are making millions. That’s just not true. I would go so far as to say, between the two of them, they work in excess of 130 hours per week, and its their dedication to the mission and again their good “Intent” that is evident.
I looked around and did some more digging and I found that these two have their hearts in their work and have made some decisions to leave the legal stuff to lawyers and the accounting stuff to accountants. I applaud that. Its lawyers that need to file the necessary paper work that allows a charity to raise funds in a state in which they are not originally incorporated . This group didn’t complete that legal process in a few states in the past where they started rasing funds and got slammed hard after some traditional vets groups complained to the Attorney General of that state. When confronted with this problem, the comment from the founder was, “We screwed up”, we were wrong and not in compliance with our paper work, we needed to change that process . We dind’t follow the rules. Then he went on to explain about how this law firm that they now use has fixed that issue and there is a process of getting all of the paper work right before they venture into another state to raise money. Sounds smart to me.
I was amazed to find out that this group also operates a transitional housing program in Florida for homeless veterans. Nobody except someone who has managed a “transitional housing program” can appreciate the hard work and effort needed to keep this kind of a program on its legs. Mostly the work is grueling and the clients can be your biggest problem. I know from first hand experiance that there are veterans who have an “I am entitled” mentality and I found that 20% of the clients took 90% of the staff time that I had dedicated to the “Transitional Housing” units I had built and managed. It was a pain in the ass.
When I asked where the funding comes from to run this housing program, the founder was honest. We raise funds using veterans as our fundraisers he said, instead of paying 80 percent of every dollar raised to a professional fund raiser, we use vets, and for using veterans, I am labled as a scammer. I am trying to get some money in the pockets of veterans who are homeless while doing fundraising out on the streets with us and for doing that, I get beat up.
Go Figure. It’s usually other veterans or veterans groups that are complaining about this guy.
It leads me to the conclusion that veterans groups are cannibals, living on cannibal island. Eating each other.
If your not doing your fundraising the ole fashion traditional way or if your group is innovative or smacks of smart, your labled as a scam organization to beat you down and lower your credibility. I would suggest that readers take a rather hard and long look at this group.
While its not perfect, and nothing really is ever perfect, it’s intent is good and they at least are trying to do the right thing.
Day in and day out.