AUSTIN (KXAN) – Veteran’s Day is a time to honor those who have served our country, especially those who have paid the ultimate price to protect our freedom. Many surviving service men and women feel appreciated through your charitable donations intended to help veterans in need. And those who return home from war can find comfort and camaraderie in well-respected veterans groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which also raise money to help needy vets.
But KXAN was contacted by a disabled veteran who was denied help from the Austin-based Texas VFW Foundation. That triggered our investigation in to the non-profit foundation, The Texas VFW, and solicitors hired to raise money for veterans groups across the state. Our investigation uncovered most of the money donated to veterans charities doesn’t go toward helping a single veteran.
Digging deeper, KXAN uncovered millions of dollars donated to a variety of veterans charities mostly going in the pockets of fundraisers. We examined financial reports those solicitors are required to submit to the Texas Secretary of State.
Professional fundraisers have collected $130,399,567 for veteran organizations since 2001, the records show. But those fund-raisers kept 84 percent of the money donated. Meaning, most of the money you donate never reaches veterans needing help.
David Reyna says he proudly served his country in the Air Force during the War on Terror.
“My whole goal was to deploy and I don’t have any regrets, especially to have taken a deployment in Afghanistan,” Reyna told KXAN. “It’s exactly where I wanted to go because I felt that’s where we were attacked from.”
It was Reyna’s job to support U.S. aircraft in battle while he and his fellow airmen took constant enemy fire on the ground.
Reyna returned home disabled, enduring a traumatic brain injury and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Living in San Marcos, he went back to work delivering packages for UPS. But recently, a car struck him from behind while riding his motorcycle. He became unable to earn that needed paycheck because due to a back injury. So he went to the Texas VFW Foundation for help.
“I needed money. I needed to get some bills paid,” said Reyna. “My phone was ringing off the hook. You don’t realize how many creditors you have until you can’t pay them,” he continued.
The Texas VFW Foundation was established to provide direct financial aid to veterans falling on hard times. But the group denied his request in a letter without giving a specific reason.
“I was so angry, only because they led us on,” said Reyna, who claims he provided every bit of documentation the Foundation requested to prove his need for financial assistance. “They kept asking for more information, more information.”
So, Reyna contacted KXAN and asked us to look in to the group. We discovered The Texas VFW Foundation uses a professional telemarketer in Dallas called Southwest Public Relations, which raised more than $67,617 for the group in 2011 and 2012 combined, according to the Foundation’s most recent forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The group kept 83 percent.
Those numbers and the lack of help from the Texas VFW Foundation don’t sit well with David Reyna’s wife, Cynthia, who has seen the toll fighting for his country, and now fighting to feed his family has taken on her husband’s life.
“I’m so disappointed. I just don’t even think they deserve to use ‘VFW’ at all. I just don’t,” she said. “I just don’t think they have the right to do that. It makes me ashamed.”
No one with the Texas VFW or the Texas VFW Foundation would talk on camera about denying David Reyna’s request for help. But off camera, Texas VFW’s State-Adjutant Quartermaster, Roy Grona who is also the Executive Director of the Texas VFW Foundation told KXAN Reyna simply “did not qualify,” even though Reyna believes he proved he met the qualifications.
Grona did put us in touch with a veteran that did receive financial assistance from the Texas VFW and its foundation years ago.
Former Marine Nikki Boudreaux’s dream of being a military pilot ended in a car accident in 2006. She had hoped to fly while fighting for her country.
“That was pretty devastating and it took me to a really dark place,” Boudreaux told KXAN.
That “dark place,” Beaudreux said, included falling behind on her bills.
“I was basically on the verge of homelessness,” said Boudreaux.
But she was able to get $2,500 in financial assistance from the Texas VFW Foundation
“I couldn’t have been more thankful for them to come in at a time in my life that was so crucial,” Boudreaux continued.
Money the Texas VFW uses to help veterans in need comes mostly through your generous donations. Much of the money donated is raised over the phone by a firm in Arkansas hired by the Texas VFW called The Heritage Company, which keeps most of it.
State records KXAN reviewed show The Heritage Company solicited $4,449,377 in public donations for the Texas VFW since 2002 and kept 80 percent of the money donated. The President of The Heritage Company did not return a call for comment.
That figure strikes a nerve with veterans like Nikki Boudreaux.
“I feel like, shame on the companies that are approaching the VFW with that sort of business plan opportunity,” said Boudreaux.
The Texas VFW provided KXAN additional information showing a fund raising company called Veterans Assistance Corp. in Houston raised $441,674 in 2012 and 2013 but kept $355,478 (80 percent). In 2014, according to the Texas VFW, another group called VFW Fundraising collected $205,677 and kept $167,010 (81 percent). Neither the Veterans Assistance Corp. nor VFW Fundraising reported the information to the Texas Secretary of State, as required.
“Donor beware. Be very careful,” says Ken Berger of Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog group based in Virginia.
Berger says the most efficient non-profit organizations spend no more than 15 percent of their budget on fundraising.
KXAN asked Charity Navigator to review the financial records of the Texas VFW we obtained during our investigation
“Well, it looks like to us a very inefficient organization where a tremendous amount of money is going to expenses other than helping the veterans,” Berger said,
KXAN went to the Texas VFW for answers. State-Adjutant Quartermaster, Roy Grona initially agreed to talk on camera but later changed his mind upon advice of the Texas VFW’s attorney, Jennifer Riggs. So, we caught up with him outside the Texas VFW’s Austin office.
“First, I want to thank you for your service to your country and everything the VFW does,” Brian Collister said as he approached Grona. “But I’m here on behalf of all the people who donate money to your organization…the bulk of which, as you know, goes to professional fundraisers,” Collister continued. “Will you please sit down and talk to us about why so much of the money goes to professional fundraisers?” Collister asked Grona.
“No sir, I won’t,” Grona responded. “I’ll refer you to my lawyer. She’s handling all of that,” said Grona.
“What would be the legal issue with how people donate money?” Collister asked Grona.
“It’s not,” Grona acknowledged. “She’s just advised me not to talk to you about it,” he said.
“As you know, 80 percent of what your telemarketer raises, goes to the telemarketer,” Collister said.
“That is incorrect,” replied Grona.
“We’ve done the math. We’d just like to sit down with you and talk about it,” pleaded Collister. “We don’t mean to be disrespectful. We know you’ve done great work with the organization. We’d just like to explain to people how the money is spent,” Collister continued to clarify.
“That’s fine. I’m done,” Grona said as he walked inside the office.
We also reached out to other Texas VFW leaders and those in charge of the national VFW in Washington D.C. But no one was willing to answer questions about fundraising. The only response we received was from the Texas VFW’s lawyer, Jennifer Riggs which reads in part:
“Unfortunately, donations do not always come in without fund-raising efforts by the Texas VFW and its local posts. Fund-raising, whether through direct mail or telephone solicitation, through bingo events or through the VFW’s ‘Support a Veteran Sweepstakes,’ costs money.” (Read the full statement here).
The statement goes on to say The Texas VFW and Texas VFW Foundation has awarded more than $3.5 Million in financial assistance and more than $150,000 in disaster grants since 2008. But KXAN discovered $2 Million of that came from the sale of state lottery tickets. The money came from Texas Veterans Commission, not direct donations.
Charity Navigator says there is more non-profit organizations can do on their own without spending so much on solicitors and urges donors to give directly.
“We recommend that people never give to an organization through a telemarketer because so much of your money is going to a for-profit rather than the mission and cause it’s supposed to,” Ken Berger explained.
Charity Navigator recommends you hang up if you get a call from a professional solicitor and instead send your donation directly to the group intended so it can keep 100 percent of your donated money. They maintain a special section of their website dedicated to veterans charities to help you find one with low fundraising expenses.