Veterans helping veterans… sometimes

It appears a dysfunctional board may have been central to the breakdown of Longmont organization Veterans Helping Veterans Now

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\"Casualties of War\" by Dorothy

It was an unseasonably warm October afternoon when Richard Connelly stood on the porch at 600 Terry St. in Longmont chatting with other veterans about the news — Veterans Helping Veterans Now (VHVN) would be closing by week’s end.

“One of the guys said he ought to hang himself from one of the trees outside here to make a point,” Connelly, a veteran of the Army and Air Force, says of his conversations that day at the Longmont-based veteran’s service organization. “There’s a lot of us that need help and we’re not really getting it from anybody.”

To add insult to injury, the end came less than two weeks before Veteran’s Day. VHVN closed operations on Friday, Oct. 30 after providing free services to local vets and their families for eight years, citing financial issues and the dissolution of the group’s board of directors.

However, interviews with VHVN volunteers, staff and board members suggest that a disengaged board may have been central to the organization’s closure, and an already-prepared alternative financial plan could have buoyed operations for roughly another six months while leadership developed a more sustainable plan.

Scott England worked with VHVN for four years and was serving as vice chair of VHVN’s board of directors when the group closed. England says the organization went through a number of leadership changes at both board and staff levels over the past two years that aggravated other problems, such as funding.

“Because of some of these changes from a leadership standpoint and just from a timing standpoint, we had some grants that were on an every other year basis, and so we had some holes going into this year that created some challenges financially,” England says. “We had a great executive director for probably a year with Trisha Dittrick — she was [previously] the program director and [had been at VHVN] since the founding, and when she moved on we brought in someone who clearly dropped the ball. So that started in May kind of took the eye off the financial aspect of it and basically created a situation where we were in a hole come late this summer. I don’t think the board saw how dire the situation was because it was not communicated well with us.”

The situation came to a head, England says, when the board began to discuss what direction VHVN would take given the organization’s financial position. A divide developed between those, like England, who wanted to retain existing staff positions and push forward as a professional service organization, and those who wanted to go back to the foundation’s roots as a volunteer-driven operation.

“And we had a number of board members that really weren’t participating — sort of a silent majority,” England says. “Through that we had a chair [of the board, Craig Brown,] who left in September based on the disagreement of the board and the direction, and then we had someone that was going to come in and take his place that ultimately, because of his own focus around his other career, couldn’t do it.

“Really, at the end, we had a combination of financial challenges, a board that wasn’t really cohesive and [a lack of ] strong leadership.”

The staff of VHVN presented a plan to the board that would keep the staff (two full-time positions, a part-time position and a volunteer from AmeriCorps VISTA) running for “six months, maybe a little less,” according to England. And while England says things would have been “tight,” he believes it was the best way to serve veterans.

“I believe you need strong leadership, strong management, because we weren’t a simple organization anymore,” England says. “If we were where we were five years ago, I’d say yes, we could do it with a smaller support and leadership network, possibly volunteers. But we felt the reality was that we [were] servicing over 300 veterans.”

But in the end, the rest of the board, according to England, seemed uninterested in even adding to the conversation — an interesting situation when considering the board, by VHVN bylaws, is 50 percent veterans. England called a board meeting a few days before the decision to close the doors was made, and he says there were “barely” any responses.

“And that was kind of an indicator to us, it was very symbolic of where we were as a board,” England says. “We had important things to discuss and we couldn’t get enough people together to field a quorum.”

The decision to close the doors fell to the executive council: England, Barb Zendig, JD Gifford and Judy Nogg (one of the founders of Veterans Helping Veterans Now). England says he “pretty much ran out of votes to keep it open.”

Boulder Weekly reached out to five VHVN board members: England; board chair Jeff Janosko (who had actually resigned prior to VHVN closing); board treasurer Barb Zendig; and members JD Gifford and Larry Rand. Janosko and Gifford did not return calls, and while Zendig and Rand spoke to BW, both declined going on the record.

While VHVN functioned like a nonprofit organization, it wasn’t registered as a 501(c)(3) and operated as a project under umbrella company Colorado Nonprofit Development Center (CNDC).

CNDC President Melinda Higgs echoes England’s statements about the organization’s deteriorating financial situation and the board’s lack of engagement (including the lack of responses to the call for a final board meeting), but she clarifies that this problem is not unique to VHVN’s board.

“This is a global issue. Among nonprofits, especially smaller nonprofits, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to have board members, to raise money, to have a professional life, a personal life,” Higgs says. “Just to be clear, when I use the phrase ‘lack of engagement,’ I’m not talking about people not being passionate about the cause or not caring about the organization. I’m just talking about people not having the time or energy or sort of even the ability in some cases to do things like raise money for the organization.”

Higgs also verifies England’s statement that while the money coming into VHVN had decreased due to rotating grants and other issues, the organization’s spending hadn’t changed.

When asked if she thought VHVN could have remained open and continued to provide services if different decisions were made, Higgs says she believes the organization wasn’t sustainable in its current structure and that it is too “subjective” to say different choices could have kept it open.

The end of VHVN was certainly personal for the staff and clients. Program Director Steven McLaughlin had only been with the organization for four months, but he said it was long enough to see problems with the board.

“You would think they would want to fight tooth and nail for this,” McLaughlin says. “I don’t know… I can’t speak for them. Based on their actions — their inactions — the last month or two… if you were vested in this organization you would have done some stuff a long time ago to save it.”

For Richard Connelly and other vets who called VHVN home over the past eight years, the closure is just another affirmation that their work for this country isn’t valued once they leave the military and reenter the civilian world. Connelly points to the many failures of the veteran’s health care system that dominated headlines last year.

“There are a lot of organizations out there that get monies donated, but if it gets to the vets it trickles down and only gets to a few,” Connelly says. “By and large there’s a huge gap in this whole system in spite of the fact the government keeps saying they are fixing all these problems. They haven’t fixed shit from what I can see.”