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Donors pay death benefits to military families during shutdown

The Fisher House Foundation and private donors will pay military family death benefits during the government shutdown. And other philanthropists are helping keep Head Start programs running.

By Doug DonovanThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / October 11, 2013

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (l.) and Secretary of the Army John McHugh (2nd l.) salute as a US Army team transfers the remains of a soldier at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Oct. 9. Secretary Hagel said Oct. 9 that families of troops who die during the government shutdown will receive a death benefit payment thanks to a deal reached with a private charity.

Reuters/Roland Balik/US Air Force/Handout

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The Department of Defense (DOD), with a half-trillion-dollar budget, has turned to a nonprofit with $48.5 million in revenue to help it pay $100,000 in death benefits to families of military employees who have died since the federal government shutdown.

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But the Fisher House Foundation was not alone in its concern for helping the Pentagon. Once the deal was announced on Wednesday, 1,200 people called the Rockville, Md.-based nonprofit and pledged a total of $160,000 on Wednesday to help the organization support those military families.

“It’s humbling,” said David Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation. “America is a grateful nation. Sometimes the bureaucracy gets in the way.”

The organization, which builds comfort homes for veterans to use at military medical facilities, has established a $4 million emergency fund that will pay the death benefits to the families of 29 fallen military employees, Mr. Coker said.

This is not entirely new for the foundation. Its founder, Zachary Fisher, used to send $10,000 to $20,000 to families in the 1980s to hold them over until the federal government paid the benefits, which normally can take several days.

On Tuesday, when Mr. Coker and the foundation’s chief executive, Kenneth Fisher, heard that the death benefits were not going to be covered because of the shutdown, they knew they had to do something.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, called and gave them that chance by linking them with the Pentagon.

“It’s simply the right thing to do,” Mr. Coker said.

The deal with the Pentagon came a day after Houston philanthropists Laura and John Arnold provided $10-million to keep 13 Head Start programs from closing. The first seven programs, serving nearly 7,000 children, had been closed Oct. 1 but are reopening thanks to the Arnolds’ interest-free loan to the National Head Start Association.

The group will repay the money once the federal government supports the programs again after the shutdown. Another six programs are slated to be closed Oct. 11 and are working with the national association to get the money they need to stay open, said Sally Aman, a spokeswoman for the national association.

The Pentagon has also told the Fisher House Foundation that it will repay the nonprofit once the government reopens.

But Mr. Coker said the nonprofit’s main concern is the families.

“They have paid a tremendous price, and we should not be adding a financial burden to that,” he said. “It would be great if the DOD could find a way to reimburse us. But at this point our focus is on the families.”

This article originally appeared on the website of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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