Define and articulate the unique value your enterprise brings. What are you doing that others aren’t or aren’t doing well? It could be physical — we provide playground equipment to remote communities — or less tangible — we bring disabled and non-disabled children together to play. If you can’t define your unique value, you probably shouldn’t launch a nonprofit. I actually use the same process when deciding to write a book. Launching a nonprofit, like book writing, is hard. Look for a good excuse NOT to do it. If you can’t find that excuse, then do it. In the case of the VBC, I looked up and down for another organization doing what we did. I didn’t find any, so I didn’t have a good excuse not to start a nonprofit.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Todd DePastino.
Todd DePastino is founding director of the Veterans Breakfast Club. Todd’s interest in veterans’ stories first grew out of his work as a historian. Todd is author and editor of seven books, including the award-winning Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (W.W. Norton), a biography of the famed WWII cartoonist. He has a Ph.D. in American History from Yale University and has taught at Penn State Beaver and Waynesburg University, where he received the Lucas-Hathaway Award for Teaching Excellence.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
Before the Veterans Breakfast Club, I was a scholar, an academic historian, who taught and wrote about American History at the college level. I have a PhD from Yale, so I wasn’t a dilettante. I knew my stuff. And I thought I knew about war and military service. But then I wrote the biography of famed WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin. Mauldin was an Army sergeant in Europe. He drew grimly realistic cartoons of combat for Stars and Stripes and hundreds of home front newspapers in 1944–1945. The cartoons and his bestselling book Up Front told the story of war from the foxholes. And his work opened up a whole new world to me: the world of ordinary soldiers, living with danger and discomfort, indignities and outrages, yet somehow establishing a love for each other, a camaraderie, that was beyond words.
I started giving talks about Mauldin and his work. The people he meant the most to — former soldiers — showed up at my talks. And when Q&A time started, these old veterans would tell me their stories. That magical interaction, for me, was the start of the Veterans Breakfast Club.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your nonprofit, Veterans Breakfast Club?
I got hooked on veterans’ stories. They grabbed me and didn’t let go. It must be how some people are grabbed by Star Wars, or the Harry Potter series or the latest Netflix hit. The world they presented me was rich and complex with conflicting dimensions. Their stories were vivid and detailed. It was like the veterans were reading scripts. But these weren’t scripts. They were stories from the frontlines of history, their lives, but our history. The vets told stories of heroism and cowardice, pathos and joy. Humor and tragedy all mixed together.
And this was only the first event. My friend Dan Cavanaugh gathered a group of thirty WWII veterans and worked the room with the microphone, asking each veteran to stand and share a story. Dan dug into it. He asked some prying questions. And they answered with their hearts, as well as their words.
At the end, we invited the vets to return the next month. “Bring your families,” we said. They did. We got about sixty people at that second breakfast, including spouses, children, grandchildren. Afterward, one of the spouses came up and thanked me warmly. “I never heard any of the stories he told today,” she said. We knew we were on to something.
We started to become aware of the environment we created, one that encouraged the veterans to open up and talk. We kept scheduling storytelling breakfasts. People kept coming, and we never ran out of storytellers or story listeners. Younger veterans — and I mean, at that time, of Korea and Vietnam — wanted to be included. We realized that every veteran had a story, no matter the era, age, or branch of service.
Life would have been easier if I hadn’t seen or paid attention to the energy unleashed at these events, if I hadn’t been captivated by the veterans. I could have walked away and gotten on with my life’s work. But the veterans grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Starting a nonprofit was simply a way to turn this problem of mine — this fascination with veterans’ stories — into some sort of sustainable line of work.
Can you describe how your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
I’ll give you two different answers to that question. Both are valid and true, neither is canned or inauthentic. But one is more useful in selling the mission of the VBC, while the other is more profound and mysterious.
The useful explanation of the social impact is that the VBC’s programming helps to heal the Civilian-Military Divide, a serious and growing gap between those who have served and those who haven’t. Most Americans have a positive but shallow view of the military, and most Americans don’t really know any veterans well. For veterans, the disconnect between the civilian and the military world is experienced as a dispiriting fact of life. Most simply shrug when asked about it, saying that they can’t expect civilians to understand or relate to experiences of war or the problems of reintegrating back into civilian society.
The single most consistent factor determining whether someone enlists in the military is whether a family member has enlisted or served in the past. Young veterans and military families are increasingly feeling like a separate and distinct demographic, set apart from the main population. Such isolation contributes to PTSD on the one hand, and a checked-out citizenry on the other. Those who don’t serve can remain oblivious to the needs and experiences of those who fight our wars.
Post-9/11 veterans especially have a positive view of their service and are likely to see their military experiences as assets that bestowed soft and hard skill sets. Still, young veterans report being underemployed and less financially secure than they had expected, and most are haunted by a vague and nagging disconnect between them and the larger community.
The VBC’s approach to healing this divide is to launch and nurture community conversations mixing older veterans with younger ones, plus a large representation of non-veteran neighbors, friends, and family members. These conversations begin with veterans talking about their service experiences, while the community listens and asks questions. Veterans are compelled to find a common language to communicate their feelings and experiences, while listeners encounter the unfamiliar and grow in understanding of others.
But I think the impact is even more profound. The VBC is a rich and caring community. There’s networking at our events, information shared, contacts made, friendships formed across the Civilian-Military Divide. But there’s something more. VBC programs are curated as listening events. People listen with open ears and open hearts, attentively, without judgement. Sometimes, I ask veterans direct questions because I’m looking for information or understanding. But, most of the time, I just invite the veterans to speak. “Tell us about your service.” Such invitations are rare in our world. We live in a noisy, narcissistic culture. There’s a lot of speech — everyone clamors for free speech and to be heard — but not many commit themselves to listening. Listening promotes understanding, understanding builds community, and community breaks down social isolation.
Everyone needs to have their lives validated, their experiences acknowledged. For veterans, there’s a real need to testify to what they’ve seen and done. The armed forces is a distinct and special subculture, and when you enter it, you join a world different from the one civilians know. The exposure to that world stays with you and remains a part of you for the rest of your life. As one Vietnam veteran put it at one of our breakfasts: “I was in the Army for two years. About 3% of my life. But it’s 75% of who I am.” This is a truth non-veterans like me have a hard time understanding. To do so, one needs to listen.
In truth, it took me a long time to consider the social impact of our work. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that my primary focus early on was not so much the good the VBC did in the world, but the good it did for me. The stories inspired me. They changed my life. I felt myself growing in the company of the men and women who shared such difficult and even intimate stories of service with us. I always thought of them as doing me a favor, not the other way around. Only later, when applying for grants and such, did I feel compelled to think about what the veterans got out of the transaction.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your nonprofit?
Let me instead share examples of the kinds of help individuals get. Some of these kinds I understand, some I don’t. Not fully, at least. The first kind of help is straightforward. A veteran stands up, shares her story for a few minutes, and people applaud. Afterwards, people come up to her, give her their cards, shake her hand, talk to her about what she’s doing and where she wants to go in life. A few months later, she has a new job, one that’s more commensurate with her skills and experience. And it’s all because of the networking done at our events. It’s a by-product of the community we tend.
The other kind of help is less visible, less tangible, and less (if at all) quantifiable. A 96-year-old veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima shares for the first time his story of hand-to-hand combat and how it has haunted him his entire life. He suffers greatly for six weeks after telling his story with restless sleep. But then, he returns to say he feels better than ever, as if unburdened by something that had been weighing him down. What kind of alchemy is that? It’s hard for me to say.
Another WWII veteran I know named George attended our breakfasts religiously for a couple years. He shared some of his story of combat in Europe during the Battle of the Bulge, but mostly he listened, and sometimes I would even catch him taking notes in a little notebook. Then, he stopped attending. Months later, I ran into him at a grocery store.
“Hi, George,” I said, “we’ve missed you at our breakfasts.”
“I don’t need them anymore,” he responded.
I hadn’t thought of the breakfasts as something anyone needed.
“I had never processed my combat experience,” George continued. “I’d not thought about it at all, just pushed it out of my mind to get on with my life. The breakfasts dredged it all up and made me stop and really dig into my memories. I realized I needed to process the war. And I’m satisfied now. I think I’ve worked through it.”
Another thirty-something-year-old veteran of Afghanistan, with a wife and two children, shared his story at our events. He later said, “That was the best thing I’ve done since getting out of the Army.”
We’ve had veterans say that because of our events they can sit comfortably in the center of a restaurant or banquet room now (before, they’d always have to be near the door or against a wall). They’ve said they can talk with their families about their service now, and that they can feel proud of themselves in a new way — all because of our breakfasts. I wish I could explain it fully. But I do know VBC programs provide an important healing and reconciliation function for veterans and families of veterans.
What are three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Bring back the Draft. That would solve the problem. Of course, it would unleash a whole new host of problems, not least for the military. And the new problems might be worse than the one that inspired the solution. So, I’m not endorsing the Draft as national policy. But I am saying that the problem goes that deep. The Civilian-Military Divide is a byproduct of the All-Volunteer Force, which began in 1974. Before then, the Draft, for all its inequities, ensured that the overall burdens of military service fell across a broad demographic. Military service was commonplace, a rite of passage for young American men, and it touched most American families. Today, that’s not the case.
“Thank you for your service” has become the compensatory salve for a wound that is much deeper. We need to work to integrate veterans and their experiences and points of view into the center of our lives and communities.
But that’s hard to do, again, when our American world is so disintegrated generally and social isolation is so endemic. Strengthening community and cross-cultural understanding are musts.
How do you define leadership? Can you explain what you mean or provide an example?
Do you have any easy questions? Leadership would have remained an odd academic subject — literally, as in “Organizational Leadership” courses at college — had I not launched the Veterans Breakfast Club. As a scholar, I worked in splendid isolation. No leadership necessary. Sure, I’d have to convince other scholars and readers I had something to contribute, but I didn’t need anyone to follow me any farther than down the hall to a comfortable classroom.
The VBC thrust me into a position of leadership, a position I still find uncomfortable. Leadership is really the taking of responsibility. Leaders are responsible not only for the endeavor but also for the other people who join the effort. Leadership is an office that one inhabits that entitles and demands you to define the goal, point the way, and take the lead in getting there. But what if you have trouble defining the goal? What if others see the goal differently or want to take another path? In that case, you have to have a discussion, hear the others out, and then make a judgement. Either, “Yes, I was wrong, we should take your path,” or “No, we can’t go that way. We must go my way.”
Leaders inevitably face this dilemma. There’s no way out of it. With my super-agreeable personality type, I’m always happy to choose the former option: to agree to the alternate path. But, at some point, the latter response will be the correct one, and I won’t be able to dodge it: my way has to prevail. Leaders inevitably have to say no sometimes. I find saying no the most difficult part of leadership.
Looking back, I see that I should have said no far more often than I did. As an organization grows in success, so do the pressures to push it in one direction or another.
Residents in a local veterans’ home need socks. The VBC should do a sock drive!
Congress is considering a new veterans’ benefit. The VBC should endorse it!
An injustice has taken place in our world. The VBC should take a stand!
None of these actions is wrong or harmful. But they are all examples of the kinds of pressures that a leader needs to accede to or parry to keep an organization on mission.
Based on your experience, what are the five things a person should know do before they decide to start a nonprofit? Please share a story or example for each.
- Define and articulate the unique value your enterprise brings. What are you doing that others aren’t or aren’t doing well? It could be physical — we provide playground equipment to remote communities — or less tangible — we bring disabled and non-disabled children together to play. If you can’t define your unique value, you probably shouldn’t launch a nonprofit. I actually use the same process when deciding to write a book. Launching a nonprofit, like book writing, is hard. Look for a good excuse NOT to do it. If you can’t find that excuse, then do it. In the case of the VBC, I looked up and down for another organization doing what we did. I didn’t find any, so I didn’t have a good excuse not to start a nonprofit.
- Define and articulate your unique personal contribution. Why are you the person to lead this effort? You don’t need to have a “superpower.” Ordinary powers will do. As one vet put it to me, “You just give a shit.” He was distressingly accurate. I cared about this mission, and that was enough for me. And maybe that’s enough for you also. You care enough, you have enough time, and you live in the right place. So, the job falls to you. If you have something like a superpower, then you really can’t escape it. Maybe you see something others are missing. Maybe you’re relentless when others give up. It’s good to know why you’re the right person to start a nonprofit. Because then you can move on to the next step.
- Define and articulate your personal weaknesses, blind spots, and shortcomings. Where do you need help? For me, that was easy. I needed help in everything. And that’s only a mild exaggeration. I needed help in everything that wasn’t actually running a VBC program. I could talk with vets and get them to talk. But I couldn’t do the books. I couldn’t file paperwork with the state. I couldn’t — at first — raise money or find sponsors or hire help or manage employees. I needed help in all of this. I started with the most basic needs: accounting and governance. At this point, thirteen years later, the help I need is more strategic. But you need to know what you need when you need it.
- Define and articulate your revenue or business plan. It doesn’t have to be exact or flawless. But it should be reasonable and achievable. Many nonprofits fail because they’re not sustainable. Nonprofits start with a lot of bootstrapping. Some, maybe, bootstrap forever. But if you can define a business plan that will work for the long haul, you have a much better chance at success. Financial support will always shape the end product you’re delivering — the good and services you provide. In other words, put cynically perhaps, money talks. Make sure your donors, sponsors, funders don’t bend the purpose and mission of your organization so far that it points you in a different direction than the one you intended. A little bending is fine, even healthy. But make sure there’s a revenue plan that keeps you on your path.
- Define and articulate a succession plan. Our board calls this the “What if Todd gets Hit by a Bus?” question (I prefer, “What if Todd Retires to Italy?” question). Nonprofits are usually started by charismatic leaders who have a passion. But charisma is a shallow trait, useful for calling attention to the mission, but not for sustaining it. If a prospective founder is expecting their passion and vision to sustain the project, they’ll eventually be disappointed. The leader needs to define the culture — that I’ve learned the hard way — but the leader must also be willing and able to hand off responsibility and leadership to others who share the vision. It’s a delicate balance between understanding that you are the right person to launch the enterprise, but knowing also that others are standing by ready to step in.
Can you share your favorite life lesson quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
I use life lesson quotes as mantras, little reminders that move my mind back on a preferred track. Mantras are only needed when I face inner resistance, which I do all the time. We all have minds that wander, problems we wish would just go away, or desires that pull us in directions we know aren’t right. A good life lesson quote at the right time can wake us up and get us back on track.
Here’s one I’ve read that I think sums up everything I’ve learned at the Veterans Breakfast Club:
Wisdom says, “I am nothing.”
Love says, “I am everything.”
Between the two, life flows.
The two things I hear at our events, in the stories of our veterans, are Wisdom and Love. (Can you imagine a job where you receive Wisdom and Love every day? That’s what I get to do.)
All the veterans who attend our events have one thing in common: they are living. But they all carry with them memories of people who aren’t living. Who didn’t come home. Many lost people next to them in war. Sometimes, it was a matter of millimeters or fractions of a second. They have no good explanation for why they should have lived and others, including some more worthy, should have died. They’ve seen the immensity of the world, the unmeasurable power of war, and they’ve been forced to confront the seeming meaninglessness and randomness of existence. That recognition, that critical distance from one’s own self, is Wisdom.
On the other hand, that experience of loss has also engendered in them Love. Veterans are the most grateful people I’ve ever met. They’re grateful to be alive. They’re grateful for every breath. They know plenty who didn’t get to live, love, have families, and grow old. They are aware that subjectively they are the center of the universe, and they glory in the gift they’ve been given. But they also know that objectively, they are bits of space dust headed to oblivion. They are humble and are quick to recognize and pledge allegiance to something far bigger than they are.
Between those two understandings, I believe, lies the path for all of us.