Educate yourself: Don’t cut corners. Put in the work to truly understand the complexities of the population you serve. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and create new ways to serve your constituency.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brett D’Alessandro.
Brett D’Alessandro is a US Marine Corps. combat veteran and the founder of Backpacks For Life, a New Jersey based nonprofit that serves the homeless and at-risk veteran community. Since 2014, Brett has been dedicated to serving his fellow brothers and sisters in arms; advocating for legislative reform to support veterans’ needs, mentoring veterans and their families, and working with homeless veterans to find them housing. D’Alessandro was the 2022 winner of Bob Evans Farms Heroes to CEOs grant program.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
There are two life experiences that have really shaped who I am today.
First is the transition period after returning home from Afghanistan in 2013. It was one of the hardest but most pivotal moments in my life. I went from being a person of prominence serving in the Marine Corps. with significant responsibilities to not having the slightest clue what I should do next. My physical and mental health was at an all-time low and crippled me from doing even the most minor tasks. It was such a dark period, but it forced me to be humble, open up personally and ask others for help. It also forced me to rediscover my purpose after service. In my mind, Marines didn’t ask for help, so reaching out for help made me feel weak. It was through this experience that I learned that asking for help is a sign of strength.
Seven years ago, I made the decision to become sober — another experience that truly shaped who I am today. At first, I thought living a sober life was a sacrifice. For years I struggled with that concept — feeling bitter as others were able to go out to bars while I was going to AA. Over time, I was able to shift my perspective. Eventually, I realized that I hadn’t lost anything; I had gained something so much more powerful. Becoming sober laid the groundwork for my success.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
Being on-time. Fifteen minutes early is on time. This is the Marine mentality, and it is critical to be a successful leader. Further, it is a sign of respect. We’re all busy, and showing that you took a few extra minutes to be ahead of schedule speaks volumes.
Being open-minded. In my time in the Marines, our unit had individuals from different backgrounds. It was beautiful to see everyone come together with one purpose and common goal. Being able to acknowledge our differences but not let them impede our collective efforts helped us accomplish our goals. This is a trait I carry forward in my work today — to ensure that we are working with people from all walks of life to best serve our veterans.
Being passionate. You have to love what you do. I am genuinely passionate about my work, which has given way to much of our success. For example, when talking to a homeless veteran or a potential donor, my heart is on my sleeve. Veterans are initially very guarded and not willing to open up, but when I meet them where they are and show them my passion for helping them, they open up. This allows me to better serve them.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
Serving others has the power to heal. Running Backpacks for Life has had a profound impact on my mental health. Serving veterans struggling with homelessness, addiction, and mental health concerns helped heal me. It has helped make me the man I am today.
Also, strategic thinking is key. You have to understand that your nonprofit organization is a business. When we first started Backpacks for Life, we thought that we could get by on donations from the community. We didn’t think about the long-term business strategy to continue serving and expanding our outreach. If you want to continue to grow, you need to market your brand, make sure your vision is clear, and continue to bring in funding to fuel your mission.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Our mission is to provide a personalized support system for homeless and at-risk veterans struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. After being equipped with the right tools and solutions, we want veterans of all eras to seamlessly and confidently reintegrate into society.
By listening to the people we serve, we can address their needs and implement supportive services based on what they actually experience. We’re all about meeting veterans where they truly need support. A backpack can be critical to a veteran, and we saw firsthand what other backpacks lacked. We took that as an opportunity to listen to our veterans’ needs and build them individual backpacks that best suit them.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
The people I serve are heroes. These are men and women who were ready to sacrifice their lives for others and have since fallen on hard times. They’ve served our country, and I want to serve them.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
I received a call from a police officer about a homeless veteran frequently living in an ATM vestibule. I met with the gentleman late at night, and he had nowhere to go and no support system to lean on. He was hopeless and felt that there were no options left for him. I promised him that I’d help.
We found him a motel to stay in, but eventually, he had to be admitted to a VA hospital psychiatric ward for further monitoring. I visited him every day. Once he was stable, he was moved to long-term housing. That year, he even spent Christmas with my family and me. To this day, he still lives at the same long-term veteran housing facility, and we get progress updates about how well he’s doing.
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
- Rethink the idea of what homeless means. Homelessness could mean that you’re couch surfing without a permanent address or living out of your car. It does not necessarily mean that someone is living on the streets. People are often scared by the homeless, but they are often just people who want to feel acknowledged and need a helping hand. Think about this — how long could you live in your current home if you lost your job tomorrow?
- Find local resources, print them on a small index card, and hand them to homeless people you see in your everyday life.
- Offer the homeless people in your neighborhood resources. A bottle of water, some food, and a quick chat will make a far greater impact than you can possibly imagine.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
1 . Transparency: It is critical that we show our donors how their money is utilized and how we serve our community. We also show how we are doing our best to stretch every dollar donated to our cause.
For example, we ensure our financial information is easily accessible on our website. We also put ourselves in front of the camera on social media and show the work we do.
2. Diversify Funding: You should not rely on one funding source to continue your mission. COVID-19 is an unfortunate example where monetary donations slowed down. Many nonprofits had to close their doors because they couldn’t adapt and remain in business. You must think of new ways to support your constituency no matter the circumstances.
For example, we recently received a 25,000 dollars grant from Bob Evans Farms’ Heroes to CEOs program. Heroes to CEOs is an annual grant program that provides hardworking veteran business owners the opportunity for a monetary award, as well as heightened brand awareness and professional business mentoring.
Nonprofits should consider federal, state and local grant funding, as well as community banks, foundations and clubs for funding. Hosting events, selling swag, leveraging online fundraising are other examples of ways to fund your mission.
3. Build a strong team around you: Our board of directors is a group of individuals who not only oversee the nonprofit but also serve as our mentors. As entrepreneurs, public servants, business owners, and veterans, we rely on them to help us see the bigger picture. They also help us execute our day-to-day goals and plan for the future. They are our sounding board for new projects and hold us accountable, too.
4. Educate yourself: Don’t cut corners. Put in the work to truly understand the complexities of the population you serve. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope and create new ways to serve your constituency.
5. Work with others: . Your nonprofit can’t serve every need of the population you serve. You need to be open to accepting when there are other groups who can fill gaps in your services. You have to lean on each other and work towards that common goal to serve your constituency. It’s not about you or your organization — at the end of the day, it’s about the individuals you serve.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
Before the pandemic, we were distributing thousands of backpacks per year. The pandemic slowed us down, and now we are handing out hundreds of backpacks yearly. We realized that we should be focusing on quality over quantity. The pandemic allowed us to slow down and serve people more meaningfully and on a longer-term basis. It’s still having a major impact regardless of that number.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I believe that, as long as you learn a lesson, it isn’t a setback. If you can take something out of the situation and use it in the future, that’s a positive. There have been many times where things haven’t gone our way, but we always get back up. We always try to remind ourselves of the people we serve and why we serve. That serves as our North Star.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dakota Meyer is an incredible Marine who dedicates his life to serving others. We’ve admired his service both in and out of the Marines.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Follow us over on IG for all the latest in how we’re serving our veterans @backpacksforlife and you can check out our backpack for homeless veterans at our website www.backpacksforlife.org
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.