Since the early 1990s, the Fisher House Foundation has supported more than two hundred and seventy-seven thousand families of service members and veterans by providing lodging near VA hospitals and military medical centers where their loved ones are undergoing treatment. The foundation also awards scholarships to children and spouses of service members and veterans, administers the Hero Miles and Hotels for Heroes programs, which use donations of frequent flyer miles and hotel points to provide free airline tickets and hotel rooms to military families, and sponsors the Invictus Games.
Kenneth Fisher has served since 2003 as chairman and CEO of the Fisher House Foundation and is co-chair of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, both of which were founded by his late great-uncle, Zachary Fisher. Ahead of Veterans Day, PND spoke with Fisher about the role of philanthropy in addressing the needs of service members and veterans.
Philanthropy News Digest: Providing support to the families of service members and veterans traveling for medical treatment is a very specific area within the broader scope of veterans issues. What made Zachary Fisher decide to focus on it?
Kenneth Fisher: Everything started with the Intrepid. After Zach completed the conversion of the USS Intrepid to the museum it is today, he wanted to do more. So he called the wife of the then-chief of naval operations, Pauline Trost, who told him a story about the day she was at the Bethesda Naval Hospital [now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center] and saw a family run in, drop their bags in the lobby, and run up to the room to see their loved one. They didn't even think about a hotel. There was no real low-cost alternative to a hotel, there was no real housing on the base for those families, and there was a clear need. And Zach said, "This is my skill set. I know an architect; I've been a developer. I can build a house." And so it was decided that what came to be known as Fisher Houses would be built, on two conditions: First, they had to be free of charge. Second, they had to be within walking distance of a VA or military hospital.
That essentially was the birth of the foundation — one phone call that made Zach aware of a need that wasn't being met. We have a saying in our family that has been passed down over the generations: "Don't be somebody who points out problems — we've got too many of them — be part of the solution." So the roots of the Fisher House Foundation can be traced to that story but also to that philosophy.
PND: Over the last twenty-six years, more than seventy Fisher Houses have opened across the United States and in Germany and the United Kingdom. Has the need for these types of facilities near VA hospitals and military medical centers been fully met over the years? And do you expect demand to grow?
KF: Before 9/11, obviously the needs were different. People in the military aren't only hospitalized when they're wounded in battle — they also get sick or are injured in training accidents. But the need for family lodging was so basic and underappreciated that no one really ever thought about it.
After 9/11, we knew that building one or two Fisher Houses a year was not going to be sufficient. In fact, the first house we built after 9/11 was in Germany, which is usually the first stop for many men and women who are wounded in battle overseas and is where they are stabilized before they're sent home to the United States. But back then I looked at the budget and said, "How the heck are we going to meet the need?" And my answer to that question was to apply a private-sector mindset to the running of the foundation. By that I mean, every dollar would be accounted for. I wanted to know how much of each dollar was going to administration, going to fundraising, and getting to the people who needed the program. I was very focused on running the foundation as efficiently as possible. And as we built more and more houses, we got on the radar of the American public, and people responded in ways that I'd never thought possible. At one point we were building nearly ten houses a year. The program still needs to be ramped up, but I don't want it to grow so fast that we can't keep up with it.
Today, some Fisher Houses are running at 100 percent occupancy rates, some at 80 percent, some a little lower. Will we ever fully meet the need? Who knows? It's a difficult question to answer. I can tell you that if a family can't get into a Fisher House because it's full, we put them up in a hotel through our Hotels for Heroes initiative until a room opens up. Any family that comes into the Fisher House program will be taken care of. And by virtue of the support of the American public and the way the foundation is run, I think we're making a very, very positive impact in meeting that need.