How Understanding PTSD Can Revolutionize Nonprofits
On a recent Saturday morning sitting in our favorite reading spot, our back deck overlooking our small lake, the Beloved became annoying. He was reading a book, and every few unpredictably spaced minutes—water torture-style—he blurted a phrase from a book. He was so very excited I finally gave in and grabbed the book. Two hours later, I was as excited as he.
The book told me how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) identifies the duty of nonprofits, and how that identification can lead to the unparalleled success of nonprofits. Below I plagiarize (with the confidence of the married) the work of my human behavior expert husband, Otis Fulton.
Take it away, Otis:
In his new book, "Tribe," Sebastian Junger, war correspondent and bestselling author of "The Perfect Storm," addresses the issue of PTSD—something he experienced firsthand after returning from war zones in Europe and the Middle East.
Like most people, I had a pretty unsophisticated concept of PTSD before reading the book. When I was a kid, I spent some holidays with an uncle who suffered from “shell shock,” from his experiences in Korea. But it turns out that my assumptions about the topic are far from reality. For example, you don’t have to experience combat to suffer from PTSD. In fact, more than 80 percent of the psychiatric casualties during the first Gulf War were from support troops who took no incoming fire. Roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability, although only 10 percent of the military experiences combat.
So clearly, direct exposure to danger can’t be identified as the cause. What is happening to these men and women that results in the U.S. spending $4 billion annually for PTSD disability compensation? Junger explains that the problem isn’t trauma experienced on the battlefield; rather it is re-entry into society.
Studies from many countries have shown that recovery from war heavily depends on the society to which one belongs. American soldiers suffer PTSD at roughly twice the rate of British soldiers who were in combat with them.
Junger argues that the incidence of PTSD experienced upon returning to society is a barometer of the level of community that veterans experience.
In contrast to American vets, the Israeli Defense Forces have a PTSD rate as low as 1 percent. In Israel, military experience is seen as a “shared public meaning” that is acknowledged by most of the society.
Upon returning to civilian life, which is apparently different here than in places such as England, American veterans often express nostalgia for their military experience, and many wind up volunteering for multiple deployments. What is it that they find so satisfying about their time stationed far away from the lives they lived before? Simply stated, what the military offers to these men and women is a tribe. In the military, even in support units, a soldier is almost never alone.
Quoting an artilleryman, “For the first time in [our] lives ... we were in a tribal sort of situation where we could help each other without fear.” That is what is missing when people return from the service—the community. Not the danger, but the unity that these things engender.
When they return to the U.S., we valorize our vets with words and posters and signs, but we don’t give them what’s really important to them, the thing that means one is valuable to society—we don’t give them jobs. As one veteran put it, “All the praise in the world doesn’t mean anything if you’re not recognized by society as someone who can contribute valuable labor.” A job makes you a valuable member of your tribe.
A useful frame to view the experience of veterans is something psychologists call self-determination theory, about which we have written in previous blogs.
Research shows that people who lead satisfying lives have three basic needs fulfilled:
- They feel competent at what they do.
- They feel authentic in their lives.
- They feel connected to others.
The military provides the opportunity to fulfill these needs in spades—training young people in new skills and giving them huge levels of responsibility as part of a closely knit group working toward a greater good.
As Junger puts it, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
Otis recognized the potential power of the nonprofit from way over in the social science field. We in nonprofit can make people feel necessary. We can give them purpose. We can give them ways to show competence, and to be part of something bigger than themselves. We can make them happier than they were before while accomplishing important goals for humanity.
Being pushy recruiters, asking too much, giving them unpaid jobs, not presuming they will say no, asking for even more money—with all these actions from which we shy away, we can make people happier.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.