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  • Writer's pictureZakir Jamal

Have You Seen This T-Shirt?

“Land of the Free” shirts — a national thrift shop staple — come from one of the most insidious veteran’s charities.

 


You know those shirts that are in every thrift store? The ones that say “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave,” and have a design of an eagle flying across the American flag on them? The ones that have become a sort of stand-in for the cheap schlock that clogs the racks? They’ve been around since I started thrifting in the mid-2010s, and each time I see them, I’m amazed by the sheer quantity that must be out there. I’ve seen them in Canada. How can they possibly have made it out of the US? Yet still, I’ve never been able to find out where they come from. There’s discussion online about it, but nothing specific, and I couldn’t turn up a single article going into depth on this. So, with that in mind, I set out to find whoever makes the shirts and figure out why they do it. 


I first spoke with a thrift store manager located in Chicago, who requested to remain anonymous. She told me that the T-shirts have been coming in for at least the several years since she began working there. When I asked how many arrive in an average month, she indicated that it varied too much for her to give an estimate, but that the number was typically between three and twenty. Since donations are processed outside of her store, she could not tell me anything about who was sending them in, but she did indicate that the influx has been relatively steady over the years.


I turned to Reddit, where a couple of threads speculate about where the shirts come from. As it turns out, they’ve spread well beyond North America; people report seeing them as far away as Jordan and Thailand. Yet, for all that, there was only one mention of someone actually getting the shirts from the source. One user, @Irowells1892, reported that their grandfather started receiving them, among other cheap household goods, after donating to a couple of “patriotic” organizations. 


Irowells, who asked to be identified by their username, told me that “As [my grandfather’s] health declined, he was more susceptible to junk mail asking for donations, and donated a small amount to a couple of ‘charities.’ That got him on pretty much every mailing list known to man. They'd end up sending constant junk mail begging for donations, and maybe a couple times a year they'd send some very cheap, low-quality products as incentives/guilt trips.” They also said that they had donated the items in bulk to a thrift store after their grandfather died. Unfortunately, they were unable to tell me which charity the shirts came from, specifically.


At this point, I felt stuck. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find anybody who knew the source of the tees. I wasn’t even sure that they were all coming from the same place. But just as I was about to try another tactic, my partner stepped in. “There’s a sticker on some of the shirts that are listed on eBay,” they texted. Duh. One listing even had a photo of the sticker that was big enough to read. And that’s how I found out that the T-shirts come from the Disabled Veterans National Foundation.


I still needed to know: why are they sending them out? How many are out there? Do the shirts actually bring in enough donations to cover their production costs? I called the DVNF headquarters, and was directed to email the organization’s Director of Direct Mail, a man by the name of Patrick Heron. As of this writing, I’m still waiting for a response from him.


That downtime, though, gave me the chance to look into the DVNF itself. According to its website, the foundation aims “to meet the needs” of at-risk veterans “through targeted programs and collaboration with other organizations in communities throughout the country.” Pretty vague. More concretely, they list grant programs and the distribution of “comfort kits,” as well as a free self-study mental health course. Fair enough, but the programs listed online seemed tiny given that the shirts they send out are so omnipresent. They only sent out four thousand aid kits last year. How could they possibly have made so many t-shirts that some thrift stores have dozens on the shelves at a time? And how is it possible that this one, relatively minor, charity has more shirts in thrift stores than seemingly any other?


A promotional CD from the DVNF (undated).

It turns out that the DVNF has a rather unenviable reputation. The foundation is the recipient of a one-star rating from Charity Navigator and an F from Charity Watch. Previous investigations have found that, as of 2012, 99% of donations went to paying just two contractors in charge of direct mail. Around $20 million per year goes to postal marketing, dwarfing the amount that is put towards the charity’s stated aim. If they’re sending shirts to potential donors, then their lopsided budget explains why they’ve made so many of them.


To see if this was still the case more than ten years later, I checked the foundation’s financial statement for 2023, and found about $481,000 paid as salaries between four upper-level managers, $941,000 in total compensation to employees, and twenty-seven million dollars listed as “postage and shipping.” Given that this makes up the vast majority of the DVNF’s $31 million in expenses, it has to cover the $23 million that they are paying to three independent contractors: Innovairre, Veradata, and PEP response systems (the first and last of which share a listed address in New Hampshire).


The roots of this arrangement go down to the DVNF’s founding in 2005 as an experiment in fundraising for a small regional conference of the National Association of State Women Veterans Coordinators. According to Mother Jones, the founders brought on an advisor — a retired Marine officer named Larry Rivers with a “wealth of contacts within the veterans charity movement.” Rivers put the DVNF in touch with Brick Mill Studios, a subsidiary of a larger company named Quadriga Art, which Rivers had worked with as a paid sales agent. Rivers then pitched the DVNF founders a nationwide mail campaign to raise funds. Despite only aiming to gather about $50,000, the campaign brought in over $10 million and cost $15.6 million within a year; Rivers skimmed millions in commission on the arrangement. His daughter, Raegan, was then made Chief Administrative Officer of the DVNF in a non-competitive search process — which, predictably, led to a continuing engagement with Quadriga and a direct-mail budget that persisted in dwarfing all other expenses.


A core part of the strategy that has drained the foundation’s coffers is sending out gifts like tote bags, calculators, and, yes, shirts to potential donors. I found a blog post comparing the gifts sent by various veteran’s charities, which rated the foundation’s package as the most extensive (it also includes a picture of the shirt, confirming that they are, in fact, sent out to solicit donations). With tens of millions pouring into these marketing campaigns, the number of shirts that they send out seems more explicable.


Along with the merch, potential donors often receive pamphlets detailing heartbreaking stories of veterans, who supposedly stand to benefit from funds flowing through the charity’s coffers. Their website has a page dedicated to testimonials, usually with photos and quotes. But not only are donations mostly going towards marketing, the DVNF has at least once been found to have invented a testimonial out of whole cloth. Until 2014, mailers included pictures of “Arnie,” a homeless vet who “suffered severe brain and leg injuries” in an attack on his vehicle. The Foundation told donors that they were trying to get him into a hospital, and that “Another urgently important gift of $10…$15…or $20 today can lay that blanket of security and concern over a hero like Arnie.” The campaign was put to a stop when the New York Attorney General found that Arnie had been completely made up


After the exposure of the Arnie campaign, Quadriga and its affiliates agreed to pay $25 million as a settlement — including $10 million in damages to programs for disabled veterans and $13.8 million in debt forgiveness to the DVNF. Quadriga was then reorganized under the name Inovairre. Despite being ordered to make several changes, including “ensuring that start-up charities and Quadriga entities have separate legal counsel, disclosing potential conflicts of interest, performing due diligence to be sure that fundraising appeals are accurate, and providing charities with more information about projected costs and revenue of fundraising campaigns,” marketing from Quadriga/Inovairre still makes up the bulk of the DVNF’s expenditures.


From the other end, I did see that some of the organization’s disbursements to veterans’ centers across the country were in the form of goods, including men’s shirts. I couldn’t find any information on the specific garments that were donated, but it would make sense if some of the same shirts were donated in bulk to other veteran support groups, and those organizations then sent them to thrift stores when they had nothing else to do with them. Still, the size of their in-kind donations seems to be rather small. As mentioned before, their website lists a meager 4,000 comfort kits donated in 2023. Per the Mother Jones report, most of the in-kind donations were things like coconut M&Ms, which were rarely useful to the recipient organizations. It seems clear that the vast majority of the shirts are sent out through marketing efforts, rather than as donations from the DVNF itself.


So, there we have it: these shirts are sent out by a shady veterans’ charity as part of their absurdly bloated direct marketing campaigns in order to guilt donors from other charities into donating. They’re then sent off, never worn, to thrift stores, where they sit on the racks, piling up as more come in. It’s a perfect example of the way that cheap manufacturing can drive clothing waste, and of the insidious ways in which charities can use guilt and patriotism to cover up shady practices. And we can expect to continue seeing them until they stop bringing in funds. 🌀


The Disabled Veterans National Foundation (DVNF) did not respond to requests for comment.


 

Zakir Jamal is a writer based in Montreal.



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