Increasingly, over the course of the years since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan first began, the social service sector has turned its eye toward the rising needs of veterans in crisis. As the news media expressed overdue outrage regarding veteran homelessness and the chronic mental illness plaguing many living on the streets, many organizations began to spring up across the country, to meet the backlog of need. For many who served our country, crisis was compounded by stigma and a pervasive sense of personal failure. For years, the nonprofit sector has worked tirelessly to meet these needs by building transitional housing, pulling men and women off the streets, providing food assistance and opening access to physical and mental healthcare.
Only in recent years have we seen the first celebrations of communities that have reached functional zero in homelessness. Sweeping changes have been made in healthcare and food security, among other issues affecting veterans and their families. And yet so many veterans remain in need.
But, what if we changed this paradigm? What if we stopped our skittering to allocate scarce resources and, instead, celebrated and explored the abundance of potential? What if we took our combined expertise in working with servicemen and women and created a community of support that eased the transition to civilian life before crisis and we engaged other leaders with our vets?
This is the power of Collective Impact at its best. It gives us the breadth and depth to build community, not only to care for those with pressing needs but to build a network of high-performing and high-value veterans as they transition back to civilian life. Preventing crisis. Unleashing potential. Serving a new mission.
At the recent Champions for Change event in LA, National Veterans Intermediary convened a group of leaders bringing collective impact to veteran services. The most common themes I heard among my fellow participants were uplifting, not depressing. Yes, there are veterans who find themselves or their families in crisis, but there are also those who have amazing skills, leadership experience, and a fierce drive to succeed. Leaving the military doesn’t mean abandoning the values of teamwork, mission success, and loyalty to brothers and sisters in arms. It means learning new ways to translate these strengths into a new battle plan.
Our veterans are not broken.
The Champions event was well-named. The focus was on the role of the “backbone” organization in large-scale collaboration, the organizations that provide the support framework for partners to organize, to leverage assets, and to act on a common goal. These champions lead from behind—lifting up the partnerships in new and creative ways. A good backbone organization advocates within and beyond the theater of engagement to expand impact. Just as every veteran has value, every partner organization has value. Imagine a fighting unit that includes social services, healthcare, benefit navigation, workforce development, housing providers, employers, and educators. A powerful formula for success!
This is not a sprint, nor is it a place to seek personal or organizational glory. Backbone organizations, CVEBs and others, need to continue to convene providers. Most importantly, we must create spaces where all of our stakeholders have clarity of roles and expectations. Culture is more than a luxury in this model, it is the language and set of best practices that fuel momentum. Our veterans are very culturally aware and learned in service to take cues from others and to frame their personal goals as part of a larger unit. This is exactly what we must do to engage them in our work on their behalf.
1. Value Lived Experience
One of my favorite quotes from the field is that we must become better at “doing things with people, not to people.” Whether working in veteran services, neighborhood revitalization, food security or workforce development, any lasting solution for change in a system comes from striving together and learning together.
2. Build Bridges
We can and must embrace the philosophy of abundance to make real change happen. There is already an abundance of organizations serving and wanting to connect with or employ our veterans; in fact their number and variety can be overwhelming. True abundance requires the ability to find what you need, when and where you need it. When we take the collective approach, we close the gaps in care and build the bridges from transition to success.
3. Embrace Skeptics
If you are a CVEB or other backbone provider, expand the size of your table. Invite not only those easy to recruit, but also those who are skeptical and those who pose barriers to your success. They may become your greatest champions in the future.
4. Leave Your Ego Outside
If you are a veterans service provider, a funder, or an employer, set your ego aside along with your competitiveness to win the battle alone. Collective impact is a team sport. Understand your role on the team, learn to coordinate your actions with others, and share your resources even when they seem scarce. Be willing to learn along the way and change tactics when new information arrives.
Everyone who has served or who has stood with someone who served knows that planning, dedication, and cooperation lead to success. We who help them to move to the next chapter in their lives must follow the same path.
An active leader from NVI local partner Nashville Serving Veterans Community Board, Kim brings over 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector to her work with this veteran collaborative. She specializes in strategic planning, system design, and collective impact. Former Vice President and Senior Consultant for Center for Nonprofit Management, Kim has educated and coached cross-sector teams in a variety of issue areas, including health care, conservation, literacy, advocacy, family services and more. Kim earned her Masters of Education in Nonprofit Management at Vanderbilt, and continues her graduate study in the field of conflict resolution.