As NAVSO celebrates its 2-year anniversary, our CEO reflects on what we've learned during this journey.
Part 1 of 3
Our nation is fortunate to have millions of people working to support veterans and military families. Through thousands of nonprofit organizations, government agencies, philanthropic foundations, businesses and research institutions, millions of Americans make it their mission to serve this remarkable community, fund their support, study their needs or employ them. While some complain about so-called market saturation, imagine if we only had 300 nonprofit organizations focused on the needs of military families and veterans instead of thousands? Where would they go when they really needed help?
Some even argue that we should discourage passionate people from starting new organizations offering support. While their intent is sound (avoid market duplication, improve market efficiency, etc.), it’s not likely to curb new startups from entering the nonprofit service market. Unless state and federal regulations for starting and recognizing a tax-exempt business change dramatically, there will always be new organizations entering the good and important business of caring for the military community. Not to mention it takes a diverse set of organizations to meet the needs of veterans who, themselves, are diverse. At NAVSO, we’ve learned to embrace new organizations, help them refine their business model by finding their niche and then plug them into resources to help them achieve the results they seek, easier, better, faster.
What’s been most inspiring is the dissatisfaction with status quo seen in so many nonprofit organizations. One great example is the Call of Duty Endowment and their remarkable work in veteran employment. The organization's partners are the top performing nonprofits helping veterans find meaningful employment. Their costs per placement, retention rates and starting salaries crush government counterparts (placing veterans at an average cost of $619 per placement with 6-month retention rates at 89% and starting salaries at $54,840). Yet, despite these achievements, they continually pursue even better stretch goals. Each one of these organizations in the partnership carves out time and resources to learn new practices, inject innovation and pivot quickly to meet emerging conditions.
When NAVSO launched on February 24th, 2015, we weren’t naive about the challenges facing us. We knew, based on my years of work for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that the marketplace of organizations serving the military community may have made great strides in many areas, also suffered from inefficiency, stagnancy, duplication and fragmentation. Taking on this challenge was a daunting task, but, like most veterans, we run to the sound of the gun fire. Enter NAVSO - and our journey began.
In the short time between public launch and today, we’ve mined several opportunities where we’re directly making improvements. First, we’re really adept at delivering engaging webinars filled with important and pragmatic information participants need to improve their services as soon as the next business day. If you’ve missed one or more of these, you can replay many of them from our library here.
Second, we excel at aggregating relevant content into one place so professionals can immediately access it. With more than 600 news articles, 180 documents, 100 online courses and much more, professionals can search and discover valuable insights they need in one place so they can get back to work faster.
Third, and something I did not anticipate two years ago, we are a great partner when funders and other organizations convene summits to better understand problems and build actionable plans to solve them. Working together, we generate content, design facilitation and craft “road map” reports for partners who are tired of the usual summits and want something actionable and innovative. Associations Now covered one of our recent summits focused on veteran hiring and retention. This article shows how our summits are used as a launching pad for accelerated change. We love our new business line and look forward to convening more summits.
And fourth, we’re a value-added partner to our government counterparts in the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. I had the privilege of being selected to appear on a panel with leaders from DAV, PVA, NASDVA and The Mission Continues at VA’s most recent MyVA Federal Advisory Committee meeting to discuss the transformation of the largest civilian agency in the country and how it cares for veterans. Engagements like this and others with our federal partners, gives us the opportunity to share the concerns we hear from our members who don’t always have an opportunity to be heard in Washington, DC.
Despite the overall goodness found in the marketplace and the recognition of our strengths, there are still some very troubling conditions requiring our collective attention.
It will not come as a surprise that most nonprofit leaders stay awake at night worrying about diversified funding. Our pre-launch survey in January 2015 proved as much and little has changed since that time. In fact, since that survey, funding has declined for most of these military family and veteran-serving organizations. CNAS’s recent report shows in detail, the gradual, but consistent, decline in funding for veteran/military-focused nonprofit organizations. To help mitigate this problem for our members, NAVSO offers our Grant Map. This powerful depiction of more than $1B worth of grant data is helping nonprofits identify donors with a history of giving to causes much like their own and allows them to focus their donor cultivation efforts to those funders with the greatest likelihood of investment. There is no other resource like this in the country and it has proven to be quite popular.
Another area of concern is the increased demand for services. It sounds ironic, since funding is declining, but the demand for services from veterans and military families is rising sharply across all sectors. While several cities are spiking the football as they declare functional zero when it comes to veteran homelessness, many families are still struggling to keep a roof over their head and may soon be, themselves, homeless. At the Call of Duty Endowment Partners alone (focused on veteran employment), demand for services in the last two years is up 23%. Similar demand increases can be seen in requests for physical or mental health care, financial assistance, counseling, therapy, etc. With hundreds of thousands of service members and families separating from service over the next few years, the need will only increase.
Given the declining investment, the increased demand and more than 13 years of armed conflict, you may not be surprised to learn that the providers and supporters are increasingly fatigued. More specifically, many nonprofit employees suffer from their own compassion fatigue, several employers are tired of trying to “sell” veteran job candidates to hiring managers and savvy funders are weary of the lack of measurable ROI.
Let’s also be clear that despite the DoD having a near monopoly on veteran creation (plus our friends from the Coast Guard, courtesy of DHS), its mission is to fight and win our nation’s wars. Many want the DoD to take more ownership of service member transition to reduce the likelihood of difficult or failed transition. While I don’t disagree completely, let’s be honest and recognize that we primarily want a DoD that’s really good at making warfighters. When they do that well, service members come home safe. The DoD has made recent improvements relating to transition services but even if those efforts were doubled in resources and length, transition challenges would still persist. It will take the collective work of the public and private sector to minimize the transition challenges. Many of you continue to fill this largely unsupported space between DoD and VA. It’s good and important work.
Charity watchdogs, while well-intended, have stifled innovation. Organizations like GuideStar and Charity Navigator have done a tremendous job of increasing fiscal transparency and shining a light on sound nonprofit governance. Yet, the focus on overhead ratios, fundraising expenses and administrative costs have corralled many organizations into a stagnant paradigm. Organizations, once born from the passions of its founders to deliver solutions for complex social problems, now, instead, worry about protecting their ‘93 cents on every dollar’ mark to preserve their rating, instead of striving for significant social changes, as originally intended. Additionally, instead of being focused on the best way to solve the very problem they set out to solve, many organizations primarily avoid the risk of investing in innovative approaches capable of dramatically changing social problems or eliminating them altogether. We’ve encountered several organizations unwilling to take a short-term dip in overhead ratios when given the opportunity to implement transformational changes that could dramatically improve thousands of lives. This is very concerning given the expected growth in the demand for services and parallel decline in resources. Now, more than ever, we need to solve problems so we can get in front of emerging challenges.
Further, meeting the complex needs of military families and veterans requires cooperation and meaningful partnerships. Unfortunately, many organizations send encouraging messages around collaboration or collective impact but do not actually have any formal mechanisms for sharing their caseloads, for example, or have any formal agreements between organizations. Subsequently, these organizations don’t achieve anything more significant as a team than they do separately. I’m still a firm believer that nonprofit organizations can compete for donor attention and still deliver programs together for the benefit of the families they serve. Yet, instilling this concept deep into organizations is a long process often derailed by personalities and uninformed jealousies. This issue is not unique to serving veterans and is covered well in this interesting article by Nonprofit Hub.
Last, but not least, outcome measures still remain elusive for many service providers and funders alike. It’s relatively easy to measure housing and employment outcomes if you go into the work with the right tools but it is much more complex when measuring the efficacy of mental health services, recreation therapy, family retreats, transition workshops, for examples. Many of these programs and services are tough to measure and costly to do so over time. While funders often evaluate their grant recipients, these evaluations cannot be compared apples-to-apples from one funder to the next nor do all of the evaluation criteria focus on outcomes. Many focus on process steps or outputs. Similarly, many organizations simply use headcount (outputs) as their only indicator of impact. Instead of knowing Organization A served 6,432 veterans last year, I think we’d all agree it would be better to know how many of those veterans are still housed, still employed (and making a sustainable wage), or still have a better sense of well-being based on treatments offered. If we all worked in this direction, we would achieve far more and would likely and coincidently, attract more savvy investors in the process.
With all this knowledge in hand, what’s next?