There is a serious gap in how America cares for its veterans and military families. This gap does not exist due to a lack of public concern or resources. Rather, this gap lies between the organizations—public, private, and nonprofit—that serve veterans and their families. It endures due to a lack of collaboration, coordination, and collective purpose. 

This gap poses a serious risk to the long-term wellbeing of our veterans and their families.

American support today for veterans is remarkable. The federal government offers an unparalleled range of medical and health services, educational programs, and transition support for 22 million veterans and 1.4 million servicemembers and their families. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget alone will approach a record $170 billion in 2016. Private philanthropic interests and industry initiatives are creating new and expansive opportunities to contribute. And a vibrant veterans nonprofit sector populated with passionate professionals, advocates and volunteers further complements the cause. 

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Yet, despite a wealth of resources to support their transition back to civilian life, some veterans remain vulnerable to financial, employment, family, or legal troubles, or worse yet, homelessness, substance abuse, and even suicide. Oftentimes, these troubles come in pairs or more. But while the health consequences and treatment of these maladies may be found in a doctor’s office or clinic, their root causes—e.g., relationships, housing, schools, and jobs—are found in communities and at home.  

Our communities are the missing variable in the complex, evolving formula to meet the health and wellness needs of veterans and military families. But collective efforts at the community level remain fragmented and isolated around the performance of individual organizations—an insufficient approach to solving complex social problems. Few communities are organizing the public, private, and nonprofit sectors around the common goal of delivering high quality, integrated, and personalized models of services, resources, and care that better meet veterans’ needs. 

One approach, collective impact, holds promise. Collective impact is an innovative and proven way to bring diverse organizations together around a common problem. It has been successfully adopted on complicated issues like secondary education, environmental reclamation, and childhood obesity.  

Collective impact initiatives unite organizations from different sectors through formalized, long-term commitments to a common agenda to tackle tough social problems. Unlike traditional public-private partnerships limited to the delivery of a single public good or service, collective impact models embrace a wide range of stakeholders. They are motivated by awareness that the alternative—the isolated impact of one or a few prominent, well-funded nonprofit organizations—is insufficient to solve complex social challenges that demand continuous learning and adaptation. 

The potential benefits to veterans’ services are compelling. Veterans and military families are likely to experience faster, more simplified navigation, personalized case management and referrals, and avenues to provide feedback across multiple service providers. Participating service providers will gain access to peer organizations and transparent performance data to facilitate multi-need case management, increase client trust and satisfaction, drive continuous improvement, and demonstrate achievement and impact. And network funders will be able to set in place specific quality, data collection and sharing, and evidence-based practice and performance standards. 

This week, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF) published its case for driving community impact through improved local coordination and delivery of veterans and military family services. The IVMF is supporting communities in their efforts to implement collective impact through AmericaServes, the Institute’s multi-state initiative to position American communities at the forefront of delivering services to veterans and family members through coordinated, evidence-based service delivery networks. Private philanthropic interests in a growing number of communities—including New York, Charlotte, and Pittsburgh—are backing our efforts in order to increase the scale and impact of current community efforts to support veterans. 

AmericaServes’ goal is to help communities generate greater organizational impact and improved individual veteran and family member outcomes. The model, by design, infuses higher levels of quality, qualification, and professionalism across the network of service providers. It also aims to generate a sufficient return to seed and sustain new investment and trusted public-private partnerships within and between communities. 

Members of Congress looking to improve how the nation provides for its veterans and military families should explore funding and other means to incentivize increased service provider coordination and participation in community-based collective impact initiatives. Empowering the VA to invest in and increase collective impact initiatives would be a great start. 

Each community must ultimately decide how it cares for its veterans and their families. But if there ever was a cause that could bring a diverse nation together through more collective and coordinated activity, it’s the needs of veterans and military families. The status quo—fragmented, uncoordinated, and siloed approaches to veteran services and care—represents a gap that we must and can close. 

Armstrong, Ph.D., is the senior director for research and policy at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF); McDonough is the managing director of community engagement and innovation at IVMF; Savage, M.P.P., is senior director of community engagement and innovation at IVMF.