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Veteran Services, Collaboration and Community Investment

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Catherine E. Wilson

Guest Wilson mayNonprofit leaders, public officials and corporate managers agree that community investment is a vital feature in serving U.S. military, veterans and their families. This is especially the case given the specific challenges that veterans face in transitioning into civilian life after years of military service, some including time in combat. As reported in the 2011 Pew Military and Civilian Gap study, servicemen and women exposed to casualties in the post 9/11 era expressed challenges relating to civilian reintegration. At the same time, however, these individuals deemed their military service as beneficial in fostering personal maturity, teamwork and professional skills.

Established in 2012, the Military and Veteran Service Organizations Group, spearheaded by the American Red Cross (ARC) of Southeastern Pennsylvania, held its consortium in Philadelphia to brainstorm ways that private, public and nonprofit organizations could engage in meaningful collaborative efforts as they accompany military and veteran families in the Greater Philadelphia region. Over 40 organizations participated in the March 21 consortium, which included opportunities for networking and small group discussions on targeted issues, ranging from outreach, to housing and homelessness, to mental health initiatives, to legal and financial support.

Colonel David W. Sutherland, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Center for Military and Veterans Community Services (Easter Seals Dixon Center) delivered remarks at the consortium. In a private interview, Sutherland underlined how the Center serves military and veteran populations through a range of community actors, such as: universities, professional associations, corporations and public agencies, each of which brings distinctive resources to the table. According to Sutherland, the Center is committed to “getting organizations and like-minded individuals to work together” so as to foster educational and employment opportunities for veterans, especially those who have served as staff sergeant and below in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Ryan McGoldrick, Coordinator of the Service to the Armed Forces at the ARC of Southeastern Pennsylvania, maintains that the Military and Veteran Service Organizations Group draws much of its inspiration from the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative, which is managed by the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families. As the daylong ARC consortium ended, leaders – invigorated by the discussions that ensued – agreed to meet monthly in small working groups to cultivate issue-oriented strategies around select military and veteran matters, with the express intention of leveraging resources and developing measurable outcomes.

Borrowing a military term, it is necessary to gain “situational awareness” regarding U.S. military and veterans. As of August 2013, there were over 1.4 million active duty military personnel serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. This population, coupled with an additional 718,000 civilian personnel, makes the Department of Defense “the nation’s largest employer.” On the other hand, in 2012 the veteran population totaled 22.3 million, of which 2.2 million were female veterans. Indeed, in 2012, 13 percent of the nation’s adults were veterans. In 2009, those states with the largest veteran population were California, Florida, Texas and New York, followed by Pennsylvania – which registered the fifth largest veteran population in the United States (988,000) – roughly 10 percent of the state’s total adult population.

Organizationally speaking, the veteran population accesses services from a range of institutions that engage in cross-sector collaboration. Public agencies like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regularly work with nonprofits to address the specific needs of former service members and to provide community-based solutions to housing, health care and employment challenges. Meanwhile, the United States Automobile Association (USAA), a private corporation, provides insurance, financial management and real estate services for military and veteran families, and partners with a number of military affiliate groups, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), which have local chapters throughout the United States. This cross-sector partnership is mutually beneficial since it enables USAA to both support the efforts of these nonprofits and distribute information about company products through the nonprofits’ distribution networks.

In the nonprofit sector, veteran groups have a range of organizational types from which to choose. Whereas IAVA possesses a 501(c)(3), or public charity designation, the MOPH Service Foundation is registered as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization. According to the Internal Revenue Service, veteran groups also may qualify as 501(c)(7) social clubs, 501(c)(8) or 501(c)(10) fraternal societies, or 501(c)(19) veteran organizations. In contrast to the 1 million public charities in the United States, 501(c)(4)s and 501(c)(19)s accounted for 112,000 and 35,000 nonprofits, respectively.

The Military and Veteran Service Organizations Group in Philadelphia (Group) is one piece of a larger national strategic plan needed to further a collective – and community-level – impact in two main ways. First, the Group demonstrates the way that cross-sector collaboration can avail public, private and nonprofit organizations of the opportunity to develop their core competencies and share leadership in the field of military and veteran services. Second, the Group highlights the importance of how military competence – or an earnest desire to learn from the serviceperson’s own perspective – is a significant step in building civilian-military dialogue and long-term partnerships.

Sutherland concluded his interview asserting, “instead of challenging the veterans, let’s challenge society.” It seems like the Greater Philadelphia region is doing just that. In addition to City Council designating 2014 as the “Year of the Veteran in Philadelphia,” the city will host the Stars and Stripes Festival, June 14, 2014 – commemorating Flag Day and the birthday of the U.S. Army – and the National Veterans Wheelchair Games from Aug. 12-17, 2014. Meanwhile Dr. Jill Biden, Co-Founder of Joining Forces – a national initiative dedicated to U.S. military families – delivered remarks to Villanova University’s Class of 2014, only a day before the celebration of Armed Forces Day. Indeed, Philadelphia – as birthplace of the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps – is well poised to bridge the military-civilian divide. Organizations in and around the City of Brotherly Love continue to invest in community-based strategies, all the while providing solutions for those who have dedicated their lives in service to the nation.


Author: Catherine E. Wilson is associate professor and nonprofit coordinator, Department of Public Administration at Villanova University. She can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @CEWilsonVU.

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