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Raising Children & Collective Impact

What do they have in common?

Recently in Seattle, Washington, IVMF leaders and their AmericaServes White Paper discussion series strategic partners, FSG, Unite US, and Accenture, hosted the second of eleven planned community-based discussion on evolving Collective Impact initiatives in the veterans’ space.
As is the case with every discussion being held as part of this series, our team spent time describing Collective Impact’s principles and elements as the framework that underpins our efforts in a growing number of communities whereby we endeavor to better serve transitioning servicemembers, veterans and military families.

As a general observation, while every community hosting these discussions is genuinely interested in evolving their ongoing levels of collaboration being achieved within the veterans’ space, each unfortunately lacks the sustainable means to do so. We have a saying – that it’s not their ‘daytime’ job, meaning that collaboration amongst human services ‘partners’ occurs largely in their spare time – after all the other work is done – because every one of them is consumed with keeping up with the demands imposed by people being served through their various service delivery systems.

Our role in this regard is to help them by serving as their daytime catalyst, teaching, coaching and educating on-the-ground, incrementally, alongside each community, to seed, build, and deploy Collective Impact (CI)-based approaches to improve upon their service delivery means. This is the hard work that I think many don’t understand in the field, for our communities are not sufficiently resourced to undertake these CI efforts on their own. Said another way, while they have the will; they lack the established processes and resources. As an Institute, the IVMF and its partners have developed the ways (models, methods, techniques) and means (access to capital from the private sector) to actually help lower the barrier to adoption associated with deploying a Collective Impact initiative in their community, to their standard.

This notion – that this is extremely hard work – was best captured during our Seattle discussion by my FSG colleague, Ms. Fay Hanleybrown, when she described problem solving as generally occurring on three different levels – the simple, the complicated, and the complex – and the fact that when it comes to building a Collective Impact effort within communities, regardless of their intended target population, folks need to understand that this work truly lies on the far right of that rubric, at the complex level of undertaking.

Simple problem solving, according to Fay, entails things like how to bake a cake. There’s a recipe for doing so and to solve that problem – how to bake a cake – all you have to do is follow the recipe. Generally speaking, the outcome every time is the same, a baked cake. Solving complicated problems, like sending a rocket to the moon, while much more difficult, has a technical solution that if followed carefully, can not only be done, but done repeatedly, as long as the technical solution is followed. Generally speaking, the results yield the same outcome, a rocket is sent to the moon.

Fay told our audience that when it comes to complex problem solving, like trying to serve human beings and their needs, the magnitude of the task is more like raising kids. Think about it for a second. I am the father of three young men ranging in age from 29, to 26, to 17. My wife’s and my ability to generally support and achieve the same outcomes for each of them – health, wellbeing, and success – is a very complex and customized undertaking to this very day. The variables involved are many, but begin with the fact that they are each, a very unique individual. To say that trying to address their needs throughout their childhood and early adulthood is complex work is an obvious understatement, as I’m sure any parent can attest.

So too is the task of serving a community’s worth of people, each with their own unique needs. For those who serve in our armed forces and their families, the evidence is pretty clear: at times their lives are complicated by factors far beyond those of their fellow citizens. In particular, at certain points in time (i.e., transition from military service), their needs can in fact be quite complex, even to the point of being overwhelming.

The argument for using the principles associated within Collective Impact to best serve their needs – solving their complex problems – is becoming clearer every day. For those communities that have embraced a common agenda, in this instance, helping servicemembers, veterans and military families navigate the complex web of services being made available through the public, nonprofit and private sector (their principle transition challenge according to our own research), coordination is their starting point, a sort of ‘north star’ guiding the community’s efforts.
Using shared measurement across the community landscape of service offerings is providing unprecedented insight into what service delivery actually looks like – and is achieving – in our communities that have adopted collective impact approaches to serving America’s servicemembers, veterans and their families. For the first time, we’re actually seeing the formation of common standards emerge, defined by the community, within the practice of serving this segment of the American population. Data is driving the development of these standards, data being made available through AmericaServes’ technology platform.

By engaging in mutually beneficial activities within their coordinated networks, AmericaServes communities are actually engaging in the sharing of clients across the spectrum of providers included in each network. Network Housing Providers, while retaining their responsibility to address their client’s housing needs, for example, are sharing in service delivery within their respective networks with Legal and Emergency Services Providers in unprecedented fashion, using their network’s technology platform to stay connected to the outcomes being achieved by their fellow network providers in such a way that they ‘see’ the outcomes being achieved by others.

The power within these approaches is that each provider is able to focus on what they do best (mutually reinforcing) while having higher levels of trust and confidence In their fellow providers, always a challenge in every community, regardless of its size and capacity to serve its population’s needs. Each provider retains their individual organizational identity while contributing to the whole of an individual’s needs by being networked with other providers. I can’t think of a more mutually beneficial approach to serving the needs of those who served, and their families.

And finally, using quarterly In-Progress Reviews (IPRs), regularly-held trainings, provider case discussions and network cross-talk, and ongoing learning as the heart of their continuous communication means, AmericaServes communities, led by each of their unique backbone organizations, keeps their eye on performance improvement, management of network activities and participation, and outcomes being achieved throughout their two-year demonstration period. All along, the IVMF’s approach, together with its strategic partners, Unite US and Accenture, is to lend full-time support and technical assistance – that daytime catalyst – to the task to help ensure transitioning servicemembers, veterans and their families are better-served through the community’s combined resources from across all sectors.

Like raising children, the task of serving America’s servicemembers, veterans and their families in our communities can be daunting, hard, and downright complex. The evidence as to how to do both best is clear: it takes a committed team, on a full-time basis, whose primary focus is on others, to do it best. Collective Impact’s principles, and their adoption within AmericaServes communities, stand to serve the nation well the more we make the ways and means available to all.

By Colonel (Ret., U.S. Army) Jim McDonough, Managing Director, Program and Services, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University

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