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Making it Matter

By Jim McDonough, Managing Director, IVMF

There’s a saying in Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey’s new book, Radical Inclusion: What the Post-9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership: make it matter. It refers to the leadership imperative to connect effort with meaning.

When your organizational mission, at its most broad, is to serve those who served our country, “making it matter” may seem like a given. In the IVMF’s AmericaServes initiative, however, we struggle at times to draw a connection from our work to improve the community systems that provide services to service members, veterans, and their families to the resulting impact on the lives of the individuals we serve.

Last month in Washington, DC, a first-of-its kind discussion for the IVMF and its AmericaServes partners got underway in the shadow of the Department of Veterans Affairs and our nation’s capital. Our goal was simple, but radically different than anything we’ve attempted to do before: to connect our efforts to the impact they’re having upon people’s lives by transparently dismantling the work across all its levels. The event was designed to create an ‘inside-the-wire’ understanding amongst AmericaServes funders and stakeholders as to whether or not these coordinated, community-based approaches were beginning to have positive impact on lives; as in, were we making it matter?

Three rules of thumb underpinned the day’s discussions: 1. relinquish control of the discussion to others, namely our funders, community partners, and individual clients; 2. be inclusive in our approach to demonstrate the totality of efforts, and 3. above all else, humanize the work itself.

Relinquishing Control. Turning over control of discussion was uncomfortable for some. After all, most of our team served as leaders in various branches of the armed forces. As a result of our very nature and training, we try to maintain a close hold on activities every day, even those that may be beyond our actual reach or influence. Moreover, many of our attending community partners and individual clients had bravely agreed to offer commentary on AmericaServes while face-to-face with the very stakeholders supporting their ability to do the work. I’ve always referred to our role as ‘driving the car from the backseat,’ relinquishing the actual control of our AmericaServes work to communities themselves, but it should not have surprised anyone that handing over a simple discussion to our funders and those benefitting from their philanthropic giving would prove interesting.

Demonstrating Inclusion. To really understand how AmericaServes communities are transforming the way they serve the needs of their military connected populations, we had to build a discussion approach that from its very start would be inclusive – one that would demonstrate (as in, bring attention to) the role of every participant in the effort.

Kicking off the conversation were seven of our community quarterbacks, our partners running AmericaServes’ Coordination Centers. Each one is a singular organization in its own right, but is simultaneously joined by a common, collective purpose within AmericaServes to change the way their communities respond to the needs of their military connected families.

Leaders from Northwell Health, Eastern Carolina Human Services Agency (ECHSA), Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Mission (ABCCM), Pittsburgh Mercy, EveryMind’s Serving Together, The USO of North Carolina, and Alamo Area Council of Governments, collectively led funders and stakeholders through the paces of their efforts to deliver the right client, to the right provider, in the least amount of time.

AmericaServes Focus Group

Moderated by Megan Andros, Program Officer for the Heinz Endowments and an AmericaServes funder, the teams revealed the challenges and setbacks they are experiencing in driving behavior change amongst providers to actually use these new tools and approaches that are in play within their communities. Most importantly, our quarterbacks clearly demonstrated the advantages they’re beginning to see by coordinating care, services and resources amongst providers who have adopted a 21st century way of serving their military connected population’s needs, a world where barriers to accessing world-class services, resources, and care are eliminated for those in need.

Their key takeaway: by delivering the right client, to the right provider, in the least amount of time, community quarterbacks are serving their community best by creating and managing coordinated solutions – solutions that providers are really beginning to value.

Next, representatives from seven of over seven-hundred AmericaServes providers joined the discussion in an aligned fashion, ‘under’ their respective quarterbacks. They spoke about how their business models were changing in light of having a trusted coordinating entity within their community – someone to ‘channel clients in a known, navigable way,’ as one provider put it. Many spoke of new efficiencies gained by being able to simply ‘do what they do best’ because clients being referred to them have been deemed eligible for their services and care ahead of time, by their community quarterbacks. Kathy Cox, Veterans Portfolio Manager from the Walmart Foundation, led these conversations with network providers, some of whom who have actually quantified the time savings and new-found efficiencies realized after becoming AmericaServes providers.

Walmart Foundation

In addition to organizational efficiencies, AmericaServes providers commented on their ability to put the limited resources they direct to their first, best use – making it matter – to the lives of their clients. Time and resources have always been the most precious assets providers have at their disposal, but when wasted on those they can’t serve, providers are inevitably doing less of what they should be doing – making it matter.

Their key takeaway: as early adopters and exemplars of a truly coordinated model, AmericaServes providers represent a better way of delivering human services, resources, and care. They also represent an alternative to their counterparts that are resistant to change, wedded to ‘competitive fragmentation’ as opposed to universal coordination. For AmericaServes to reach its full potential,more providers must find their way to the model.

Humanizing the Work. All roads to our Washington, DC event led to the heart of the work itself, whether or not we’re making it matter and actually impacting people’s lives. Our moderator for the final phase of the discussion was Thomas Meyer from Philanthropy Roundtable, an expert outsider interested in assessing AmericaServes’ ability to generate the ongoing capacity to drive such momentous change in human services for military connected members and their families. Surrounding Thomas were individual clients who had been served by AmericaServes networks, coupled with their respective providers and quarterbacks, in continuum fashion, to trace their service and care journey through AmericaServes. We welcomed an Army veteran in Jacksonville, NC, who unexpectedly faced unemployment after his job was eliminated. We heard from a Navy veteran in Florida connected to our network in Pittsburgh thanks to Team RWB, a committed national provider. And finally, a young Marine and his spouse recounted their 12 years of Marine Corps experiences, three combat tours, a life of separation from one another, wounds, recovery, sacrifice, and ultimately, their transition from Camp Pendleton, California, to New York City, New York to start their lives anew.

We asked each of them to simply tell their story, which could be the story of any Soldier, Sailor, or Marine in a Post-9/11 world. We asked them what was different about their service and care experience in AmericaServes, and whether or not that experience was better than any previous attempts to seek care and services. We wanted them to be critical, to pick apart the model by exposing things that went well and didn’t go well. Most importantly, we wanted everyone that had a part to play in AmericaServes to hear and learn from what they had to say.

Focus Group 2

Their key takeaway: not only was their AmericaServes experience better than any other service and care experience to-date, it was also unique because it felt different. When asked to elaborate, their response was that their quarterbacks and providers knew them in ways others never had before, offering an uncanny understanding of them as individuals while also recognizing the best solution to meet their needs at every point along their journey.

Upon reflection about the day’s conversations and whether or not we’re onto something as big and bold as we believe it might become, we feel more confident that what differentiates AmericaServes from other approaches underway is its uniquely holistic and, at-the-same-time, pragmatic approach to making it work to serve the needs of the nation’s military connected members and their families. By investing in coordination fueled by innovation and technology in our communities, by relinquishing control, behaving inclusively, and above all else, by humanizing what we do, we’re also making it matter.

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