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Punching Up: How to Transform Service Delivery Systems for America’s Military Connected Families by Building a Marketplace that Frames Collective Action

By Colonel (U.S. Army, Ret.) Jim McDonough, Managing Director, and Dr. Jennifer DeLucia, Senior Director, Community Services, IVMF 

In a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review [SSIR] article titled How Field Catalysts Galvanize

Social Change, the authors explained “an emergent typology of field-building intermediaries” designed to help “stakeholders summon sufficient throw-weight to propel a field up and over the tipping point to sweeping change” (Winter, 2018; Hussein, Plummer & Breen, pp. 48-54).

Punching up just seemingly got a fancier descriptor. In the Institute for Veterans and Military Families’ flagship community initiative, AmericaServes, the term Field Catalyst fittingly describes our practice of punching up to reorganize long-constructed siloes of services and resources into comprehensive community-based care networks. Built on the premise that coordination between human services providers can drive the social change and collective action required for better outcomes to emerge for America’s military connected families, the IVMF AmericaServes team’s catalytic approach is helping to propel a newly optimized model of coordinated service delivery to make that premise a reality.

 We’ve often articulated the lack of an organized marketplace of services and resources when it comes to delivering care and human services for military connected members and their families. We have also reflected on the amount of effort others have taken to galvanize a systems-change effort in their field, but what will it actually take to motivate disparate stakeholders working on the same problem in our field to attain measurable, population-level change that prioritizes both efficacy and efficiency?

Those same questions, the authors point out, were posed by the James Irvine Foundation and Bridgespan Group within another sector attempting to undertake monumental change, the field of education. In 2009, the group published “The Strong Field Framework” that spotlighted five components that make for a truly robust field, or, as we say in AmericaServes, a practice:

  1. A shared identity that’s anchored in the field
  2. Standards of codified practices
  3. A knowledge base built on credible research
  4. Leadership and grassroots support that advances the field
  5. Sufficient funding and supportive policies

In our organization’s guiding role as a Field Catalyst of the systems-change efforts with communities working hard to improve service coordination for their military connected families, our field framework mimics the efforts of the James Irvine Foundation and Bridgespan Group by focusing our practice around:

  1. A shared identity around improving the way communities coordinate services, resources, and care for military connected members and their families
  2. A codified set of practices (procedural guides) supporting coordinated care and service delivery for community providers and their backbone organizations
  3. A strong knowledge base and credible research oriented toward the social determinants of health and community wellbeing
  4. A leadership network of grassroots community leaders committed to advancing the practice of

coordinated care and services

5. A comprehensive funding and investment model that supports long-term sustainability

coupled with geographically-aligned staffing policies

While we seek to demonstrate measurable, population-level change for the nation’s military-connected members and their families, we are reminded by the authors that the best Field Catalysts are those that “usually stay out of the public eye,” and work “in subtle ways to augment the efforts of other actors” (our communities) as they push toward their goal. In AmericaServes communities, we come alongside our partners to elevate their tireless efforts to advance our shared goals.

Serving effectively in this manner isn’t always easy, and somewhat akin to trying to turn a 2,000 mile- long screwdriver from Syracuse, New York, to San Antonio, Texas (and beyond). And like the very best finish carpenters using their tools to hone their trade, it takes patience, combined with a sense of selflessness and sensitivity to the craft – and in our case, the people, along the way who can be either supportive or disruptive of the effort to effect change. As we strive to act selflessly as one of our sector’s Field Catalysts, we find ourselves sharing the four characteristics the authors say are commonly found amongst those organizations that are capable of achieving population-level change:

  1. Focus on achieving population-level change, not simply scaling up an organization or intervention
  2. Influence the direct action of others, rather than acting directly themselves
  3. Concentrate on getting things done, not on building consensus
  4. Are built to win, not to last

In our journey to catalyze systems-change for America’s military-connected members and their families, we’re constantly encountering unique challenges and tests, even failure at times, but always course- correcting to get things done and win. Earning the trust of direct-service providers remains our number one priority, as they retain the key to our collective success. Once bought-in, the shift toward coordination begins to take root and ‘multiplies’ quickly across the community. Second is the imperative to actually understand how change happens in practice, and to have the fortitude to gut-out the mistakes made and the opportunities lost or missed, in order to catalyze the desired change in the first place. Above all else, our ability to remain agile – ‘nimble,’ as the authors put it – and to persistently meet our field’s evolving needs, is what we believe truly creates meaningful Field Catalysts within seemingly anticatalytic environments.

For us, fostering a practice includes sponsoring a community of practice that we call Pratice360, to amplify the hard-earned wins communities are experiencing to other communities, sectors, and catalysts. We believe this practice will maximize our ability to spark a grass-roots movement to introduce and sustain systems-changes at-scale, a pretty cool mission for the university we’re part of here in the IVMF. Lending ourselves to others, as we often say, epitomizes the notion that Field Catalysts, if organized and resourced properly, can indeed activate and punch up the systems-change

required in today’s society to best serve America’s military connected families.

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