News and analysis
March 04, 2015

New Association Aims to Help Veterans Groups Provide Better Services

Lane Turner, The Boston Globe, Getty Images

The new organization will help professionals share best practices for serving veterans. Here, ex-Marine Allen Iem hangs a banner at a new office of veterans services at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

A first-of-its-kind membership organization is designed to improve veteran services delivery by stoking information-sharing and coordination among the nation’s more than 40,000 veterans-focused groups.

The National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations, or Navso, formally launched last week but was two years in the making, said Chief Executive Chris Ford. One of its main functions will be to maintain a web platform on which like-minded professionals can communicate and share best practices, he said. Forty-five organizations have registered so far.

The association will also host webinars—the first is scheduled for April 7—and conferences. An annual membership is $399 for nonprofits and $599 for government agencies and companies, and includes 400 user accounts.

The idea for such an association is not original: For years, government officials, academics, and service providers have been calling for a coalition of organizations serving people in the military and veterans, Mr. Ford said. In 2013, for example, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University published a report that recommended the creation of a group.

Mr. Ford witnessed the need while working for Warrior and Family Support in the Chairman’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Responsible for 18 states, he traveled extensively to help communities improve assistance for military families. The country has between 43,000 and 46,000 registered veterans nonprofits, whose revenues range from a few tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of millions.

"I quickly recognized that there was no one who was herding all of the cats," Mr. Ford said.

He recalled one experience in 2013 working with a nonprofit in Albuquerque, N.M. It had the capacity to house 10 women veterans, but the occupancy rate was stuck at 40 percent. Staff members were papering Veterans Affairs offices with the nonprofit’s information to no avail. Mr. Ford called another group doing similar work in a different city.

"They said, ‘Oh yeah, women don’t wear the hats. They don’t wear the pins and the patches. And they certainly don’t show up at the VA campus.’ " Mr. Ford said.

Women veterans were more likely to be found in food pantries and hospital emergency rooms, they advised. The Albuquerque nonprofit adjusted its outreach accordingly and doubled its occupancy rate.

Mr. Ford wants Navso to play that coordinating role, but on a much bigger scale. The association’s offerings break down into four stages, according to Mr. Ford, who retired from the Air Force last year as a lieutenant colonel. They start with connecting like-minded professionals, and fostering collaboration. The third is to push for coordination among service providers in ways that free them to focus efforts on core missions.

The final stage, and the hardest to deliver, said Mr. Ford, is collective impact. It will require that shared tools and measurements be implemented by organizations nationally.

Navso will "have a unique perch to look across the entire country" at who is succeeding and who is failing on different fronts, he said.

Other veterans resource portals, like Got Your 6 and Warrior Gateway, have failed to attract heavy traffic, said veterans nonprofit executives. The Navso platform will have to do better, or the membership organization will be short-lived.

"I think you really have to make the case either that it is a value add for that organization or appeal to their better natures and say, ‘This might be a strain in the short term but better for veterans in the long term,’" said Ken Harbaugh, chief operations officer at the nonprofit Team Rubicon.

Jonathan Sherin, chief medical officer and executive vice president for military communities for Volunteers of America and a member of Navso’s advisory board, noted another challenge: "It is a very competitive space, and frankly it is not always collaborative."

Mr. Ford said that Navso will gain the necessary buy-in by proving its value as a place where nonprofits can find the resources they need to build a stronger business case for donors. He hopes that egos will be left at the door.

"Our dream is about connecting the full spectrum of providers," Mr. Ford said. "From the husband and wife helping 10 vets a year from their garage to massive organizations helping thousands of veterans a year in multiple cities."

Seed funding for Navso came from a $50,000 grant from the veterans-focused Travis Manion Foundation. Mr. Ford said he will have an additional $140,000 in funding from several organizations in-hand within the next two months.

Annual operating costs for the association will run between $350,000 and $450,000, Mr. Ford said, adding that it will need to attract about 2 percent of veterans nonprofits to be financially viable.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.