When service members separate or retire from the military, more than 45,000 nonprofits, thousands of public agencies, and countless other organizations and individuals aim to support their transitions back to civilian life. This series explores how communities are collaborating across public, private, business, and social sectors to better connect the systems that serve veterans. This principle is called “collective impact.” The subjects featured are all members of National Veterans Intermediary (NVI) Local Partner collaboratives.
Laura Whitfield joined the Marines right out of high school. While stationed in Tokyo, she earned a bachelor’s degree and worked as a broadcast journalist, yet her transition back to civilian life was bumpy.
In the military, “anything I needed, I could go to my commanding officer and get guidance on the resources we had on base,” Whitfield said. “It was a close-knit community where we all supported each other.”
But once she returned to the U.S., “I didn’t have a full sense of ‘OK, what do I do now?’. [Instead], I had a sense of confusion,” she recalled. “I didn’t have any idea how to connect with an organization that helped veterans.”
Today, Whitfield is the director of the Miami-Dade chapter of Mission United, a United Way program that helps veterans navigate local services and resources. The nonprofit operates as a coordination center — a one-stop shop where veterans can go when they need help with everything from finding steady work and affordable housing to accessing healthcare and legal services.
Since its launch in 2013, Mission United has helped more than 12,000 veterans and their families, but Whitfield and her team know there’s always more that can be done. An estimated 40,000 veterans currently live on the streets and nearly 25% have a disability resulting from their service. Another sobering statistic: Roughly 6,000 veterans die by suicide each year.
To better help more veterans, Mission United partners with a number of diverse organizations across the private and public sectors. The group effort Whitfield leads, in which each partnering organization’s unique strengths are leveraged to benefit the most people, is essential to Mission United’s success. It’s an approach known as “collective impact,” which refers to a coordinated cross-sector collaboration structured to achieve measurable impact on social issues.
“We all want to offer comprehensive services that address the needs of veterans and their families, and reduce the barriers they face when integrating back to their communities,” Whitfield said of the collaboration’s goals.
“We share data and information about the capacity we have to provide these services, and work together to fill gaps so that veterans aren’t turned away because the community has reached a threshold limit,” said Whitfield, adding that a key component to their success is continuous follow-up with veterans to make sure they’re getting the help they need.
Within this network of nonprofits, corporations and government agencies, Mission United serves as the “backbone”: The organization not only acts as a coordination center for veterans needing assistance, it also sets the strategic focus and vision for the collective.
Currently, Whitfield is in the process of retooling the program in Miami, with input and feedback from Mission United’s partners. Her hope is that Mission United can eventually help service members prepare for life after the military, even while still on active duty. That includes preemptively networking and forging connections with other people — and fellow veterans — in their communities back home. Once that happens, “[veterans] don’t feel so alone and isolated,” Whitfield said. “They’ve got their tribe.”
For her part, Whitfield is encouraged by the strides Mission United is making.
“I know that we have the right [partners] at the table because there is buy-in to a shared vision, willing participation and engagement, ownership of results and trust among partners,” she said.
Although Whitfield only recently joined the Miami chapter of Mission United, she’s all-in on the nonprofit’s collective impact approach. In the future, she said, “we’ll focus on developing strategies and aligning on a system of measurement in a way that celebrates the contribution of all of the ecosystem partners in helping veterans achieve fulfilling and productive lives after serving.”
This article was produced in partnership with National Veterans Intermediary, an initiative of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. NVI increases the collaborative capacity of local communities to steward a national ecosystem, in order to achieve optimal well-being for veterans and their families. Sign up for alerts about NVI’s free webinars and tools to support community-based collaboration here.