By: Vincent DelSignore, Program Manager, AmericaServes
I was three years into my job as a Program Officer at a national non-profit when I was tapped to implement and oversee the organization’s first-ever program dedicated to serving veterans in New York City. Though I had never served in the military, I jumped at the chance to do some good for the men and women who put on the uniform. The ensuing months taught me a deep and meaningful lesson.
My approach in New York City was simple: I funded established, well-respected human service providers in neighborhoods with high veteran populations. I had these grantees hire seasoned caseworkers, individuals that could utilize their deep knowledge of the City’s social service space to effectively connect veterans to resources. This was a blueprint for success my organization had used in serving low-income New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs. Build it, my thinking went, and they will come. After all, why would veteran services be any different? Slowly but surely, veterans in these neighborhoods did begin to seek our services. Strangely, some would not return to see the process through. Why, I wondered?
There are a reported 45,000 organizations dedicated to serving service members, veterans and their families in the United States. Added to that is a seemingly ever-growing number of philanthropies and human service organizations launching programs focused on serving this population, much like the one I stood up in New York. Add all of these organizations and programs together and you have a virtual glut of programs and resources available to veteran and military families. Setting aside the well-known issues of navigating this “sea of goodwill,” veterans and service members encounter a subtler, but equally important issue when seeking services: a lack of military cultural competency.
Like me, most of the hardworking men and women behind our program never served. I didn’t know it at the time, but that mattered. Some months after launching, I was visiting a grantee when a veteran client approached me after learning I was the program’s funder. “Look,” he told me, “what you are trying to do here is great, but I feel like your guy doesn’t get it.” I nodded and thanked him for his candor. This jibed with what I was hearing from a number of caseworkers on the project. Several of them described their struggles in identifying with the experiences their veteran clients were describing; in understanding the parlance they were using. Suddenly it became clear to me: this was all adding up to a disconnect that was stymieing the program. Of course, there are a host of factors that decide whether an initiative struggles or succeeds, but the lack of military cultural competency among our program’s staff was undoubtedly a major one.
I want to be clear: you don’t have to be a veteran in order to effectively serve veterans. However, as a service provider who claims to serve the military connected population, it is crucial to have an understanding of military culture and have the knowledge to effectively build rapport and trust with a veteran or family member who has sought your support and expertise. Ultimately, our staff learned by doing, but at the expense of those veterans who sought our services early on.
By opening up a military cultural competency training that is accessible remotely, the IVMF is helping to arm professionals who are seeking to serve veterans with solid tools in being able to connect and understand their population.