I don’t know Kevin Bacon, but my pastor’s daughter’s fiancé works in Hollywood. I suspect I can get from him to Kevin in another three steps. And so goes the ‘1990s game known as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.[i]
Making these connections can be an entertaining way to test your knowledge of film industry trivia. But what if connecting with Kevin (my newly discovered proximity puts us on a first-name basis) were important? What if Kevin held the passwords to my online accounts, keys to my car, or my PIN for the ATM? The six degrees measure separation, not connection. My access to information, sense of security, and self-control are impaired in such an arrangement.
So no one entrusts crucial information or critical items to someone so remote. But every day, people in need of assistance are asked to plumb a network of connections so scattered and loosely affiliated that it makes Kevin and me seem like lifelong friends.
At Altarum Institute, we recognized that such challenges are faced by our nation’s Veterans and their families daily as they navigate a plethora of federal, state, and community-based programs and service providers. We were curious to see whether we could reduce the barriers between Veterans and those working to serve them. We conceived and tested the Veterans Community Action Team (VCAT) model of community-based collaboration in 2008.[ii] Working in San Diego, California; and San Antonio, Texas, we developed and evaluated local networks of service providers that served Veterans and their families. We are assisting the Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency (MVAA) to achieve their vision[iii] of “making Michigan the most Veteran-friendly state in the nation.” With MVAA, we are proliferating the VCAT model statewide.
A key characteristic of VCAT networks is that service providers adopt a philosophy of “no wrong door” when working with Veterans.[iv] When establishing a collaborative based on the VCAT model, we start by identifying the existing community of service providers. Then we recruit additional providers to fill any coverage gaps. As the collaborative matures, the network of service providers can reach several hundred members. The San Diego Veterans Coalition has more than 130 partners.[v] The West Michigan Veterans Coalition reported connecting with 83 agencies earlier this year.[vi] A coalition meeting in the metro Detroit area has members from more than 250 organizations. MVAA intends to achieve their vision, in part, by “creating a ‘no-wrong-door’ customer service culture” that builds on the VCAT model.
Extending the provider network strengthens the associated regional collaborative, but it imposes challenges. I can remember a network of five providers, and I can track a network of 50 providers on a single sheet of paper. But when the scale of the network increases from 50 to 500 providers and the diversity and specialization of providers magnifies, it can be overwhelming to make good connections.
To reap the benefits of large, diverse networks while minimizing the information overload that they could impose, we use a four-pronged strategy.
- Build trust. There are well-established keys to collective impact.[vii] Central to all of these is working from a position of trust.[viii] In revisiting the keys to success in collective impact, Kania et al. state, “We must not underestimate the power of relationships.”[ix] VCAT success is strongest and most enduring where collaborative members have developed a personal relationship. We facilitate this with face-to-face meetings that educate members, provide progress updates, and encourage social and personal connections.
- Strong leadership with shared vision and high energy. Each collaborative has a core group of leaders who develop and promote a vision in a manner that encourages broad participation with impact. A focus on success and shared credit encourages participation. This creates the shortest path toward positive outcomes.
- Divide and conquer. The VCAT collaboratives help Veterans and their families address issues of employment, education, and health care. Quality-of-life needs include housing, disability compensation, pension benefits, Veterans’ justice, and emergency assistance. With such a broad array of topics to address, we find that organizing the collaborative into subgroups around these topics has several benefits. VCAT members can invest their time where they have the most to offer. The learning curve is minimized, yet all participants benefit from the training and expertise of their fellow subgroup members.
- Information where and when you need it. MVAA announced the launch of the Michigan Veteran Resource Service Center[x] to provide Michigan Veterans and their families with 24/7 access to agents trained in accessing federal, state, and local resources. Having access to information when and where it’s needed is key to supporting the “no-wrong-door” philosophy. For VCAT members, we are identifying tools to support collaboration and information sharing. Tools that organize team communication, event management, data collection and reporting, and workflow minimize the effort to respond to requests for support. The information is more accurate, more accessible, and more easily disseminated. This is critical in overcoming the information burden inherent when networks expand in scale and scope.
The convoluted six degrees that separates me from Kevin Bacon is a humorous illustration. But when we count the degrees that separate Veterans and their families from their advocates or a service provider, we are measuring the obstacle course that impedes meaningful connections. When Veterans have issues that involve housing, employment, health care, education, and justice, we need community-based collaboratives where every service provider is never more than one degree from providing support.
[i] Wikipedia. Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Degrees_of_Kevin_Bacon.
[ii] Altarum Institute. Veterans Community Action Teams Mission Project. Retrieved from http://altarum.org/our-work/veterans-community-action-teams-mission-project.
[iii] Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. (2013, November 4). Michigan Veterans’ vision: The roadmap for our first five years. Retrieved from http://www.michiganveterans.com/Home/News/Michigan-Veterans%E2%80%99-Vision-the-roadmap-for-our-firs.
[iv] Altarum Institute. No wrong door for our nation’s Vets. Retrieved from http://altarum.org/our-work/no-wrong-door-for-our-nation%E2%80%99s-vets.
[v] Rossio, G. (2014, February 20). Collaboration in San Diego, California—San Diego Veterans Coalition. Retrieved from http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog/collaboration-in-san-diego-california%E2%80%94san-diego-veterans-coalition.
[vi] Bridges, E. (2014, April 10). West Michigan Veterans Coalition: Ready to serve. Retrieved from http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog/west-michigan-veterans-coalition-ready-to-serve.
[vii] Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011, winter). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 36–41.
[viii] Poirier, N. (2014, May 22). Building trust to facilitate success in coalitions. Retrieved from http://altarum.org/health-policy-blog/building-trust-to-facilitate-success-in-coalitions.
[ix] Kania, J., Hanley Brown, F., & Splansky Juster, J. (2014, fall). Collective insights on collective impact. Standford Social Innovation Review, special supplement, 2–5.
[x] Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. (2014, September 24). Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency partnership with Michigan 211 centralizes Veteran resources. Retrieved from http://www.michiganveterans.com/Home/News/Michigan-Veterans-Affairs-Agency-partnership-with.