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April 26, 2017

A Continuum of Collaboration

The Landscape of Community Efforts to Serve Veterans

By Phillip Carter and Katherine L. Kuzminski

At the federal level, an enormous structure exists to serve veterans, a structure composed of the mammoth Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) and other cabinet agencies. Each year, Congress appropriates hundreds of billions of dollars to fund this support system, money that pays for compensation, retirement, pensions, and health care for the nation’s service members, veterans, and their families. In theory, this structure is coordinated through formal mechanisms such as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) budget process or agency accountability process; in practice, a looser form of coordination and adjustment governs the interactions and activities of these large agencies, and their work to serve service members, veterans, and military families.

After their service ends, however, veterans do not come home to federal agencies; they come home to communities across America. Although they may avail themselves of federal benefits such as VA health care or the GI Bill, veterans largely will turn to private and nonprofit activities at the local level for employment, education, housing, and other forms of support. Over the past decade, those private and nonprofit activities have matured tremendously, developing into a rich nationwide “sea of goodwill” that supports its veteran and military communities. However, recent data indicates that resources may be declining for this sector, both in absolute terms and in terms relative to veterans’ needs. This has the potential to sharpen competition for increasingly scarce resources, as well as to put a premium on the need for collaboration and coordination between entities working at the local level to serve veterans.

After their service ends, however, veterans do not come home to federal agencies; they come home to communities across America.

It is in this space, and at this particular moment, that community collaborative efforts to serve veterans have emerged around the country. These efforts mostly have arisen spontaneously and endogenously within communities, rather than as the result of deliberate planning or outside intervention. These collaboratives span a broad landscape that can be defined in multiple dimensions: size, infrastructure, degree of public-private interaction, subject-matter focus, geographic focus, and integration into other networks and collaborative systems. All of these efforts share an intent to serve veterans and an explicit or implicit desire to do so through better coordination, resource allocation, and improved support services (including referral services) for veterans. However, these collaborative efforts differ greatly in their approaches, reflecting the diverse circumstances of their communities.

This paper will examine the development of community collaboratives across the country to serve veterans, and will propose a framework for better understanding what these efforts are, how they operate, and how they relate to each other, as well as how they relate to other private and public initiatives to serve veterans, such as DoD and VA programs. To the extent that there are opportunities to improve public, private, and nonprofit activity in this sphere, this paper will make policy recommendations as well.

Among this paper’s findings:

  • Notwithstanding the recent history of “collective impact” efforts, collaboration (broadly defined) has a long history among nonprofits, including those focused on veterans.
  • A significant majority (67 percent) of the nation’s 100 largest communities have some type of collaborative activity underway to serve veterans.
  • Collaborative activity to serve veterans exists on a spectrum. Some communities have informal collaborative activities that consist of political commitments and regular meetings, without formal infrastructure. Others have more robust collaborative efforts that include permanent infrastructure, staff, information sharing, and shared outcomes.
  • Barriers to cooperation between public, private, and nonprofit actors have been reduced in recent years, but these barriers remain. Formal barriers include federal ethics rules, federal acquisition regulations, and federal data-sharing regulations, all of which impede government partnerships. Informal barriers include leadership risk aversion, conservative legal interpretations of existing authorities, and a subtle, competitive dynamic that exists among public, private, and nonprofit actors vying to serve veterans.
  • There is no set of common outcomes or performance measures being pursued by public, private, and nonprofit actors across the country. This is a missed opportunity for alignment between these sectors in their efforts to serve veterans. Public, private, and nonprofit sector organizations should develop and use common outcomes for veterans, in order to drive better alignment between their efforts.

The full report is available online.

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  1. Phillip Carter and Katherine Kidder, “Charting the Sea of Goodwill,” (Washington: CNAS, 2015).
  2. “Veteran Population: Fiscal Year 2014” National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics,


  • Phillip Carter

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Phillip Carter was the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. His research focused on issu...

  • Katherine L. Kuzminski

    Deputy Director of Studies, Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Katherine L. Kuzminski (formerly Kidder) is the Deputy Director of Studies, and the Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society (MVS) Program at CNAS. Her research special...

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