Crossing Boundaries to Support Veterans and Military Families

Our nation’s veterans require and desire a multitude of supports, ranging from help with receiving the right medication to finding employment.  And they rely upon a number of institutions for that help – government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropic groups to name a few.  The problem was that the people from these different sectors did not know or talk to each other, and the result was a less than well-coordinated effort.

This reality inspired the first White Oak Retreat in 2010, a gathering of leaders from across sectors organized and convened by Blue Star Families, a nonprofit that supports military families through career development, caregiving and research. “By organizing military families themselves, we can solve some problems, but what we realized is that we really needed to create an environment that was better for creating solutions as well,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and President of Blue Star Families.

The diverse participants and open format invite meant that solutions could come from the Department of Veterans Affairs or another government agency, a nonprofit like the American Red Cross or a foundation.

“We wanted to get people talking, not just about their institutional priorities and missions, but to create a think tank where you're thinking about the problems of the field in general, what the barriers to solving those problems are and what we might be able to address through collaboration,” said Roth-Douquet.

What are White Oak Retreats?

White Oak Retreats are an annual invite-only gathering of 55 leaders from government, non-profits and philanthropy working toward the common goal of better supporting America’s veterans.

But why only 55 people?

The retreat goes from a Friday at 5 p.m. to Sunday at noon and is meant to foster relationships among participants. “There are a lot of working groups and small, intimate interactions, and that’s really the secret sauce — those very intimate interactions with people working on this issue,” said Roth-Douquet.

Past attendees include representatives from the American Red Cross, United Services Organizations, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Be the Change, Inc., the Walmart Foundation, United Services Automobile Association, Council on Foundations, Department of Defense, Department of Labor and Department of Veterans Affairs, among others.

The agenda for each White Oak Retreat is determined by committees made up of advisors from participating organizations. Every year, the retreat focuses on addressing a specific issue. For example, the last White Oak Retreat held earlier in 2016 focused on military personnel reform and whether there needs to be a restructuring of America’s military. Every year, Blue Star Families releases a report following the retreats that includes recommendations agreed to by all participants and next steps on how to address the issue discussed that year.

These recommendations have made a tangible difference in veterans’ lives in more ways than one.

White Oak’s impact

Blue Star Families, with support from the United Services Automobile Association, is currently working to create a scorecard due out later this year that will show the impact of the successful collaborations in greater detail with multiple data points. All in all, the White Oak Retreats have led to 40 new programs, initiatives and collaborations to support veterans and military families.

One such program is SpouseForce — a collaboration between Blue Star Families, the Walmart Foundation and Salesforce — that trains military spouses for careers in tech. Among military families, 58 percent of spouses are unemployed or underemployed. This program helps those families get a jump start on a career, not just a job.

Recommendations from White Oak also impact policy from the highest levels of government. The recommendations and priorities for the military community that came out of this year’s White Oak Retreat (which you can read here) were presented to both presidential candidates and have been largely adopted by Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton.

The White Oak Retreats have also been credited with being a driving force behind the 2011 Joining Forces initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. The White House was calling for different sectors to step up as a unified entity that will commit to improve the lives of service members and their families.

For the Council on Foundations — whose mission is to help its network of more than 850 philanthropic organizations and individuals expand, enhance and sustain their ability to advance the common good — the will to answer the call was there, but not the right connections. “Before White Oak, I had no idea that there were all of these associations and all of these groups working in this space,” said Stephanie Powers, Senior Director for Policy & Partnerships at the Council on Foundations. “Now we've become colleagues and friends and if I don't know something, I just zip off a note to one of them. And what comes out of the White Oak Retreats every year really guides our work in this space.”

The Council on Foundations’ involvement with White Oak led to the creation of the Joining Forces Impact Pledge under the First Lady’s initiative. The pledge is the philanthropy sector’s answer to the White House’s call and urges foundations to make a financial commitment to better support our veterans. The founding members of the pledge include Blue Shield of California Foundation, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the Lincoln Community Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and the Council on Foundations Veterans’ Advisory Group, to name a few.

Since 2014, the pledge has secured commitments of nearly $300 million to causes supporting veterans and their families. Blue Shield of California Foundation has committed $1 million dollars to the Impact Pledge and has continued to support the White Oak Retreats with a $200,000 grant over an 18-month period.

“I can't say enough about White Oak as being a really positive experience for the Council on Foundations. It helps us stay connected so that we're not going off and just doing anything,” said Powers. “We're contributing to this[LP1]  larger whole that the White Oak Retreats have been able to knit together.”

“The opportunity to learn, listen and contribute to the candid and informative discussions at White Oak helps us to be better informed and think holistically,” said Kathy Cox of the Walmart Foundation. “Access to the committed thought leaders brought together in a safe space offers the opportunity to share challenges and think forward collectively.”