This Veterans Day, Philanthropy Roundtable spoke with Quentin Hatfield, executive director of Wisconsin Veterans Network (VetsNet), a nonprofit that serves veterans facing crises and their families. Through its extensive partnerships with public, private, nonprofit and veteran service organizations, VetsNet can quickly assess the needs of veterans and their families and connect them to the appropriate resources, without respect to branch of service or time served.
Q: What inspired the creation of Wisconsin Veterans Network?
We realized a great many veterans were not successfully navigating the veteran service space and were left lacking the resources and benefits they earned through their service. Too often, veterans had been left on their own to find resources in a confusing network of government, private and nonprofit organizations – and many of their needs were not being addressed. And in many cases, veterans who did approach agencies with requests were not given the assistance they deserved, leaving many frustrated and ready to quit trying.
Q: What makes Wisconsin Veterans Network unique from other groups doing work in this space?
We are unique in that we are connected with agencies of all types statewide and work with them collaboratively, including Veterans Affairs (VA); the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs; county veterans’ offices; large and small nonprofits supporting veterans; non-veteran sector nonprofits; private agencies; city, county and local government human resource agencies and others with whom we collaborate. No other group or agency in the state is networked to the extent that we are, and some are connected only in the veterans’ service space, which excludes over 50% of the veteran population who don’t qualify for VA benefits or resources. That also excludes them from benefits with any of the nationally chartered veteran service organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, etc.
Further, we do not partner with any agency that places costs on their services, and we provide partner agencies space in our offices for meetings with veterans to expedite the delivery of resources and earned benefits.
Q: From your organization’s perspective, what is the most urgent need veterans face?
Without question, the most urgent issue confronting the community is the veteran suicide rate. Billions of dollars, task forces and other efforts have been committed without a significant impact on this tragedy. Mental health resources exist but are disjointed and the VA itself is overwhelmed with demand for mental health services.
At Wisconsin Veterans Network, the most basic way we try to address this problem is by quickly intervening for solutions to the individual crises we address with clients. If a veteran has any self-harm ideation, then loss of a job, housing, etc., only exacerbates those thoughts, so our goal is to intervene as early as possible and resolve the situation as quickly as possible. In addition, we broadly promote any peer support or suicide prevention training available to equip as many people as possible to recognize indicators and have the tools to intervene.
Q: How do your services help current veterans as well as transitioning service members?
For current veterans, we can provide direct emergency assistance if no resources are available, but generally we prequalify them and connect them with partners so their needs can be met quickly. The most common needs addressed are homelessness and homeless prevention, energy and rent assistance, benefits qualification, food insecurity, employment, qualification for education benefits, urgent home repairs and mental health services, though this certainly is not an exhaustive list.
For transitioning service members, we are the state representative of the Expiration Term of Service Sponsorship Program and are licensed by the VA Mental Health Administration to connect transitioning service members in Wisconsin with volunteer sponsors/mentors. Beginning six to 12 months before transition, these sponsors help service members build a homecoming plan that includes resources they’ll need when they arrive home – school, housing, jobs, etc.— so those resource are in place upon arrival. A long-term goal of the program is suicide prevention, and early studies in the states where the program was first implemented, including Texas and New York, indicate that stressors are greatly reduced for service members exiting though the program.
Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles you have faced in accomplishing your work?
The biggest obstacles are threefold.
First, many in the veterans and nonprofit space are reluctant to collaborate, feeling it might compromise their missions.
Next, it is difficult to reach underserved segments of the veteran population and to determine how best to message to them. This group includes post-9/11 veterans and ethnic minority veterans like Hispanic, Hmong, Native American and others. These mostly younger veterans do not communicate using traditional means. They do not attend job fairs or resource events seeking literature, and are more prone to communicate in their affinity groups online or search online for resources without guidance. An urgent need for our agency is developing those digital communication skills and resources.
Finally, funding is constantly a challenge, especially as it relates to targeted outreach and any new initiatives that hold merit.
Q: How do you measure your work’s impact? How many veterans have you helped since Wisconsin Veteran Network’s launch?
We have served almost 2,900 veterans and/or veteran families though our partnerships since our inception in early 2016, first as a “program” then incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) in early 2017. We measure success by doing targeted communication in the form of “customer satisfaction surveys” annually and by following up to determine whether a veteran’s situation is stable in the post-service period.
Q: Anything else you think is important for the Roundtable donor community to know about your work?
I believe we have been influential in our state in modeling collaboration that serves our veteran population. Traditional structures have not, fundamentally, worked as long-term solutions, mostly because they rely on a “silo,” or single issue, solution. We’ve worked hard within new coalitions, including the Veterans Health Coalition, Southeastern Wisconsin Suicide Prevention Task Force, Impact 211, Governors Challenge on Veteran and Military Suicide Prevention, the Governor’s Task Force on Homelessness and others, to build bridges for cooperation.
Philanthropy Roundtable is grateful to all the men and women who have served our country. We owe you our freedom and will never forget your sacrifice and courage. For questions about the Roundtable’s work related to veterans or America’s founding principles, please contact Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Clarice Smith.