There is nothing that a roomful of military spouses cannot accomplish when given a day to learn, share, and collaborate with each other. I was so proud to be a member of MSJDN last week, when our amazing MSJDN President, Josie Beets, and the Association of the United States Army (“AUSA”) co-hosted the first ever “Learning & Leaning In” networking event for military spouse nonprofits.
The idea for the day-long event grew out of a brainstorming session with senior military spouses and nonprofit leaders, who realized that military spouse groups often work in isolation and struggle with the same challenges that face every nonprofit: volunteer burnout, leadership development, funding, effective public communication to name a few. MSJDN members regularly receive requests from military spouses asking for advice on how to build a network like MSJDN or develop a new non-profit. And all nonprofits worry about the future funding landscape.
MSJDN and AUSA realized that there was a real need to address these questions, and provide a forum to share solutions. We believe that military spouse nonprofits are stronger when we support one another, find ways to collaborate, and brainstorm ideas for problem solving. The turnout for the event was tremendous–over 51 nonprofits from across the country either participated virtually through live-streaming, or sent a representative to the AUSA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The spouses of the military senior leadership, past and present, turned out in force as well. We were particularly honored by the participation of the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s spouse, Ellyn Dunford, who gave the keynote remarks for the day.
As a participant, I was amazed by the high level of energy at the event, and power of the connections we made with one another. The day began with a 30 second “elevator speech” from each attendee about their organization. Next, in breakout groups of about 6 people, participants identified the three biggest challenges facing their nonprofit as they seek to deliver services. Not surprisingly, a few common themes emerged: funding challenges, volunteer management, good governance, improving communications, effective use of social media, and the need to measure data through surveys and feedback.
Three different panel discussions helped frame some of the issues for the day. First, Katherine Kidder from the Center for a New American Security presented a report quantifying charitable giving to military and veteran-service organizations over a 16-year period. Her presentation provided a snapshot of funding across various metrics since 9/11. During lunch, a panel of experts explained how donors and foundations evaluate military family programs and what criteria they use when deciding where to send money. Finally, participants had a chance to hear from a panel of established military spouse organizations as they discussed their experiences starting, growing, and sustaining a military community nonprofit.
The day concluded with a report on opportunities for the future. The breakout groups gathered again to identify solutions to the challenges discussed earlier in the day. The theme that emerged was the need for improved collaboration. The unanimous sentiment in the room was a desire to continue the productive conversations of the day through future conferences, mentorship across organizations, and a forum to connect online. As we gathered at the end day in the atrium of the AUSA conference center for cocktails and conversation, the attendees shared business cards, smiles, and hugs. It was a great military spouse networking day!