Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Gives Data a Seat at the Table

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The nonprofit organization uses data visualization and social media tools to uncover insights about female veterans and more.
Customer Strategy

For-profit businesses aren't the only organizations that are leveraging data analytics and online tools-nonprofit organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) are also investing in better member experiences.

As the largest organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, IAVA helps veterans successfully transition back to civilian life. 1to1 Media spoke with IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff about the organization's use of data collection tools and social media.

1to1 Media: In what ways did your organization need help to better reach and engage veterans?

Paul Rieckhoff: Our veterans' population is young-the average age is in the late 20's. They're also digital natives, but extremely geographically and ethnically diverse. One of our biggest challenges is trying to connect 3 million people who are spread out across the world. Technology provides their connection to home.

We began working with Salesforce six years ago and they've empowered us to do a lot from a shoestring budget, from getting the veterans connected to their families, building an online community, and collecting information to better understand a veteran's needs. On Veterans Day, for example, we organized 144 events around the country in one week. Salesforce allowed us to do everything from marketing to check-ins to social media integration to getting people in touch with a therapist.

Do you have an example of an insight about your members that you discovered and were able to implement to improve your service?

Our generation of veterans is different in a lot of ways but one aspect in particular is that 20 percent of our members are women. And they've had unique challenges accessing healthcare and getting child care support. We were able to drill down and find out what their experiences were like in the Veteran Affairs system.

What we found out was a female veteran's experience was much worse than their male counterparts in getting support. We were also able to share that data with Congress. We testified before Congress at least 18 times [in 2015]. Every time we go before Congress, we use this data to share what's happening on the ground for women veterans.

In some ways we have better data than the Secretary of Veteran Affairs. We're able to explain to him where the gaps are and what women veterans are looking for from the VA. Many of our women members are also frustrated in getting recognition as veterans. So it's a cultural transformation that has led all the way to women registering as rangers and the military allowing women into combat roles. We're part of that movement in making the case that women can do anything that men can.

How do you gather data?

We have systems in place that allow us to connect with the veterans on their cellphones or via social media. For instance, if a woman is having challenges getting healthcare, and she reaches out to us on Twitter, one of our case managers can get in touch by phone, email, or social media within 24 hours. That gets entered into a case that goes into our systems.

We get other data on a regular basis from web traffic, phone calls, and donations. A lot of it is user generated. One cool example is TheWaitWeCarry.org. It's a data visualization project that has more than 2,000 participants. People shared stories about how long they were waiting for care, how stressful it was for them, and how long they've been in the military. It's user-generated content that we're able to transform into a data visualization product that really tells the story of where and how veterans are waiting for care.

What are you working on next to support veterans?

The next step for us is building out myIAVA, which is in beta form right now. We've got about 5,000 users so far. It's a private online community where veterans can connect and empower themselves. We hope to launch it to the public in Q1 or Q2 this year.

We're also working on a comprehensive workforce development program that helps vets get jobs. We still see a lot of unemployment among our members, so we're creating an online jobs platform that we're also hoping to launch soon. For example, when a bank says we want to hire an army veteran with a background in finance who lives in the Northeast, we can micro-target our database and help him find candidates.

What advice do you have for other nonprofit organizations on how to incorporate technology solutions on a tight budget?

It's a difficult spot to be in. I encourage nonprofits to make technology investment a priority. It's a cultural shift, but it's also a leadership decision. We've created a digital product division that receives one-sixth of our operating budget because we made that financial investment in technology. It's like training in the military. If you're not in shape, you'll have a hard time on the battlefield. Technology is the same way-if you put the work and money in, you'll be able to grow your impact.

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