How Makers Are Helping Veterans Through Skills-Based Volunteering
Alex De La Campa, Executive Director of a Future for Veterans, shares his experience working with a team of makers to overcome his operational challenges running his nonprofit.
Alex De La Campa, founder of A Future For Veterans, knows something about the burden America places on its veterans — what we ask of them when in combat, as well as what we expect them to overcome when they return home.
For two years in the 2010’s, Alex trained to become a Navy Seal. In his third year of training, he hurt his back, suffered a brain injury, and became partially paralyzed. He spent 10 months in the hospital.
Rehabilitation was grueling. He had to retrain himself how to walk. When he was finally discharged, he struggled with substance abuse issues and housing insecurity, along with his ongoing health complications.
But he persisted. Eventually he enrolled in San Jose State University, where he studied Sociology, served as president of a student-led veterans service organization, and was a project manager for the Bay Area Housing Internship Program (BAHIP), which worked to provide 100% affordable housing for Bay Area workers, homeless and at-risk veterans, and low-income residents.
Alex’s success reintegrating into society — and overcoming pain and adversity to do so — is inspiring. Alex is a warrior. He found a way not only to reenter society, but better it.
Yet, as Alex knows too well, not all warriors are so successful. Transitioning from military life to civilian life is not easy. As the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs cites, “highly developed skills obtained in the military may not translate to higher-level positions in the civilian world.” According to Pew, 44% of veterans who’ve served since Sept. 11, 2001, say reentry into society was difficult for them. As a recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development points out, 37,085 veterans experienced homelessness in January 2019. The 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Report from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs found the suicide rate for Veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-Veteran adults.
Making matters worse is how invisible the plight of veterans can seem.
“In this country, a very small percentage of citizens actually serve in the military,” Alex said. (In 2018, about 7% of U.S. adults were veterans, according to the Census Bureau.) “This places a very high burden on the ones who do.”
44% of veterans who’ve served since Sept. 11, 2001, say reentry into society was difficult for them.
Most tend not to think about what that burden truly entails, how hard it can be to access veteran resources, how challenging are the health challenges — mental and otherwise — veterans combat.
But Alex does. “As I was working to get better from my ongoing health issues,” he told us. “I thought constantly about how I was not the only one going through this.”
That’s one reason why Alex founded A Future For Veterans, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide affordable housing solutions, supportive services, and peer support to transitioning military veterans — so as to make easier the taxing task of reintegration, and in the process save veterans from avoidable fates. “I believe it’s the moral responsibility of every citizen to welcome home our warriors, after they serve,” Alex said. “And to provide the tenants of food, shelter, and water to military veterans, as they figure out the next transition of their lives.”
That’s what A Future For Veterans focuses on. A bit more specifically, A Future For Veterans works to extend to veterans information regarding how to do things such as access housing, or find the nearest VA hospital, or secure what benefits they’re entitled to by law, like those guaranteed by the GI bill. Alex and his team also help veterans reflect on their personal interests so as to develop their own path to reintegration and to finding purpose in the civilian world.
There are several factors that make this work challenging.
“Our organization is small,” Alex said. “And we deal with lots of data.” A Future For Veterans’ day-to-day entails sifting through veritable compendiums of benefits and services to identify which their veterans have access to; coordinating with volunteers all over the country and across several different apps (Slack, Twilio, Airtable); communicating with veterans across their varying levels of digital literacy; and making sense of the often scattered, corresponding data that they’re trying to share and that their interactions produce. “This can entail a certain amount of friction,” Alex told us.
Plus, being a nonprofit, there are always cost barriers. A Future For Veterans doesn’t have the benefit of being able to simply invest in expensive data processing or task automation tools.
We designed Changemakers to connect non-profit organizations with highly skilled operations professionals to help innovate ways to overcome key operational challenges. Alex had been running a Future For Veterans for four years by the time we started working together. The challenges he and his team faced were significant. Among other things, they needed a more streamlined and efficient way to extend easier access to their resources, and to gain more reliable insight from their collected data.
He was precisely the kind of nonprofit founder we wanted to partner with.
We set up Alex with a maker from AdaptivOps. Using Tonkean, our no-code process orchestration platform, Alex and his maker created a module that integrates A Future For Veterans’ suite of apps; auto-replies to users and volunteers inside of Slack; and automatically records and computes answers and metrics to one specific place (Airtable).
All of this was work that previously had had to be done manually.
“The experience of working with our assigned makers [Jeff and Aviv] was fantastic,” Alex said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team to guide me through the process, discovering what we were trying to develop, how to develop it, and then to implement the tool effectively and successfully.”
Alex today remains a part of the AdaptivOps community. And the solutions he and his makers created during Changemakers still power key elements of A Future For Veterans’ operations.
“The time that was saved over the course of that week is hands-down substantial. Hundreds of hours,” Alex said. “The solution that we came up with helps us provide a better means for veterans to access their benefits and services — a way to help them faster, with more accuracy, and with less friction. If we would have tried to develop that on our own, I’m not sure we would have been able to do it. In the long run, that’s essential to helping us help veterans.”
“The time that was saved over the course of that week is hands-down substantial. Hundreds of hours,” Alex said.
Participating alongside A Future For Veterans in Changemakers 2020 were dozens of nonprofits from all around the world. At the end of the week, during the closing ceremonies, each voted on which nonprofit they thought had developed the most impactful operational solution. The prize was a $5,000 donation. A Future For Veterans won.
“As a smaller organization, now we can invest the time we’ve saved into more manpower. We can invest it into allowing us to make that manpower more effective. It’s a total gamechanger.”
The reason why it’s a gamechanger is, of course, varied. But in our eyes, the work Alex and his makers conducted through Changemakers matters because it allows Alex increased bandwidth with which to focus on creating impact — rather than, say, manually updating or cleaning up data systems. Instead, he can focus on the task that compelled him, at least in part, to start A Future For Veterans in the first place: decreasing the burden placed on veterans reintegrating into society, and moving the world more generally to a place where we all take more seriously the task of welcoming our warriors home.