In the business incubator world, the prevailing framework is the Lean Startup proposed by Eric Ries in 2008, which focuses on understanding the needs of your customers to avoid investing valuable time designing features or services they do not want. Based on lean manufacturing principles, the intent is to eliminate wasteful practices during the development phase in order to have a better chance of success without requiring large amounts of outside funding, elaborate business plans or the perfect product. This framework helps startups focus on developing a scalable, repeatable business model.
All too often in the nonprofit world, we operate from the mindset of a cause without taking into account the business model. There’s a reason for this phrase: Your 501(c)(3) designation is a tax status, not a business strategy. Helping military veterans is one of the biggest causes out there with the growing recognition that there are many needs to meet. With that in mind, we were determined to develop Veterans Recovery Resources with a focus on a sustainable business model from the outset to help veterans with substance abuse issues not only recover, but thrive over a lifetime. We understood that if our business model was not sustainable, our cause would be irrelevant.
Understanding Our Customers
In understanding our customers, Veterans Recovery Resources had a head start, because we are veterans and have lived it. The idea for Veterans Recovery Resources came to me through time and experience. I am a combat veteran of Operation Desert Shield/Storm (1990-91), Kosovo (2005-06) and Kuwait (2015). I also have 12 years as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and over 18 years as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, including an eighteen month tour at the Pentagon in the Office of the Surgeon General (2009-10). I have walked in the shoes of veterans and those in recovery over the last 30 years. I have experienced the challenges facing veterans in receiving the timely and quality care they need, as well as the community fellowship that is key to leading a successful life.
But that isn’t enough when you’re starting a new business. We use our personal experience in the military to point out that you really can’t just run on a hunch, even when you’re the one who has lived it. We have to validate it in the market by talking with potential customers, alliances and competitors. We must have a solid grasp on the needs of potential clients and any gaps in the market through primary and secondary research, a continuous process because it constantly changes. This was a key step for Veterans Recovery Resources. An old adage comes to mind: Trust, but verify. We had to validate that what we thought we knew, was actually true.
Building a Sustainable Organization
An integral part of our business strategy was assembling a team of experts that understands the needs of our veteran population and can work to accelerate their well-being by removing the barriers to mental health care. As a service providing organization, we knew that understanding our customers was not only what would make us different, but the ability to do so on a daily basis is what would help prevent veteran suicide and help veterans return to the productive and healthy lives they desperately want and deserve.
To do this, we created a sustainable organizational framework. Our research confirmed that one of the greatest factors often lacking in the treatment of veterans is a cultural competence toward their experiences. We have therefore built a Board of Directors and Advisory Board made up largely of veterans. Our clinical psychologists, counselors and service providers specialize in treating veterans or are veterans themselves. We are laser-focused on understanding the unique needs of our service members and providing a highly specialized recovery program to address those needs.
As the organization was developing, we also proactively worked to address the gaps in the treatment services offered to veterans. Research shows that veterans experience mental health and addiction issues much differently from that of civilians, based on the impact of military culture, combat and being separated from their families. Furthermore, community-based health providers are not often equipped to handle the needs of veterans.
Drawing on the experience of our clinical advisors, Jim Ware and Dr. Joe Currier, we learned that a linear recovery plan simply took too much time out of a veteran’s life to allow them to continue earning a living. As a result, our clinical framework is based on a three-part, concurrent treatment program that accelerates recovery. We also knew that addiction recovery is not a one-time event and must include an ongoing fellowship program to sustain success. In the military, service members operate as a unit. They depend on each other for a successful mission. When the mission ends, it can be hard to find others who understand the issues they face. That’s why the program is built by veterans and includes ongoing, regular contact over a lifetime. We also learned that some insurance plans did not cover the support of a veteran’s spouse and children. Knowing that addiction is often a family system, we built in services to help service members and their families. Building a sustainable organization helped to refine our business strategy and model.
A Sustainable Business Model
If we can’t sustain the business, our cause will be irrelevant. We were very focused on establishing a way to sustain our ability to serve veterans without getting lost in the cause. Veterans risk their lives to defend our freedom every day, but when they come home, their battle can be worse. When you’re dealing with life and death, the stakes are high. It was critical that we build Veterans Recovery Resources in a way to both raise the bar on serving veterans and remove the barriers veterans have faced in seeking or receiving care.
We established a set of business outcomes in support of achieving our mission and vision. The first was to create a vibrant network of healthy veterans and their families who support each other over a lifetime. The second was to contribute to the host city’s economic development, and the third was to strengthen the local community by sharing what we learn.
To achieve these outcomes, we established a pricing model that would allow us to subsist on a conservative rate of forty percent capacity and built in a generous endowment fund so that an inability to pay for services would not hinder veterans from seeking our help.
We also established a service delivery model to support a comprehensive reintegration strategy for veterans through a close connection to the web of social supports provided by the broader community. Our goal is to work closely with all local veteran service providers, as well as those further afield.
It is worth noting that the majority of our Board members live in the local community. Because of that, there is a deep dedication and passion to making the business successful. We all have skin in the game.
Simply put, what gets measured gets done. As a 501(c)(3), we demonstrate accountability and transparency and have established the GuideStar Bronze Badge and will pursue other charity oversight programs. Our treatment program success will be evaluated by a comprehensive set of quantitative and qualitative measures so we are very clear on how and when to adjust the program as the needs of our clients and the market evolve.
Veterans Recovery Resources’ focus on a sustainable business model from the outset was designed to help veterans with substance abuse issues not only recover, but flourish over a lifetime. We believe it will also ensure the business will prosper in the long-term. We will be successful when our sustainable business plan meets the heartfelt desire of our cause: happy, healthy, sober veterans making valuable contributions to their families, communities and economy.
John F. Kilpatrick is the founder and executive director of Veterans Recovery Resources, which fulfills his calling to help military service members and veterans struggling with substance abuse and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He’s been an accomplished litigation support consultant at his company Legal Imaging for over 19 years. He has over 30 years reserve military service, including 12 years as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and over 18 years as a Medical Service Corps Officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. http://veteransrecoveryresources.org/
This article is reprinted from Issue #8 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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