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Networking a Community of Veterans: An Interview with IAVA's Director of Online Strategy

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, April 15 2010

Credit: Ad Council/IAVA

At this point in the histories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 2.2 million American men and women who have served in one or both. That's a considerable number of people, to be sure. But it's just a sliver of population of the United States. And with an all-volunteer military and the wars playing at most times off the radar of American attention, a challenge confronting servicemembers is returning home from Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom to Iowa or New York or Florida or California to find themselves ignored, at a lost for what to do next, and often painfully isolated.

In 2004, Iraq vet Paul Rieckhoff saw the need, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America was born. From the start, the Internet and the web was an ally, a means, and an avenue for success. I interviewed Paul back in 2007 for the political blog MyDD, and he described the humble origins of IAVA. "I had a flat website," he explained, "and lots of vets started contacting me, suggesting we get together and start something. The movement began online, with no money, and was totally grassroots. We got the website up, starting writing and things grew very fast from there." Reickhoff and others put themselves on shaky footing to get IAVA on firm ground. "At one point we were almost 50k in debt on our credit cards, but we believed," he said, "that we were building something critical that people would respond to." They have. These days, IAVA can claim about 55,000 veterans as members.

IAVA is an advocacy entity; their work on passing a new GI bill for this new generation of vets involved a lot of heavy lifting, and many hours spent lobbying and testifying in Congress. But IAVA is also a hybrid organization, a social network for veterans that channels their interests and energies into concrete change. That change comes in the form of not only in pushing legislation up Capitol Hill, but helping, say, a homeless vet find a place to stay, or an injured vet a service dog. Core to what IAVA does today is a Ning-based social network open only to veterans of modern wars. It takes paperwork to get in. Reickhoff introduced the project at last year's Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. Last week, I drove past one of IAVA's ads for on the side of a service box in downtown Brooklyn, ads created in partnership with the Ad Council. I thought of how many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan might walk past that sign, or ride by it on a bus, and decided to check in with IAVA's Director of Online Strategy Daniel Atwood to dig into the details of IAVA's efforts to give vets a way to find community.

Let's start with the basics. What is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America?

At the most basic level, it's the first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. In my own words, it has grown into the place where veterans connect with, and support, one another -- and where they'll continue to connect throughout their lives as different issues impact the community. Using "place" there is imperfect, obviously, since that plays out in a number of different ways. But that's the gist.

"Place" actually gets at one aspect that seems to define IAVA, and that's how much online seems to be woven throughout what you do. Can you talk about that?

Sure. Big picture: almost everything IAVA does online connects directly to something we're doing on the ground. In other words, online tools and strategies aren't an afterthought; they're a part of the plan for any given campaign from the start and that plays out in the way we interact with our members.

Our first interaction may be online, and we view that as a first step towards identifying people who want to get more involved, and then getting them involved elsewhere for example, we have an annual lobbying trip each year -- like many organizations -- where we bring two dozen or so of our members to Capitol Hill for a week to meet with their lawmakers. A lot of those folks first came to us through our email list, through Twitter, through Facebook.

An important piece of that puzzle is Community of Veterans, our online social network exclusively for confirmed veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a online 'place' (to bring that back) where we interact directly with our members on a rolling basis and keep a finger on the pulse of the community, but also where we can identify leaders, and give them opportunities to get more involved.

How do you go about connecting with veterans the first time?

Good question, and the answer: a number of different ways. A potential member veteran might hear about us for the first time in a press hit, or they might hear something from a friend. Or they might be trying to figure out how to use the new GI bill, and come across us in a Google search. We really try aim to be everywhere they might be -- whether that means Twitter or a local event.

There's no more "official" way to find veterans? It has to be organic?

Pretty much. This has always been big issue for us, and for everyone who wants to reach veterans for any reason -- whether it's to offer services or conduct research. There's no accessible, reliable database of veterans. You can't go somewhere and to get a list of all people who served in Iraq and are from Virginia. You've got to find them where they are, so we rely a lot on existing real world social networks -- friends and friends of friends.

How successful has it been? To pick one metric, how many people are participating in Community of Veterans?

We've been very successful, but there is still a long ways to go. We're just short of 5,000 people in the community -- though it's worth noting that in order to get inside, vets have to submit paperwork confirming their service (yes, paperwork), which is a huge hurdle, but one that's essential. But we have over 55,000 members, and we've just scratched the surface in terms of bringing them to that next level of engagement (being a member of Community of Veterans).

Why is keeping that environment exclusive to veterans themselves so important?

For background, the community is a part of a multi-year campaign we're doing with the Ad Council (the folks behind Smokey the Bear, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste," and other iconic PSA campaigns). One of the core components of that campaign is giving Iraq and Afghanistan veterans a safe place where they can connect with other veterans to talk about some of the challenges they've faced in returning home, and connect with resources that can help. A lot of research went into that campaign, and what emerged was the need for a place that vets knew was private.

Since then, of course, as tends to happen when you give your members and supporters a chance to get more involved, they've turned into much more than that. It still serves that role, but it's also where they connect to plan local events, swap stories and photos, find vets in their area, and more.

What have they turned COV into? It's hard not to be curious, since we non-vets can't peek inside.

The best way to describe it probably in the stories. We have members who have found their service dogs (ADA dogs that help folks with their PTSD) through COV. We've had a couple of real relationships get started. People are really involved in groups -- everything from motorcycle enthusiasts (one of our most active, actually) to arts-based groups (e.g. a weekly photo challenge) to a PTSD support group (another very active group) and that translates into local events, too -- like local runs.

Do you spend time thinking about how much your target audience is comfortable working and connecting online -- including how many of them have or don't have internet access?/p>

We do. we've surveyed our members in the past on what social networking tools they do/do not use, for instance, and how they'd want to hear from IAVA, and then a lot of it is anecdotal. We know this is a connected generation that is (generally) comfortable online. But we're always working to match that with offline action, which is really key for us. We often find that after someone meets someone from the organization in person, they're a lot more inspired to interact with us and stay connected online.

As I mentioned, I interviewed Paul almost three years ago to the day, and i asked him about how top-down vs. distributed IAVA is. His response was "it's less top down every day." How has that evolved?

That's a huge part of why convening and connecting online will always be core to what we do. Our community manager can and does talk to our members in Community of Veterans, to find out what's on their mind, and what issues are impacting them. we couldn't do that otherwise. If a COV member is having trouble getting his GI BIll payments, we know that. if people are having trouble finding jobs, we know that. That makes us an organization that is constantly keeping an eye on and responding to what our members are experiencing and saying.

And just on an internal, culture-of-the-organization note, everyone here is bought into the power of social media -- not from a broadcasting standpoint -- but as a scalable way of creating meaningful interactions with our members.

I did notice that at an organization with about 25 people, five of them work in online.

Yup. And that covers a lot of ground. so we're communicating with our members, but we're also constantly producing useful information for our members -- on using the new GI bill, for instance (newgibill.org), or getting your stop-loss backpayments, or finding out what's happening in your area. [Ed. -- There's also Twitter.com/NewGIBill that helps answer veterans' questions about the new law.]

You mentioned that you've been working with the Ad Council on this campaign. The PSA for Community of Veterans shows a soldier returning to an empty airport, an empty city -- until a fellow veteran appears and says "welcome home, man." Watching that made me think about just how hidden these wars are, in many ways. in the past, we've had soldiers returning home to disdain. but it seems like the reaction these days is more of an absence of a reaction. Does that ring true? And if so, do you find it shaping how much and in what ways vets want to engage?

There are frankly others here who can speak better to that. But generally speaking, the reaction has certainly been better than it was for past generations, though not nearly enough has been done. The will is out there. The American people really want to be involved. The hard part is directing the energy, and giving something people can act on. And that's what we try to do. On the numbers front, there are about 2.2 million people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Compare that to World War II. This time around, it's a much smaller segment of the population bearing the burden.

With "the war" not being as much a part of the dominant culture, it seems to create the opportunity for the web/technology to find people where they're living, and connect them together.

Exactly. The community already exists, in a sense. We're just helping to network and enable its members.