Providing an Open Space for Collaboration and Partnership Among Veteran-Serving Organizations

Over the past three years, the CDC Foundation has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to address the challenge of suicide among veterans by building evaluation capacity of veteran-serving organizations (VSOs) that are implementing programs to facilitate an upstream public health approach to suicide prevention. 

The veteran and military community is vulnerable to suicide. Although many regard suicide as a result of a mental health condition, social stressors such as lack of strong relationships/social support, substance use, physical health, and housing or financial insecurity are often related to suicide. VSOs provide an array of services to veterans that aim to address the socio-contextual challenges that contribute to increased suicide rates. The efforts of the VSOs offer individuals a safe and open space to build relationships and connect with the community while receiving the support they need. 

While this project has evaluated existing efforts of VSO programs focused on upstream suicide prevention, it has also offered the opportunity to strengthen relationships, build community among VSO grantees and break down silos. 

On May 4, 2021, the CDC Foundation hosted a participant-driven Open Space networking event with leaders from the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and both current and previous VSO grantees through the veteran suicide prevention evaluation (VSPE) program. This unique meeting style allowed participants to create and guide the agenda and goals for the meeting. VSO participants were able to own discussion priority topics, offering real-time problem solving, collaboration and partnership. 

Thirty-five participants from 11 different VSOs, CDC and the CDC Foundation were able to network and discuss 12 different topics including:

  • Non-traditional funding sources for veteran suicide programs;
  • Strategies and incentives for evaluation engagement;
  • Communication strategies for partner and stakeholder feedback; and
  • How to address burn out among staff while continuing to offer quality services.

Additionally, the CDC Foundation, CDC and the current VSPE grantees had the opportunity to follow up on the short- and long-term actions that VSOs developed from this Open Space meeting during the annual grantee meeting in June. The grantee meeting offered VSO grantees the chance to connect with other public-private stakeholders to share their perspectives and experiences with this evaluation capacity building project and how the past year has been impactful to their programming. These discussions took the form of spark sessions, which had a similar approach to the Open Space Networking event.

Each VSPE grantee hosted a breakout room based on a topic related to their year-long project. In the 15-minute sessions, each VSO sparked conversation with a short presentation leading into a TED Talk-like speech to then promote discussion with the various stakeholders attending. Through three rounds of spark sessions, VSOs were able to meet with a wide variety of stakeholders fostering different connections and generating different conversations. 

The other sessions of the event focused on the successes and lessons learned as a culmination of the evaluation project. Both Deborah Stone, ScD, MSW, MPH, suicide prevention team lead for CDC, and William Grimsey (Ret. MG), South Carolina secretary of veterans affairs, spoke about the importance of collaboration and partnership in the upstream prevention of veteran suicide. There was also an opportunity to engage with these leaders and others from CDC and CDC Foundation during a listening session. 

The dynamic conversations during the Open Space event demonstrated the expertise of the grantees in the field and their dedication to sustaining the quality of their programs while working to reduce veteran suicide. This enthusiasm was catalyzed during the final meeting bringing together the wide variety of stakeholders at the meeting.

We are excited to see how engaged the program leadership and public and private stakeholders were during the listening sessions and VSO-hosted spark sessions. Both events gave opportunities for members of the veteran serving community to actively speak and learn from each other in understanding the importance of evaluation to aligning programmatic impact and building sustainable developmental partnerships.  

With additional support this year from CDC, the CDC Foundation is pleased to extend this project into a fourth year and will release a request for proposals in early August. For more information, contact Emily Gordon via email at   

This article is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $300,000 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by CDC/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

Emily Gordon
Emily Gordon, MPH, is a program officer for the CDC Foundation.