A lot can happen in a year. Twelve months ago, Osama bin Laden was the most wanted man in the world and “occupy” was just a word, not a movement. During the next year, one million men and women will leave the active duty military service and return to civilian life with their family and friends across America. They will become part of the two million men and women who have served the nation over the past decade of war.
Earlier this month, the Council on Foundations convened a small group of our foundation colleagues, federal officials, and nonprofit leaders to discuss how philanthropy can help those individuals rejoin their communities.
The good news is that a number of key elements for success are already in place. Most Americans have good will  for military families and a strong desire to provide support. Through Joining Forces , Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have attempted to bridge the gap between an all-volunteer military and the civilian population. The Veteran’s Administration, Department of Defense, and Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are aware of the looming challenges and committed to adapting to meet the unique needs of this generation of warriors. An impressive array of national and local nonprofits has also developed blueprints  and toolkits  at the community, family, and individual levels. To date, a handful of foundations have invested in military families, but it is not enough given the tremendous sacrifices they’ve made and the significant levels of unmet need and untapped potential that remain.
Despite the growing interest in offering help, there is a sense that we are not meeting veterans’ needs or unlocking their full potential. Promising efforts are limited because they are siloed, and responses are colored by different perspectives on the problem and target population. Who should serve military families: the federal government or the communities where they live? Where should services focus: on service member’s physical and mental health, or on tapping the exquisite training and civic engagement of these families as community leaders?
Foundations can play an important role in supporting this emerging and vital national conversation. To do that, we need national leadership in the philanthropic sector to reconcile these different perspectives into a coherent framework, convene key stakeholders, and share promising practices and useful tools within the field. Once that framework is in place, nearly every foundation can identify concrete ways to support military families while maintaining their organizational mission and priorities. We look forward to continuing the dialogue with our foundation colleagues, federal officials, the private sector, and civil society about how to support service members and their families who have served our nation over the past decade so that they—and we—achieve our full potential.
Peter Long, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation