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Monday, May 10, 2021

Helping Veterans in Good Times and Bad: Three Funder Lessons from the Pandemic

Over a year ago, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19
a pandemic. Today, during Military Appreciation Month, we are honored to share a
first-hand account of what innovation and adaptation look like during a pandemic,
and a subsequent economic crisis, from Call of Duty Endowment.

While honoring our nation’s veterans during Military Appreciation Month is wonderful, ensuring the economic well-being of veterans is paramount. The most impactful action we can take to support veterans, especially now, is to help them find employment. If we can be successful in getting veterans back to work, so many of the other challenges exacerbated by the pandemic will be ameliorated, such as accessing quality medical care.

The veteran community has experienced the brunt of COVID-19. According to the Veterans Administration, nearly 250,000 have contracted the virus and over 11,000 have died from it. Recent data from the The Veterans Metrics Initiative Study has 61% of vets identifying as under-employed. While the economic impacts of the pandemic are still emerging, we know that 500,000 veterans live in the 15 cities across the country hardest hit by the financial ramifications of the shutdowns. This and other interesting data about veterans in the pandemic comes from the Bob Woodruff Foundation

Every veteran that is out of work represents an incredible lost opportunity for our country.  With the tremendous training we have invested in them and the depth of experience they have, veterans can contribute meaningfully to the country they served. We owe it to them -- and our country -- to help. 

To provide a painful example, half of former medics and hospital corpsmen who want to continue their medical service cannot find jobs in the U.S. healthcare industry -- even though there are massive hospital staffing shortages throughout the country.   When their knowledge and training could be put to great use, red tape in the form of state-level accreditation barriers keep qualified candidates from filling the gaps in our overtaxed health care system.  One can only imagine how helpful it would have been to have well-trained veterans working in our overrun hospitals or organizing one of the hundreds of thousands of vaccination clinics or covid testing sites that are central in how every community across the country responds to COVID-19. 

The pressures of the pandemic hit those who are underemployed first, often losing their already limited hours or underpaid roles.  That makes our work at the Call of Duty Endowment even more imperative.  We scour the landscape of over 68,000 veterans organizations to find those that are absolutely the best at getting vets back to work.  And when we find them, we fund them and help them grow. As the largest private funder of veteran employment in the U.S., our ambitious goal is to get 100,000 veterans back to work by 2024, and we’re nearly there. Our mission succeeds because our work is based on the rigorously consistent vetting of our Seal of Distinction program.  This approach surfaces nonprofits that demonstrate the highest level of impact and integrity in placing veterans in quality careers.  Across 2020, the organizations selected through the Seal of Distinction program proved their value. At the same time, we learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in a pandemic. Here are a few of those lessons. 

Adaptation is critical.  When the pandemic hit, providing needed equipment and software was a no-brainer; much harder was adaptation of our partners’ service delivery models. Thankfully, half of those organizations we fund were already delivering services virtually so they were ready. Their teams were equipped, trained and experienced. With supplementary funds, these organizations were able to scale up their already successful virtual models and deliver record-breaking impact at a time of unprecedented need.  Of the rest, many adapted incredibly well to new service models and those will likely never fully return to their previous model. From a funder perspective, how an organization adapts in a time of crisis says a great deal about their leadership team and it definitely showed us the organizations more prone to future growth—and likely to be ready for the next crisis.

Face-to-face services are irreplaceable; the key is to innovate around them.  It is clear that the organizations that serve veterans with the most severe needs (for example, homeless and with serious mental health challenges) have simply not been able to achieve their pre-pandemic levels of service and performance. To a large degree, they need to return to their old models as soon as possible. Yet a silver lining is the way in which they were forced to innovate in areas such as digital outreach. This reshaping of their thinking has been a good thing and proves that many lessons learned in 2020 will pave the way forward for future wins.

Establishing rigorous screening procedures will prove invaluable during an emergency.  To twist a phrase, “The more you sweat in normal times, the less you bleed during a crisis.”  Our philanthropic model is based on the aforementioned Seal of Distinction screening process we developed in 2013 with Deloitte. Our upfront investment in rigorous grantee screening gave us crisis ready partners who adapted and, in many cases, over-delivered results for our veterans.

Despite all the unforeseen hurdles of 2020, we not only met our pre-pandemic performance expectations, we exceeded them by 33%.  We drove the largest number of veteran placements we’ve ever funded in a single year with only a 3% increase in the average cost per placement. It’s worth noting that while many other funders retrenched from their accountability requests during the pandemic, we did not. This is because our requests were never excessive in the first place, providing us the minimum information we needed to make funding decisions, and grounded in a fundamental respect for our grantee organizations’ time. Our understanding of and respect for grantee operational models also means that we never burden them with requests that won’t ultimately add value for them and their missions.  

As we emerge from the global pandemic and rebuild our workforce, the Call of Duty Endowment has learned key lessons and is dedicated more than ever to our mission of helping veterans find high-quality jobs as well as showcasing the value that veterans bring to our society. 

COVID-19 highlighted the importance of thoughtfulness when selecting grantee organizations during relatively calm times so we are prepared when the inevitable crisis strikes.  More specifically, our grantees’ aggregate results in placing veterans into high quality jobs--unprecedented in our decade plus history--have validated our approach that drives superior economic outcomes for veterans in both good and bad times. As our nation begins an arduous recovery from the multi-layered devastations of the pandemic, it’s our hope that veterans will be front and center in our collective efforts.

For more information about the Call of Duty Endowment, please visit www.callofdutyendowment.org.

Written by CAPT Dan Goldenberg, USN (Ret.) the Call of Duty Endowment’s Executive Director and a Vice President at Activision Blizzard. The Endowment has funded the placement of 81,544+ veterans into high-quality employment, and has set an ambitious goal of getting 100,000 veterans back to work by 2024.

Photo Credit: 143d ESC, Hiring our heroes(flickr, Creative Commons 2.0, photo webpage)

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