The Call of Duty Endowment – how a video game is fighting veteran unemployment

After leaving the Marine Corps in 2006, Travis Wentworth went to the VA for help finding a job. As a Mortarman who served in the 1st Battalion 3rd Marines, he was told that he had “no marketable skills”. Even after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from California Baptist University, he still had trouble finding a quality job.

Fortunately, he discovered Hire Heroes USA, a member of a network of nonprofit organizations supported by the Call of Duty Endowment, a charity dedicated to reducing veteran unemployment. Each year thousands of veterans are transitioning from the military into high quality civilian jobs, thanks to Hire Heroes USA and The Endowment. In February of 2017, Activision Blizzard released the “Brass Personalization Pack,” an in-game downloadable for Call of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered. All profits for this promotion go towards the Call of Duty Endowment, and the network of nonprofits it supports.

The Brass Personalization Pack is the third iteration of this type of in-game purchase. The pack provides players with unique skins to use on their character in game, including camouflage for their weapon, a player insignia that appears next to their profile, and rank chevron sight reticle. The first promotion took place in 2015 with Treyarch, Inc., when Mark Lamia and Jay Puryear worked in conjunction with The Endowment to create a Warrior pack for Black Ops III. In 2016 alone, the personalization packs earned them $1.5 million dollars. It is their biggest source of funds, next to partnerships with companies like GameStop, Costco, and Best Buy. The revenue accumulated by these in-game purchases allow The Endowment to provide logistical and financial support to nonprofits that help reduce veteran unemployment.

The Call of Duty Endowment was established in 2009 by Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision-Blizzard, to apply a business philosophy solution to the problem of veteran unemployment. He established the Endowment to navigate the maze of nonprofits that were trying to support veterans. U.S. Navy Captain Dan Goldenberg, the Executive Director of the Endowment, calls it “finding the needle in the haystack.”

“Back in 2009, when the endowment was founded, there was a bewildering landscape of nonprofits trying to help veterans. If you go on charity navigator and you search nonprofits for veterans, you’ll find over 43,000 nonprofits that tell the IRS that their main mission is helping veterans.”

“Most of these nonprofits are well-intentioned,” Goldenberg explains. “But very few are well run. The challenge is finding the best ones with really high impact.”

In 2013, the Endowment established the Seal of Distinction, which certifies that a nonprofit has gone through a formal vetting process. The Endowment partners with Deloitte Consulting to rigorously screen organizations that apply for a grant.

According to Capt. Goldenberg, “In partnership with Deloitte, we screen them for results—are they achieving the impact they’re claiming? We also do background checks on their leadership team, examine their financials and make sure their organization is in good financial health.”

For many years the 501 (c) 3 was run by the executives at Activision Blizzard. But in 2013, they hired Capt. Goldenberg, a graduate of Harvard Business school, full time. “They decided that they wanted to hire a veteran with a business background, not a non-profit person to run this.” Goldenberg is an employee of Activision-Blizzard, however, the Call of Duty Endowment is a legally separate entity.

Capt. Goldenberg graduated from the Naval Academy in 1992 and became a Naval Flight officer, flying E-2C Hawkeyes off the USS Enterprise and USS Eisenhower for missions over Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq. He also worked for the Secretary of the Navy at the Pentagon. After leaving active duty, he joined the reserves and went to business school. After graduating from Harvard, he spent ten years balancing the life of a Navy reservist with that of a civilian in the management consulting and information industry. He noticed that his Sailors returning from tours in Afghanistan or Iraq were often struggling to find high quality employment.

“I went full time business school when I got out, and for me, that’s what I needed. I needed some time to learn the language and opportunities of the business world … It gave me time to learn, think, and network—all the kind of things you need to do to find a great career.”

“I did what I could there personally, I had some success with it, and I was really personally satisfied by it.”

Capt. Dan Goldenberg, Executive Director of the Call of Duty Endowment

Ten years later, he was given the opportunity to do just that but on a much larger scale with the Call of Duty Endowment. It was a welcome transition.

Goldenberg found that understanding the complexities of the nonprofit world “was a bit harder than expected, but it ultimately worked out really well. I love that we’re able to apply a business approach to this really serious social problem.”

The Endowment benefits from full support by Activision Blizzard, which covers all of its overhead costs.  “When we raise money, literally every cent we raise goes directly towards veteran hiring programs.”

While Goldenberg acknowledges that the process is rigorous, it has yielded ten nonprofits that efficiently, effectively, and honestly help veterans find jobs. Because of this focus on efficiency, the Endowment has a lower veteran job placement cost than the Department of Labor. The Department of Labor cites a cost of $3,083 to place a veteran in a job.

In March 22, 2017, the DOL issued an Economic News Release, which claimed that unemployment among Gulf War II veterans, and Post-9/11 veterans had edged down to 4.2% in 2016. However, Goldenberg, among others, is skeptical of those numbers. “A job is not a job. Underemployment is a major, undocumented problem in this country, and it disproportionally affects veterans.” Sharing a consistent theme he sees in the veterans that come to endowment endorsed non-profits, he continued, “Hardly a week goes by where we don’t hear something absolutely gut wrenching about some of the challenges some of my fellow vets are facing.”

Veterans often come to the company while working two jobs, yet are still facing eviction. Because the Department of Labor does not differentiate between employment and underemployment, these veterans still count as employed under their metrics. The Endowment addresses this problem by working with nonprofits to maintain high benchmarks to ensure veterans are getting jobs that are competitive, full-time, and with high retention rates.

“We’re measuring the quality of job placements made by our grantees on a quarterly basis to make sure we’re not just checking a box, to ensure these are jobs that will pay the bills for veterans and their families.”

Of course, there are many other kinds of problems facing the veteran community.

“We had a veteran contact us for help finding work. We immediately referred him. Next day he wrote back, saying, ‘Hey, thank you so much, but never mind, I’m just thinking about ending it all today.’ I need to stress that this is not common for us. So, all we had was his email and military service information. We immediately contacted the VA crisis line, but had a really hard time getting help from the VA. We finally got him the help he needed, but I had to reach out to my network of non-profit organizations and companies to help create a solution for him.”

While the Call of Duty Endowment does not specialize in this kind of crisis, the organization is fully dedicated to putting veterans in contact with organizations that do.

Goldenberg described the Endowment’s business philosophy as “narrow and deep,” meaning that as a company, they focus on “doing just a couple things really well, trying to do them better than anyone else in the world, rather than spreading yourself too thin.”

On the home page of the Endowment’s website, it states that $619 gets veterans a full time, quality job. But it’s fair to say this is a bit of an oversimplification. The Endowment issues grants and partners with nonprofit organizations focused on getting veterans employed. Nonprofit organizations that need funding can apply for a grant with a one and a quarter page document to receive vetting by the Call of Duty Endowment.

“Very metrics heavy,” is how Goldenberg described the application. “At that point, we are open to partnering with them. That means, now it’s business planning. We say, what impact can we make for veterans together?””

The Endowment partners with many different organizations this way. Together, its partners work to establish “stretch goals,” which enable the non-profit to maximize its efficiency while also maintaining a high standard of quality. Goals vary depending on the company.

For example, the Salvation Army Haven focuses on veterans in the most difficult of circumstances, such as prior criminal records and mental illness. The time it takes to find them jobs is longer than others, and at $1,751, their cost per job placement is higher than the endowment’s 2016 average of $619.

“However, four out of five of the high barrier to employment veterans that walk in there come out with a job. That’s staggeringly good.”

Hire Heroes USA is another one of these organizations. Founded in 2005, Hire Heroes provides U.S. military members, veterans, and their spouses career assistance as they make the transition from military to civilian life. They offer free and personalized services through transition workshops and virtual career coaching to improve veterans’ resumes, translate military achievement into civilian terminology, and review job search skills like networking and interview techniques.

Travis Wentworth was one of those veterans. “You get a lot of people that want to give you an interview because you’re prior military. But most of the jobs that actually want to hire prior military are [in security.]” Travis didn’t want to work in the security sector. He grew up with an auto shop, and wanted to work with his hands. Hire Heroes got his resume reviewed and rewritten pretty quickly. From there it was just finding the right job.

Hire Heroes connected him with several employment leads, one of which landed him his current position. He works with a Department of Defense subsidiary that is responsible for things like “the little black box in airplanes.” It was five months between his first contact with Hire Heroes to landing his current position, which he’s had for a little more than a year. In addition to helping him, Hire Heroes helped his wife with her resume and connected her with several strong leads as well.

Christopher Plamp, the Chief Programs Officer of Hire Heroes, shared a personal story of the kinds of difficulties he had when leaving the Air Force after 26 years as a pilot.

Christopher Plamp, Chief Programs Officer of Hire Heroes USA

“I walked into an interview as a 26-year-old Air Force retiring Colonel. It was with a German company. The first thing he said was, ‘I don’t see how any of your experience is applicable.’ It’s a great way to start an interview. In the end, it was successful. I didn’t get the job, but I was able to convince him to change his mindset.”

Before becoming a civilian, Colonel Plamp hadn’t thought of the nonprofit sector. But knowing the difficulties that he and other veterans had faced, he was excited about the opportunity to give back to the community.

Much of the career coaching Hire Heroes does lies in identifying skills that veterans don’t know they gained in the military. “Leadership is leadership,” he said. “Personnel management is management. Being able to write is being able to write. You start to take some of these skills which are transferable and then try to make sure you get a job that utilizes those skills.”

Plamp jokingly calls his nonprofit a “supply-side” organization, meaning that it focuses on helping the client navigate the civilian workforce rather than reaching out to specific companies to convince them to hire veterans.

“If you go the other way, to hire somebody because they’re a veteran, a lot of times we find that they’re not going to sustain in the job, they’re not going to like the job. We find that if they feel the job is right, the more chances that they’ll stay and earn more money in the end.”

To do this, Hire Heroes performs a professional assessment on each veteran. They find out who they are, identify their skills, and most importantly, what their goals are. Then they help veterans put that on a resume.

“The interesting part is that a lot of times when we ask … what would you like to do, the answer two months down the road is different. Because as they go through the process they find out there’s a lot more to the civilian market, and [they] have a lot more skills than [they] thought that [they] had. A lot of it is just teaching them, this is what you can do.”

Plamp is grateful for the Call of Duty Endowment for providing stability in the nonprofit space.

“They’re not topical,” he explained. “You get a lot of companies that say, ‘this year is hiring veterans year’ … The endowment stays focused on a single topic for a number of years, which helps us, a nonprofit, to be stable.”

With the endowment’s support, Hire Heroes USA has confirmed employment for 15,000 veterans, with over 200,000 individual counseling sessions. The Endowment’s support has been crucial to their growth.

One developing product of their partnership is a growing database that keeps track of the industries and companies where veterans are being hired. Lima Charlie News asked for some statistics about where veterans are going after the military. Goldenberg explained the difficulty in answering this question.

“No organization out there has found a way to code the job placements they’re making,” he explained. The problem has to do with conventions. Some companies might call a security guard, “Security,” while others will call it “business services.”

Hire Heroes started collecting this data a year and a half ago, and standardized their codes with those the government uses. With 15,000 clients per year, this created a large database. Goldenberg is trying to replicate that database across all of the organization’s partners. He wants to multiply the information to provide more data about the veteran employment space.

Plamp provided more insight, “the number one entity that hired our clients this year is the VA. Many of them go back to help other veterans. Next is the defense industry. Companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.” These are followed by security, such as the police, then retailers like Amazon, Walmart, and Best Buy.

When considering whether the VA should provide more help in this area, they had different answers.

“Our nonprofits are, within a percentage point, five times more effective than the Department of Labor at putting vets in jobs. The fact is that the charity sector and the business sector is much better at doing this work than the government,” said Goldenberg.

Plamp dove even deeper. “Between the VA and DOL, there should be support for veterans getting out. But we’ve found that to be inadequate, at least in my view, based on the fact that so many people are still filing through nonprofits to get disability claims, unemployment, every portion you can imagine… Now, the VA does a very good job providing medical care for a humongous amount of people. Department of Labor has a national responsibility. These national services can’t provide services to the individual like we could. As a nonprofit, we’ve made sure to make it as efficient as possible, to drive the cost per veteran down because we’re spending other people’s money. Sometimes the government is not as good at that as a business would be.”

Travis himself used to play Call of Duty, mostly Black Ops and Black Ops II. When we asked how he felt about in-game transactions supporting nonprofits like Hire Heroes USA, he was enthusiastic.

“As far as a model, micro transactions is the way of gaming right now. League of Legends is making a billion dollars a year right now just selling skins. If a little bit of that goes somewhere else each time, I think that’s great.”

One misconception that Goldenberg believes is affecting the space is the expectations civilians have for the military.

“One of the false stereotypes about vets are, these are automatons, they’re not creative, they only know how to follow orders.” However, at Activision Blizzard, they found that a significant number of the veterans they had hired worked in the art department. “In our creative roles, our vets are well represented.”

The nonprofit veteran space has gone through some fortunate changes since Travis’ transition period.

“There has been an incredible goodness that started with the Bush administration and the Obama administration,” Plamp explains. More companies are becoming aware of the veteran unemployment issues, and others are leading the charge. “This has been beneficial for the community in general.”

Unemployment among younger veterans has improved as the economy has turned around. The VA also sends veterans to them knowing they can assist. But the problem is far from over. There are still many veterans who have stopped looking for jobs, or are under employed, and not tracked by the Department of Labor.

“We also get 200,000 to 250,000 transitioning out every year,” Plamp explained. “We don’t want that to be the next wave of problem every year. That needs to be solved every year as they come out.”

David Polsdorfer, Lima Charlie News

David Polsdorfer served in the United States Navy from 2008 until 2013 as a Cryptologic Technician Collector. He worked in the intelligence community at NIOC Hawaii and completed one tour to Afghanistan in 2011 as an LLVI operator. In 2014 he was selected to be part of The Daily Show’s Veteran Immersion Program and continued there as an intern in the fall. In 2015, he worked as a production assistant with Sara Taksler and Sarkasmos Productions, LLC on the documentary film, Tickling Giants. He recently received his Bachelor’s from Columbia University in Political Science. He writes and edits. Follow David on Twitter @DPolsdorferLC 

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