It was August 11, 2001, when Captain Dan Goldenberg finished being on active duty in the US Navy. After serving since the late 80s he was ready to restart his civilian life. One month later, he and the rest of the world witnessed the biggest terrorist attack on US soil in history, and like so many others he raised his hand once more in service of his country.
“I grew up pretty patriotic and I wanted to serve,” said Goldenberg, “but after 9/11 it became much more focused.” Returning home after active duty, Goldenberg remained part of the Navy reserve and took on a new mission objective – help veterans find work.
“One of my personal passions was helping my sailors they I deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places. [I would try to] help them have a successful adjustment when they came back. My little piece of that was helping them with their career ambitions.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision-Blizzard, was looking to build an arts facility on the campus of the Veteran Administration in West LA. A lover and supporter of the arts, Kotick’s intentions were good and he planned on giving free admission to veterans. But the VA told him quite simply ‘veterans don’t need free art, they need jobs’.
This realization of what veterans needed planted the Call of Duty Endowment seed in Kotick’s mind. First, he knew he’d need the right people, and knew he didn’t want someone from the nonprofit sector. It had to be some who could think like a business person, but with the insight of a veteran. “[That’s how] they found me,” said Goldenberg. “After I left active duty I spent about a decade in the corporate world, but I stayed in the reserves so I had one foot in both arenas.”
Building off the established Call of Duty brand, Kotick founded the Call of Duty Endowment in 2009 with Goldenberg taking an Executive Director position. Their objective was clear – find the best charities around the country who were helping veterans find work and support them through financial aid.
In 2012 the team was strengthened even more by the addition of General James L. Jones, the former Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who was brought on as Co-Chairman in 2012. A well-respected member of the armed forces, Jones was referred to as a “steady voice in Situation Room sessions, daily briefings and with meetings with foreign leaders” by former President Barack Obama upon retirement.
Having now placed over 30,000 veterans in jobs since its founding, the Endowment has gone from strength to strength over the years. I was lucky enough to speak to Goldenberg about his time in the Navy, the Call of Duty Endowment, challenges faced by veterans, and how people can get involved if they want to help out.
What made you want to work with Bobby Kotick and help him get the Call of Duty Endowment off the ground?
Personally, I’ve had a lot of satisfaction being able to help veterans [start new careers], so what Bobby offered me was a way to do that on a much larger scale. To take what I know from the business world and apply that [knowledge and] successfully put vets in jobs. Most companies do what I call a ‘fire and forget check’, they write the big check, have the ceremony, hand it off, and wipe their hands clean. We didn’t want to do it that way. Bobby wanted to apply what made [Activision-Blizzard] so successful as a business to a social problem.
[It also] became a very good fit with the ethos of Call of Duty. There’s a lot of respect and homage paid to the military in Call of Duty that we never attribute to anything more than entertainment, but [they do it] in a respectful way that pays honor to the military. So I think it was a good fit.
The Call of Duty Endowment teams up with other veteran charities around the country, but how do you know which ones are worth your time?
We set up a screening mechanism to look across this landscape of thousands of veterans organizations that we call our Seal of Distinction approach. We try and find those very high performing nonprofits. At last count, there were over 43,000 nonprofits in the US that tell the government their main purpose is helping vets. Most of them are well-intentioned… there are some bad [ones] out there, but most are well intentioned. But very few of them are active and efficient. We needed a way to find the needles in a haystack, so we partnered with [business auditing experts] Deloitte and we identified candidates, then they’d come in and do a very, very detailed assessment.
In fact, one of our business appointees called it the business equivalent of a proctology exam. It’s quite rigorous but helps us find the best ones. We did that, we give them a little money and we set very clear expectations. And if they hit those expectations we give them a little more money, and through that approach, we’d take an organization like Hire Heroes USA, which is one of the 10 nonprofits we fund, we’d start funding them at $50,000. I think the last check we sent them was for $1.4million.
They’ve brought the cost to place a veteran down to just over $600. Now you compare that to the federal government’s costs, and in the fiscal year 2015, it was $3,083. So we’re almost five times more efficient than them, and we measure the quality of every job place, and the government doesn’t do that. Quality meaning what is the average salary is this full-time or part-time work, and are the veterans still on the job six months later. It’s working really well.
From the outside looking in you wouldn’t assume veterans would struggle to find work. What are some of the challenges unique to a veteran when it comes to getting a job?
We’ve thought a lot about this, and I think fundamentally you have to understand where your typical service member who is leaving the military is coming from. Now keep in mind we have officers and enlisted personnel in the military. Officers all have college degrees, most of them have master’s degrees. They have a skill set that for years has been widely recognized, especially by large companies, so they don’t really have a problem with unemployment. The unemployment problem is with the enlisted personnel.
Some [enlisted] will have some college, there’s a small percent who have completed their degrees [which may be] right before they leave the military, but most don’t. Now they have the opportunity to get a degree after they leave the military, but if they don’t already have that you’re looking at a person who comes out of the military around age 24 or 25 – that’s your typical enlisted service member when they finish – so the first time they’ve ever had to apply for a job as an adult is in their mid-20s. So imagine that – your view of the civilian world ended when you’re 17 or 18 years old, now you’re in your mid-20s and there’s a big disconnect between what the job market expects and what they see as value.
At the same time, there’s a big ethos in the military that you don’t brag, you don’t talk about your achievements and you always talk about your team. It’s not about me, it’s about us. So when you combine this lack of awareness about what the job market expects and this almost required need to be humble, it doesn’t make you very competitive and you feel very shy talking about yourself and what you have to offer as an individual. So those two things combine to be problematic.
What about employers? Do their attitudes to veterans affect their ability to get a job?
There are these perceptions that hiring managers hold about who veterans are. And these are shaped largely by movies and TV, which is these are people who only know how to follow orders, they’re not creative, they’re automatons. They’re going to have a hard time fitting in because their hair is too short, their shoes are too shiny. Whatever it will be. And I’ve heard people say this behind closed doors: do they have post-traumatic stress disorder? Are they going to go postal? I hate to be crass, but I’ve heard people actually say that.
The example I used that I heard from a Marine who spoke at a prominent investment bank in New York. And [he was asked] ‘what about PTSD?’ And he said ‘let me ask you a question, were you down here in lower Manhattan during the attacks of 9/11’, and a lot of people nodded their heads. And he said ‘were any of you a little apprehensive about getting in an elevator after that? Or just coming back to work? Did you ever find yourself a little distracted and have a short attention span? Lose any sleep?’. And a lot nodded their heads. And he told them ‘you may have post-traumatic stress’, and it doesn’t mean you can’t do your job. It just means you may need some help to do it. And that go a lot of ‘ahhhs’ from everyone.
That’s not to say there aren’t vets with PTSD who are struggling to cope, but I am saying the vast majority of them can get through it and can be 100%, productive people. But you gotta work through that stigma.
Obviously being tied to the Call of Duty brand means you can use the games to help promote the Endowment. How can gamers help the Call of Duty Endowment veterans find work?
The in-game items are a tremendous source of revenue. It’s interesting because we learned from our own customer research that [those items are] also one of the best awareness drivers. So it’s not just raising funds to put vets in jobs, it’s also making gamers aware of the issue and what we’re doing about it. We also sell merchandise, so this year at GameStop we sold bottle openers that were Call of Duty themed. Again, every cent of profit that Activision-Blizzard received from that went directly to our grant fund.
Then there’s this event we do every year. You may be familiar with it, we call it the Race to Prestige where [Activision] give us the newest [Call of Duty] early and we stream with influencers and eSports gamers, we worked with OpTic Gaming last year. We stream it and encourage fans to donate, sit around talk and have a lot of fun. It’s been a great resource. Companies like Best Buy sponsor that event, so those funds all go to the Endowment.
The big question is – do you play Call of Duty much? And which one is your favorite?
I do play. I’m mainly a campaign mode guy because I’m just too slow for multiplayer! I get killed too easy, but I love it. I enjoy them all, I enjoy playing Infinite Warfare as much as I enjoyed Black Ops III. I like each game, but like I said I’m a campaign guy, though I do toy around with the zombie modes a bit.
Finally, what is something about the modern military that you find people often don’t know or understand?
[In the military] you meet people, like-minded people, from all walks of life. After 9/11 it changed a lot. I mean, if anything good came out of 9/11 it was that it brought in a better … more representative cross-section of America. Before that … there were so many sons and daughters of people who had previously served. But this call to serve became so ubiquitous after 9/11. It brought in a lot more diversity of thought; those that wouldn’t have considered it in a time of peace considered it. And I think that made us better. And it still does.