“We Really Should Do Something.” How a Tech Giver Emerged as a Top Champion of Veterans

Glynnis Jones/shutterstock

Glynnis Jones/shutterstock

Three days before Veterans Day, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark was honored with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)’s Civilian Leadership Award. Newmark has served on the IAVA board for a decade and has emerged as a major supporter of veteran and military family causes in recent years. Not too long ago, I wrote about Craig Newmark Philanthropies’ $1 million grant to VetsinTech, helping veterans transition into meaningful careers in the cybersecurity and technology industries.

This time, on the heels of his leadership award, Newmark announced a $5 million donation to support IAVA’s work. He also challenged others to donate toward the organization’s target to raise $20 million by the end of Veterans Month in November. (IAVA has extended the challenge deadline to the end of 2018.) 

I recently spoke with Newmark and IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff about the big gift and the story behind it. In the process, I gained a better understanding of the current funding landscape around veterans issues, as well as the significance of Newmark’s emergence in this space.

Rieckhoff, an Amherst grad and former Wall Streeter, served for a few years in the army and was at Ground Zero on 9/11. He fought in Iraq during the first year of the war and when he returned home, felt his community was on the ropes. His squad leader lost both of his legs and was struggling through rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “The guys who I served with were facing challenges finding jobs, dealing with physical injuries. It all started with my unit, kind of crowdsourcing like you would do with an extended family.” Out of this, IAVA was born.

Rieckhoff says that Newmark’s support of the group has been critical—and unusual. “I think over the last 15 years, there’ve only been a couple of philanthropists that are on the level that Craig is on for veterans.” The IAVA founder mentioned the somewhat under-the-radar giving of David Gelbaum, who launched the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund (IADIF), which made more than $243 million in grants to over 50 non-profits from 2006 to 2010.

As Rieckhoff tells it, Gelbaum’s work was really during round one of investment in this space. But following his drawdown of veterans giving, there was a significant gap. And then Newmark stepped in. “Craig is building on that investment, and like Gelbaum, is challenging others, not just writing a check.”

Newmark first connected with IAVA more than 10 years ago, when he shared lunch with someone from the organization. Newmark says of his support that “the more and more I think that people who’ve been lucky in business, we need to stand up more for the people who’ve given up and sacrificed so much for us, and that includes vets of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also their families. They’ve all sacrificed a lot for us while we’re at home running businesses. We really should do something.”

Newmark explains that he was drawn to IAVA because it does “a lot to directly support recent costs of veterans and the challenges when they return, including getting jobs.” Over the years, Newmark has ramped up his involvement with the organization, gaining a deep understanding of some of the major issues facing veterans along with the way.

And while it might appear to some that philanthropy has been a steady ally of veterans’ issues, especially lately, Rieckhoff paints a different story. While he says that there was a rush into the veterans space a few years ago, especially on the corporate side, he calls some of this support “somewhat self-interested.”

“There was an expectation that vets were a good story, and that you could kind of clean up your brand if you aligned with veterans.” But more recently, says Rieckhoff, corporate support has waned. Meanwhile, he cites a study by the Center for a New American Security reporting that the needs within the veterans and military community have actually grown.

“The most important trend line is that philanthropy is actually down in this space and demand is up,” Rieckhoff says. “This space constitutes less than half of 1 percent of overall philanthropy. And we think that piece is actually shrinking. Corporate interest is dropping, foundation interest, I think, has gone down, because we were never part of core philanthropy for most foundations, we were like an add-on. And over the last year or so, we’ve seen some donors tell us that we’re not the urgent priority we were before because so many other causes are more threatened.”

Rieckhoff describes IAVA as a “veterans empowerment organization” that is able to connect people with resources, support and cultural competency. It’s also not afraid of a fight. For example, one issue now is around the Department of Veterans Affairs VA and GI bill payments. As many as 82,000 veterans may not have received GI Bill benefits for months due to IT issues. Rieckhoff calls it the “ultimate bureaucratic failure. We also consider it to be a broken promise.”

Rieckhoff, perhaps as prolific a tweeter as Newmark, has been sounding the alarm, trying to amplify this newsworthy story and advocating on Capitol Hill. And IAVA’s Rapid Response Team has stepped in to help veterans connect with resources.

Another issue, more well-known, is the effects of war on the mind. Rieckhoff frames the issue in terms of public health. There are approximately 20 million veterans in America plus their families. “Consider 30 million people with adverse health effects resulting from an experience. We’ve never lost so many young people in America to an issue since AIDS. We have friends dying from suicide all around us, and no one seems to understand.”

Burn pit exposure is another issue in the military community, related to the open-air burning of trash in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Toxic exposure to burn pits could impact as many as two-thirds of the community,” Rieckhoff says. Newmark added, “A lot of veterans are having their health impacted by having spent too much time around burn pits. Indeed, this may be the Agent Orange issue of our time.”

Ultimately, Rieckhoff hopes that Newmark’s call to action will galvanize other philanthropists. Because IAVA is nonpartisan, Rieckhoff notes that they’ve had support from people like Bernie Marcus on the one hand and Barbra Streisand on the other. More recently, some philanthropic leaders like Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation have also stepped into this space.

“I’m hoping that it will result in a trend where traditional philanthropy responds,” Rieckhoff says. “Groups like Robin Hood Foundation and others have come in a big way and then stepped back. There’ve been a lot of starts and stops. But what we really need is predictable, strategic investment so we can really plan effectively for what will be a lifetime of need.” This is where Newmark’s steady support has been critical.

Newmark has said that journalism is our country’s immune system; Rieckhoff says that veterans are our conscience. “We are the protectors of our values, we hold politicians are accountable, make sure real patriotism is what people honor,” he adds.

Related: Meaningful Careers: A Tech Giver Helps Pair Veterans With Cybersecurity Jobs