After a decade, the Call of Duty Endowment is hitting its stride when it comes to placing veterans into good jobs. Since 2012, the nonprofit group funded by the profits from Activision Blizzard’s popular Call of Duty video game series has placed more than 54,000 veterans into jobs.
The average salary for the jobs is $58,250, or 1.9 times the national average. And the cost of placing veterans in those jobs is $522 per person, or far lower than the cost it takes for the federal government to place people into jobs. Part of the thanks for this success goes to Dan Goldenberg, who joined the group in 2013 and brought management savvy to the charitable group, which was started by Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard.
Goldenberg was a nine-year Navy veteran who left the military and became a management consultant for a decade. But he decided he wanted to make a difference. He helped figure out a process for finding the most efficient veterans placement groups, and he gave them funding. And now the endowment is scaling up its work.
I spoke with Goldenberg at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade event in Los Angeles last week.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How long have you been running the endowment?
Dan Goldenberg: A little over six years, six-and-a-half years. Not quite since the beginning. It was formally launched in 2009. We’re heading toward our 10-year anniversary. 2013 is when I came in.
GamesBeat: Where did you come in from?
Goldenberg: I did 10 years in management consulting before this. Before that, I was active duty in the Navy for nine years. I got out literally a month before 9/11 and went to business school. That was literally my first day of business school. It was a rough day. I lost a couple of friends. As the dust was settling, I raised my hand and went back in the reserves. I’m still in the reserves today.
I spent 10 years in the commercial sector. While I was doing that, I was still in the reserves, and a lot of the sailors going to Afghanistan and Iraq were coming back and having a hard time finding jobs. I did what I could with my personal network to help them, but I felt like—I got a lot of value out of doing that, and hopefully they did too, more important. Then this opportunity came along, to do this on a much larger scale.
They were looking for a vet with a business background, not a non-profit person. I guess I fit the bill. The executives at the company who started this did an amazing job building infrastructure – legally, governance, fundraising, all that – but what they hadn’t cracked was how to find really good non-profits to work with. That’s where they brought me on. I’m a process guy. Trying to figure out—in a world where, at the time, there were 43,000 non-profits in the U.S. just focused on veterans, most of them well-intentioned, but very few of them having significant impact, how do we find the winners and help them scale up and do more?
That was the model we put in place. We partnered with Deloitte to execute this process we designed called the Seal of Distinction. It’s a rigorous assessment, looking at actual performance in terms of how many vets you placed in the job, the cost per placement, and most important, the quality of the placement. Then looking at the organizations themselves in terms of financial health, doing background checks on key employees, making sure they have policies and procedures in place to take good care of their people and comply with the law. That’s what we partnered with Deloitte to do, to find the winners. It’s worked well.
2009 to 2013, we funded the placement of about a thousand vets in jobs. We came out of the wilderness after that. Since then it’s been more than 50,000. It was a sort of hockey stick moment in 2013, once we implemented the system. Deloitte’s been amazing. Every year, pro bono, they’ve been an amazing partner. Our cost to place vets in jobs is 1/6 of the Department of Labor’s efforts because of this. We’ve found not just the organizations that can do it well, but that can do it cost-effectively. Their cost is something like $3,100 per placement.
GamesBeat: What sort of preparation goes into making vets more employable?
Goldenberg: It’s really interesting. Your typical veteran—we’ll help any veteran, period. Anybody who’s served, period. However, those who really need the most help are what we call first-term enlisted, people right out of high school who raise their hands and go in, 17 or 18 years old. They’re coming out when they’re 21, 22, 23, and interviewing for a job for the first time. Or they go to college and get a degree, but it’s four years later. They’re 27 years old and interviewing for their first real job. They don’t know what to do at every stage.
Some people, it’s easier than others. You have someone, for instance—if they’re in logistics in the Marine Corps, they’re a pretty natural fit for supply chain if that’s what they want to do in the civilian world. But only half of service members want to do in the civilian world what they did in the military. The first step, for most of them, is helping them figure out what they want to do. That involves intensive counseling. It’s not something you can automate. Once that’s figured out, is there an intersection between that and the skill set and education and experience they have?
If there is, we can move to resume preparation, which they’ve never had to do before, and interview prep and that kind of stuff. If there’s not, we need to plan to get you trained and educated and experience. Maybe it’s about doing an internship. Imagine going to a 27-year-old and saying, “You need to do an internship.” What? That’s for kids. But you need to do it. A lot of that requires what’s sometimes tough-love counseling. “I know you want to be in a rock and roll band, but you have no musical talent. Maybe we should try something else.” It takes a certain kind of person to be able to have that conversation.
The counseling, the resume prep, interview prep, and then working with companies, especially companies where we know they’ll be a good fit. Fit is important because if you place a vet who’s either unhappy, or the company’s unhappy because of the placement, that relationship obviously doesn’t continue. It doesn’t serve anyone. High fit is important as well. All of our partners are good at cultivating relationships with companies that tend to have success stories on both sides.
Translating military-speak into business-speak is another one. You come out of the military and that’s all you know, that doesn’t necessarily translate into what a recruiter is looking to hear. Two days ago I had a conversation with a combat vet who’s a freelance journalist now. He was frustrated. He was trying to get more corporate jobs, and he was frustrated with not being able to get his foot in the door. He’s been published in very high-profile publications, and he can’t understand why he can’t get a corporate comms job. I said, “Your pieces are great, but your resume does a horrible job selling you. It’s a list of everything you’ve done, but half of that list is what you did in the military. I know what that means, but when you take that resume to a hiring manager who’s trying to fill a hole in your team, it’s not clear to them what that means.”
This guy was a good writer. He just didn’t understand the language of hiring. I said to him, “It looks like you were in so many jobs you can’t stay put. In reality it’s a really good progression within the military, but a hiring manager doesn’t know that. You need a functional resume.” It’s a question of perspective. There’s some basic stuff. Saying, “I’m an 1835 in the Navy” means nothing to most civilians. But there’s more subtle stuff like this, where a listing of everything you’ve done is not going to get you the job. We need to distill out the values that companies will find useful.
Another thing we hear a lot from junior enlisted members, especially in the infantry, is “I’m just a door-kicker. I can’t imagine what a company would want from me.” Well, let’s talk about it. Do you have leadership experience? You led a fireteam of 12 people in combat and you’re 20 years old. That’s pretty good. Did you have to manage equipment and resources? Sure. You had weapons, ammo allotment, food, all this stuff. Have you ever interacted with other cultures? All the time in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa. All of a sudden they start to see that these might be things that are valuable. It’s a lot of that process.
GamesBeat: How do they feel about the Call of Duty connection? Does it surprise them that a video game is involved in helping them?
Goldenberg: They’re usually like, “Hey, this is really cool.” It was even a little surprising to me. I’m a vet myself, obviously, but recently I got to go to Kuwait and see the guys 60 miles from Iraq. Seeing these men and women at this forward operating base, not much out there, what do they do in their down time? They play games. They play Call of Duty, and other games too, to be fair. It’s what they do to blow off steam.
I think they value it. They know we’ve been at this a long time. We’re not a Johnny-come-lately in terms of our support for veterans. The endowment is probably the biggest calling card for that, because of the results we’ve had, because of the money the company’s put against it, but I think they know it’s embedded in our ethos. We work hard to get things right. The thing that’s not widely known is we’re very, very lean. The endowment is basically one and a half full-time employees. But that doesn’t show the whole picture at all. There are scores of employees at the company in every function who volunteer their time to help. Marketing, PR, supply chain, legal, IT, it’s really amazing. I have no problem, within the company, getting people to help. It’s a real commitment across the board.
GamesBeat: Within the industry, how many connections would you say there are to all of these other companies? Do you place people in the game industry?
Goldenberg: It’s a good question. It’s something we don’t—we collect a lot of data. Obviously we fund our grantees and they’re doing the hiring. We get quarterly performance updates from each of them. What I get from them is, aside of cost per placement, average salary, retention rates, some demographic information like male/female or enlisted/officer—I get top three industries, but I don’t get a list of companies, anything like that.
GamesBeat: What does the endowment’s money go to, then?
Goldenberg: Every cent we raise goes directly to the grants that fund the employment programs. One of the cool things is, Activision Blizzard covers all of our overhead, so every cent we raise through in-game items and things like that goes directly to these employment grants. 90 percent of that money, on average, goes to hiring employment counselors.
The money starts here, and then we disburse it out to companies that we’ve vetted. The initial vetting process I was telling you about that we do with Deloitte, the Seal of Distinction process, that’s the way in for charities to have access to our funds. Once you have that we’ll work with you. We won’t give grants to any organization that hasn’t been through that process. Once they’ve been through the process, then we have a conversation about restricted grants. Our average grant size is about $500,000 annually. The money is restricted just to veteran employment programs these organizations run.
Roughly speaking, about 90 percent—if we give an organization $1 million, about $900,000 is going to go to hiring counselors who do this work. They, in turn, have other costs, like marketing their services to veterans and travel and all this other stuff. In some cases they have training costs. A lot of times there isn’t training involved, but about half of them do things to either offset or completely cover the cost of training for veterans, when they need it. Sometimes it’s just some focus. Where do you want to work? You already have what it takes. We just have to get you to become a better billboard for yourself. All of our funds, every dime we raise that the endowment gets, goes directly to these grants.
GamesBeat: What enabled the scaling up to happen in 2013?
Goldenberg: That point right there was when we put the Seal of Distinction approach in place. Prior to that, honestly, we were doing what most companies do. We were going to big-name non-profits and working with them. The usual suspects in the space. It just wasn’t working. Taking this more business-minded approach, where we’ve got to be accountable to results—in the philanthropic world, the corporate philanthropic world, it’s split 50-50. There are people who believe that you write the check and if you ask for anything else from the charity, you’re not really being charitable.
We don’t believe that. We believe that if we get involved and really go deep—it’s why this is all we do. We do veteran employment. We don’t do health care issues or social integration issues or education. We focus on employment because we understand it and we can work with our grantees. By going deep with them, we understand what’s going on and we can be more helpful on a lot of levels.
What happened here was, we weren’t going deep, and we realized that. We said, “Okay, we have to understand this.” We did this root cause analysis. Where are the problems? Where is the minefield, if you will, on the route to getting a quality job? Once we figured out where vets were having problems, we said, “This is the profile of the organizations we need to find when we want to solve these problems.” That’s what we went after with our Seal of Distinction approach. When we found the organizations that could hit the metrics we were looking for, that’s when it all changed.
The other thing that’s cool, and it goes back to your earlier question about where the money goes, when you find the right organizations there’s an incredible scalability. If you have a strong management team that’s heading in the right direction, the route to scaling is adding counselors. It’s not adding more overhead. That’s where, all of a sudden, our costs started going down and the number of vets we were able to fund into jobs went up.
GamesBeat: How much of a dent are you making now in the problem? How many vets are still underemployed?
Goldenberg: To the best of our knowledge, we’re the largest private funder of veteran employment out there. Haven’t found anyone else who’s doing as much. Other organizations are adequate, but—we know that roughly 200,000 to 250,000 service members leave the military every year. We also know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rate is not reflective of the reality on the ground.
The story behind this is, years ago a reporter asked me, “Hey, the unemployment rate seems to be going down, and the opportunities companies are offering for veterans seem to be increasing, but we still seem to have a lot of activity here. What’s going on?” We thought the same thing. We saw that, year on year, there was as much of a 30 percent increase in demand from vets asking for help from our grantees, at the same funding level. Why is demand going up when the unemployment rate is going down?
We dug into it. There’s a company called ZipRecruiter, which happens to be in Santa Monica as well. They said, “You guys know the veteran employment space. We’re seeing this weird thing in our database. We’re seeing a lot more veterans seeking jobs than we would have expected, much more than the representation in the population.” Together we did this study on underemployment, because that was the hypothesis. A lot of vets have jobs, but they’re working two or three and just not getting by. In fact, that proved to be the case. We found out that one in three veterans were underemployed. Veterans were 16 percent more likely than non-veterans to be underemployed.
That was one thing. The other thing was that the government statistics themselves—we have the U.S. unemployment rate, and then a subset of that is the veteran unemployment rate. All that is on the CPS, which is the monthly government survey that the census runs. For the population they’re interviewing, they ask if you’re a veteran, and if you self-identify, that data is tagged as the veteran unemployment rate.
Here’s the real problem. The U.S. unemployment rate is based on the following question they ask. Last week, were you paid for work? That’s it. If you say yes – last week, I was paid for work – you’re counted as fully employed. That’s the U.S. unemployment rate. Who falls into that? You mowed your neighbor’s lawn for 50 bucks, then you were paid for work last week. If you’re a barista five hours a week, you were paid for work. If you’re a Guardsman, a reservist, and you drilled last week, but you don’t have a civilian job? You get that too. Those are the kinds of people we’re looking at. It’s insensitive to the quality of employment. That’s where we’d like to see things go.
The shitty, shitty answer here is, there isn’t a good number telling us how bad the problem is. All we know is we continue to get lots of veterans seeking help from our partners. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with really impressive people coming out of the military saying, “I’m not sure what my next step should be, so I’ll reach out to the usual suspects, defense contractors, and I’ll just take a job there.”
There’s a friend of mine—again, the majority of people we help are junior enlisted folks, but I’ll give you this example. Hornet pilot of the year. Test pilot of the year. F/A-18 squadron commander in combat. Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins. He was going to take one of these cubicle jobs at a big defense contractor. I’m like, “You’ve led hundreds of people in a combat situation. You’ve flown more than 100 aircraft. I think there are other places you could go that would value what you’ve done.” It took what was almost an intervention to get him to look at it.
His story ended happily. He’s working for an aircraft startup in Idaho. He’s involved with design and testing and marketing of aircraft, which he loves to do. If he’d gone to this big defense contractor, he would have been the program manager for a black box that plugs into a plane. There’s getting over that fear that says, “I just need to get something.” It’s a real thing. Helping them see a path to bigger success.
GamesBeat: Have you placed anyone at Activision?
Goldenberg: Last I checked, we have well over 100 vets in the company. At first I was curious to—I went back to HR and said, “Where are they landing in the company?” There’s this impression that they’ll be pigeonholed in one place. The cool story is, they’re everywhere, in every function. The two biggest, interesting enough, are IT and art. IT, not so surprising, really. A lot of great technically skilled people come out of the military. But art was really interesting, because part of the stereotype is, if you’re a military person you don’t have a creative bone in your body, and that’s absolutely not true.
We were talking about our theme a bit. We’re working with a veteran artist, a very well-known artist, on an upcoming in-game item. This guy is brilliantly creative. He was a grunt in the Marine Corps. You just never know. Getting companies to realize that, and getting veterans to realize that about themselves, that these possibilities are out there—you’re not limited by what you did in the military. That’s really cool and helpful.
GamesBeat: How much money has the endowment raised altogether, between in-game items and clothing and everything else?
Goldenberg: We’re selling stuff like these shirts to raise money for the endowment. It’s brand new. We just opened that store last week. People don’t know it, but this is actually endowment-owned art. It’s become a kind of meme, unfortunately. The art was kind of stolen by a couple of people who will remain nameless. But you can google that. That’s one thing.
We’ve been selling digital items in games to benefit the endowment since Black Ops III. I’d have to go back and look to get you the number. I don’t have it off the top of my head. But it’s in the millions. The in-game items are the biggest revenue stream for the endowment. The second biggest, a close second, is through our partnerships with other companies. GameStop has been an amazing partner. Costco has been terrific. Those are our two biggest. GameStop has done this great in-store donation program the last three years. When you check out, you can donate, that kind of thing. They’ve been great partners. I’m sure you know Humble Bundle. Those guys have been amazing partners for the last three years too. Historically, we’ve had some charity fundraisers online, if you ever heard of the Race to Prestige, or last year’s CoD Nation Challenge. We work with influencers and streamers. That’s been great.
One of the things that drives me nuts, especially in tech, or in corporate giving in general—a couple of years ago I was at an event at Stanford. I was really excited, because there were a lot of ultra-high-net-worth people in the room, a lot of people in the venture world. This professor gets up and he says, “At the end of the day, you just gotta find something you’re passionate about and go out and write a check.” I was shocked. I could not disagree more. There’s no reason why people who’ve been successful in the business world should check their smarts at the door when it comes to charity.
I think we’ve proven out that if you actually—this isn’t rocket science, but if you require a bit of accountability and you set goals, just like you would in business, you can have huge social impact. That’s what worries me a bit. There’s a lot of what I call fire-and-forget checks written in the corporate world. Have the ceremony with a big check – by the way, we don’t do that – and that’s it. We’re checking in on a quarterly basis with everyone. If any of these non-profits gets off course—we give them a goal associated with the funding every year. If they go off track, we help coach them back on. If we can’t, and we work pretty hard to do that, we don’t work with them again. Just like you would with a vendor or anyone else. We hold people accountable.
There’s a lot of good in gaming. I’m not seeing as much of that kind of responsibility on the back end. It’s not enough to raise money. You have to stick around to see what happens to that money. That’s my two cents, but I was kind of horrified in that room. I felt like, “No! We want you to be passionate, absolutely, but we also want you to use your business smarts to help your cause do better.”