June 19th, 2024

Bob Woodruff Foundation: Where billionaires, celebrities, and the NFL go to support vets

By Sara Herschander Of The Chronicle Of Philanthropy, The Associated Press on April 9, 2024.

FILE - Bob and Lee Woodruff attend the 15th annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in New York. The Bob Woodruff Foundation, formed in 2006 to serve post-9/11 veterans and their families, has become a celebrity favorite with its annual fundraiser — headlined by Jon Stewart, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Springsteen — raising $84 million since it was founded and $14 million last year. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

When billionaire philanthropists, celebrities, global embassies, and the National Football League want to lend a helping hand to American veterans, they increasingly turn to one source: the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Formed in 2006 to serve post-9/11 veterans and their families after ABC news reporter Bob Woodruff was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, the organization has become a celebrity favorite with its annual comedy fundraiser – headlined by the likes of Jon Stewart, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Springsteen – raising $84 million since it was founded and $14 million last year alone.

Yet the Bob Woodruff Foundation has gained a reputation beyond its star-studded appeal. Through data savvy, niche grantmaking, and a membership network of over 100 veterans charities, it has become a go-to grantmaker for those looking to support veterans and military families.

“They know the field, and they could do a far better and faster job than I ever could,” said Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and one of the country’s most prominent philanthropists, who tapped the foundation to help dole out $100 million in grants for veterans groups last year.

Newmark isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for the organization’s approach. MacKenzie Scott donated $15 million, no strings attached, in 2022. Since 2018, the Qatar Embassy has provided over $10 million earmarked to help vets cope with the effects of Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Harvey. The NFL regularly leans on the foundation to distribute millions for its Salute to Service program, including the launch of a wheelchair football league in 2020.

What’s the Bob Woodruff Foundation’s secret? Is it just star power and savvy? Not entirely.

In 2018, the organization greatly expanded its network when it acquired Got Your 6, the largest nongovernmental coalition of veteran-serving charities in the United States. Originally founded by an Army vet in 2012, Got Your 6 (a military phrase for “got your back”) comprises 130 member organizations, including tiny workforce training centers and statewide veterans affairs agencies, reaching nearly every military family in the United States.

Woodruff’s organization regularly surveys its Got Your 6 members, many of whom are also grantees, to understand the gap between what veterans need and the extent to which local groups can meet those needs. It then uses that information – combined with the expertise of the foundation’s researchers, military families, and charities on the ground – to pinpoint the issues that government agencies or other grant makers might be leaving behind.

“We’re always careful that what we invest in complements what’s federally available. We won’t be redundant with the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense unless there are capacity challenges,” says Margaret Harrell, chief program officer at the Woodruff Foundation. “We don’t do something that’s already been done.”

In its latest survey, the organization found several gaps between what charities and government agencies can offer and what veterans need to protect their mental health, aid their families, and handle financial emergencies. In recent years, the nonprofit has placed particular focus on family issues by paying for fertility treatments for veterans – many of whom struggle with infertility as a result of their service – and funding children’s mental health services.

While data show a significant demand for child care, children’s mental health services, and spousal and intimate partner relations among military families, few charities are currently equipped to meet that demand.

Organizations, even small ones, can have an outsize impact on the population they serve by focusing on issues that others aren’t funding, says Kathleen Enright, president of the Council on Foundations: “It’s always great when a foundation recognizes what the scale of their resources is best positioned to do and calibrates that intentionally.”

The Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, for example, focuses exclusively on spinal cord injuries, while the Andy Warhol Foundation directs all of its resources toward experimental visual artists. That kind of specialization can ultimately “help philanthropy listen better” to grantees and their causes, says Enright.

To enhance its understanding of veteran-serving groups, the Bob Woodruff Foundation often hosts gatherings of policymakers, military families, and experts around specific issues, like financial assistance or PTSD. Those meetings often lead to new grant programs – but they also act as a crossroads for collaboration.

“I am often struck by the people we bring to the table who don’t already know one another when I think they should,” says Harrell of the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Around five years ago, when the NFL broached the idea of funding a football program for injured veterans, the Bob Woodruff Foundation reached out to Move United, a Got Your 6 member and the largest provider of adaptive sports programs in the United States. At the time, the country had no competitive league for wheelchair football.

So, “we went to the drawing board,” says Glenn Merry, executive director of Move United, who developed a proposal for what would later become the USA Wheelchair Football League, in which players across the country compete under the name of their local NFL team. With the support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation and the NFL’s Salute to Service partnership, more than 850 athletes and coaches – including 315 veterans – have competed in the league since 2020.

“We use the power of sport to push what’s possible for all of our athletes,” says Merry. The opportunity to “play as a team toward a single purpose” can help wounded veterans build both physical and mental resilience when they come home, he says.

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Sara Herschander is a reporter at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where you can read the full article. This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as part of a partnership to cover philanthropy and nonprofits supported by the Lilly Endowment. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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