Creating an Ecosystem of Aid for Servicemembers

  • Prosperity
  • 2006

Three years into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, hedge-fund co-founder David Gelbaum walked into the California Community Foundation, put $105 million into a fund, and asked that it be funneled to troops and their families in ways that would help them cope with family separations, recover from injuries incurred in battle, or make successful transitions into civilian life after their military service. He later added another $138 million, and a few stipulations: He wanted all the money sent out the door within three years. He wanted it to go to direct service, not studies or institution-building. And he wanted to do it all anonymously (which he managed to achieve for several years).

$243 million is a lot of money to spend that quickly, particularly in veterans philanthropy, which at that point was a new and very lightly trafficked field. Gelbaum and his staff began by allying themselves with the blue-chip player in this arena—the foundation run by the Fisher family, which blazed the trail for veterans giving, starting two decades previous (see 1990 entry on our list of achievements in Medical philanthropy). Gelbaum’s fund gave $43 million to various projects launched by the Fishers. This led to three large accomplishments: It provided lead funding for the Center for the Intrepid, a groundbreaking rehabilitation center in San Antonio for military amputees and burn victims. It helped create the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which researches, diagnoses, and treats traumatic stress and brain injuries. And it paid for the construction of eight new Fisher Houses (home-like no-cost housing for family members who are caring for injured servicemembers as they recover at medical centers).

The rest of Gelbaum’s money was distributed in scores of smaller grants. Some went to existing local organizations that offer veterans job training, counseling, and economic assistance. Some went to new ventures like the educational TV programs made by the creators of “Sesame Street” to help children adjust to the deployment of their military parents. One gift built up a group called TAPS (Tragedy Assistance for Survivors) that provides emotional support to grieving family members after a wartime loss.

Some of the money was also redistributed to other community foundations around the country serving areas with lots of military families. Foundations in Texas and Florida, for instance, each received $45 million to distribute for pressing war-related needs in their home regions. The Dallas Foundation used one allocation to set up some well-used mental-health counseling for families living around Fort Hood.

David Gelbaum’s gift was the largest single philanthropic measure benefiting those who served in the U.S. military after the 9/11 attacks. It opened entirely new doors to a population in need. As a result there is now a whole ecosystem of charities serving members of the military, their families, and veterans.