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Case Study #10: Investing (and Investigating) Early

The Bob Woodruff Foundation

ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff left for Iraq in 2006 to embed as a reporter with American troops. While there, a roadside bomb exploded under his transport, leaving him with catastrophic injuries. Though he was a civilian, Woodruff was treated through the military-healthcare system because he sustained his injuries while covering the war effort. After spending 36 days in a coma, he began a lengthy recovery at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

It was here that Woodruff and his wife, Lee, found their motivation for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. “They realized the hospital was a special place as far as recuperation,” says Barbara Lau, who directs charitable investments for the foundation. “The resiliency and the spirit they saw on the part of Bob’s fellow patients inspired them.” Bob and Lee Woodruff decided to channel the outpouring of financial support they were receiving from friends and business associates in television news into the Bob Woodruff Foundation, founded in 2007, with a focus on helping servicemembers who had been through experiences like Bob’s.

The foundation soon found its niche in identifying at an initial stage promising investments on behalf of wounded post-9/11 servicemembers. Lau explains that “the Bob Woodruff Foundation doesn’t make large grants.” Instead it acts early to put a kind of philanthropic seal of approval on programs and organizations that appear to have a substantial upside.

The Bob Woodruff Foundation logged some initial wins by funding organizations like Student Veterans of America. SVA was just beginning when Woodruff gave it funding to hire a crucial staff member. The organization subsequently grew exponentially, and currently has active independent chapters on several hundred campuses. (See case 5 for details.)

Tens of thousands of nonprofits list veterans as one of their primary client populations, a number that increased tenfold in the past decade. There is lots of chaff mixed in with the grains of wheat. As an early actor in veterans philanthropy, the foundation has gone through a learning curve. “There are organizations we have funded in the past that we would not fund again today,” admits Lau.

Moreover, a dizzying array of new types of services is now being offered to veterans, servicemembers, and families—everything from art therapy to service dogs to adaptive sports. Many of these are not new, but their application to the military world is, and how useful they will be remains to be seen. So how can an experimental foundation identify promising openings in a field as young, broad, unconsolidated, and unproven as much of today’s philanthropy for veterans is?

One technique the Woodruff Foundation has used is to convene groups of operators and force them to hash out definitions and goals and criteria in new fields. For example, in 2011, the foundation received funding applications for several programs anxious to cycle veterans into perspective-changing “adaptive-sports” programs (which pull people with disabilities into activities like skiing, kayaking, cycling, hiking, etc.). After some research, Lau felt she didn’t know enough about the value of such activity to offer funding. Yet the potential seemed real.

So the Woodruff Foundation invited several dozen service providers, along with experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs, to explore the field’s possibilities. “The motivation was simply to learn what comprises a good adaptive sports program. So we got all these people together in a room,” Lau explains.

Over two days, for a relatively modest price tag of $40,000, attendees met in small groups to “talk about best practices, what really works, the actual number of people participating in these programs, versus the perceived wisdom that everybody bandies around.” Conclusions were compiled and “now we have a set of criteria that we can use in making decisions on which adaptive-sports programs we’re going to fund.”

The findings were also distributed to attendees and other interested parties, establishing for the first time a set of guidelines for adaptive-sports programs aimed at veterans. “The goal was to educate ourselves. But in the process we can also educate others,” says Lau.

A V.A. official attending the adaptive sports conference was so impressed he remarked, “Well, I had my PowerPoint and prepared remarks, but I’m throwing them out the window because we, the V.A., have learned so much in the past two days that we’re going to go back and fix some things.” Lau’s philosophy is that if a philanthropy can “get good people in a room together, then add some structure, guidance, and creativity, lots of good things can happen.”

How many other segments of veterans philanthropy might benefit from such gatherings of experts? Woodruff plans to stage one similar conference per quarter for the near future, on topics ranging from employment to art therapy to peer-to-peer mentoring to the use of service dogs for PTSD. Where only a few years ago, many funders would be forced to make a best guess as to which programs showed promise, the Woodruff Foundation is working to consolidate judgments to avoid mistakes and wasted effort.

When It’s Time to Ask for Something Fresh

As mentioned, Student Veterans of America benefitted from some savvy early giving by the Woodruff Foundation. After the foundation’s funding for staff helped SVA take off, the donor and service provider gradually entered into a continuing “open conversation.” Lau explains that “as part of our funding process we do so much research and talk to so many people, very often the questions we ask can spark some new thinking and direction.”

So eventually when SVA asked the Woodruff Foundation for continued staff funding, the foundation declined. But learning that SVA was planning a program to train students as peer mentors on mental-health issues, Woodruff jumped at the chance to support the work. Student Veterans of America had already partnered with the University of Michigan on a program to train upperclassmen at 10 SVA chapters to function as “mental health gatekeepers.” The university taught them to recognize depression and other problems, and to refer students to counseling resources.

A dizzying array of services is being offered to veterans. How can a foundation identify promising openings in a field as unconsolidated at this?

On receiving Woodruff’s encouragement, SVA and the University of Michigan geared up to expand the program. The foundation was an enthusiastic supporter. In Lau’s words, “Vets like to talk to other vets—yes, that’s true—so, let’s develop that in a structured way and give peer mentors the training they need to be successful.” Thus, what might have ended as a failed grant application in other places turned into a successful program enhancement.

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