The following is a conversation between Art delaCruz, CEO of Team Rubicon, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Team Rubicon serves communities by mobilizing veterans to continue their service, leveraging their skills and experience to help people prepare, respond, and recover from disasters and humanitarian crises. And by focusing on underserved or economically disadvantaged communities, they seek to make the largest impact possible. And here to tell us more about what they do and how they have responded to the COVID crisis, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Art delaCruz, the chief executive officer of Team Rubicon.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Art!
Art: Thank you for having me, Denver. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Denver: Share with us some of the history of Team Rubicon. How did you guys get started in the first place?
Art: Well, I think one of the things you find common to organizations like ours is that oftentimes in crisis, there are new innovations. And Team Rubicon was born after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, one of the worst humanitarian crises we’ve seen, when a guy named Jake Woods, who had recently left the Marine Corps as a sniper, took a look at the devastation as he was preparing to go to business school and said, “You know what? This looks familiar.” The devastation, the ambiguity, the need for services is familiar to what he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he set out to find a way to put his boots on new ground in Haiti. And after reaching out to a bunch of different organizations and finding that they weren’t ready for his size 16 boots or whatever they are, he said, “Well, you know what? I will make my way down there.”
And that was kind of the genesis of Team Rubicon. Eight people– understanding that they could potentially have an impact after a terrible natural disaster and evolving humanitarian crisis, they decided that they could make a difference. And that was kind of the genesis of Team Rubicon.
Denver: Really cool. Before we get into your work, I was just reminded of a conversation I had with somebody who said, “If you ever want to know about the culture of an organization, go back to its founding because it’s baked into the DNA of the organization, at its founding.” Would that hold true for Team Rubicon? And if so, how would that be the case?
Art: Yes. I think it’s completely true, and I think it actually dives a layer deeper. One of the things in the introduction there is we’re a veteran-led organization. From our inception, we have adopted and taken the greatest things out of the military, and those are organizations steeped in traditions 200-plus years old. And when you can bring some of those artifacts, you can bring some of those practices, you can bring some of that identity into an organization that has Jake and these people who deployed to Haiti and say, “Let’s take some of those practices and the unique things we learned and find a way to apply them in these situations to make a difference.”
So, I think it’s completely true. And we’re fortunate to be able to dive a layer deeper and center it on what I think is another piece of it, which is just this idea that through service, we can have these virtuous outcomes that help people in need.
Denver: Very cool. Art, why don’t you explain for listeners the disaster relief industry – what it does well, where are the weaknesses, and some of the contributions your organization has made over the years to make that industry better and more effective.
Art: I’m happy to do that, Denver. And I think I’d drive a little bit deeper than just disaster response… relief, and probably broaden it to disaster services. As I think everyone knows, we have seen that the severity of disasters, natural disasters specifically, continue to increase; the cost for disasters continue to increase; the populations that are in areas that are likely to be impacted by disasters continue to increase. So, the industry – it’s a rich market.
First off, there is more work than every organization we have could currently tackle at this moment in time. So, the most important part of your question there about kind of the disaster industry writ large is: there’s a shortage of providers and an abundance of disasters. And I think that drives some of what ideally happens in these disasters is it relies on partnership. It relies on connections between every entity of the government, to a local population, to volunteer organizations, to churches, to communities, to schools, you name it. Any part of the population in a disaster-stricken area is going to be engaged in some way, either by providing services and helping, or needing services.
So that’s kind of the second piece of it. There’s an abundance of things, and then all these disasters generally kind of happen locally and are solved locally. And what Team Rubicon tries to do is we center our unique piece of that market in finding the people who need it the most. And that typically, we use the Social Vulnerability Index which says based on census data, this is the first leading indicator of people who are going to be adversely affected by a natural disaster and have kind of the greater impact and the most need. So, we use that to guide application of our limited resources to those who need it the most, and that is part of our advantage. And what we do when we go into these situations is we also decide: Let’s do what we do best and partner for the rest.
I think a great example is we’ll go into a disaster site, and where the Red Cross might take care of immediate housing and feeding needs, we won’t meet them at the disaster shelter, we’ll be at a client’s home trying to figure out how to muck out a flooded home to get rid of all the wet materials inside of it to make sure that it’s now safe and livable and stabilized for that family. So, partnership is a huge piece of it, and shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of agencies and hundreds of different things is, kind of, I think the ideal state, the Nirvana state, where it’s, again, everyone bringing the resources, the talent, and the experience they can to help people on their worst day.
Denver: It sounds like you don’t go in there with any set prescription. You look to see what’s going on. You look to see what the partners around you are doing, and then you say ‘Here’s the place where we can provide some added value.’ And that’s really change and that’s what really makes you guys unique.
Art: Yes. I think that’s a big piece of it. It’s being very, very surgical in the application of the services you have. I think the other piece of it is also in velocity and how quickly can you get there. And being able to get there quicker means you have relationships; you have availability of information to understand where the damage is. And therefore, because you understand the damage, you can match up volunteers, the skills that they have, and their availability to be able to surge into that situation as quickly as possible because again, those first hours are really, really important.
We are unique in that the veteran is not the object of our mission. We are not there like other VSOs, veteran service organizations, to deliver services to veterans. The veteran is the agent of our mission.
Denver: For sure. Well, beyond the disaster, let’s talk a little bit about the veterans, and what does Team Rubicon mean to them being part of this network, this organization.
Art: One of the things that Jake figured out in Haiti and over the course of our almost 11 years of existence is we are unique in that the veteran is not the object of our mission. We are not there like other VSOs, veteran service organizations, to deliver services to veterans. The veteran is the agent of our mission.
Denver: That’s a great distinction.
Art: So if you can imagine, and this is one of the things that we find is: a veteran is someone who’s graduated from a service and they’ve got these muscles that they want to exercise. And it’s leadership. It’s crisis management. It is this kind of built-to-serve mentality, whatever it might be. We can drop them into these ambiguous situations, and they’re able to organize volunteers. They’re able to follow safety protocols. They’re able to follow process. They’re able to take care of one another, and that’s really, really beneficial in a disaster zone.
And what we find is one of our primary customers, if not the primary customer, are our volunteers. Our volunteers are military veterans. They’re firefighters. They’re EMTs. They’re police officers. They’re civilians. But we have to deliver to those volunteers in this value proposition that your time is going to be engaged in a meaningful manner, that the work you do will make a difference and you’ll be able to connect to it, that the experience you have will eliminate as many barriers as we can to make sure that you become a repeat customer for Team Rubicon and serving people after disasters.
Denver: That’s really interesting you look at it that way because I had somebody on the program the other day, and they said marketing is the promise that you make to the customer, and your employees are the people who deliver on that promise. And you’ve looked at, if I may call them your “employees” so to speak even though they’re volunteers, as the ones who deliver on the promise. And companies and organizations are just beginning to figure that out now… you know what I mean? That those are the key people. And without them, you can’t get the job done, and you guys were a decade ahead in realizing that is in fact the case.
Art: And I’d even take it a step further, Denver. And the way I like to explain it –we actually just had an onboarding with five new employees– is Team Rubicon, the way I frame it for people is: I and my executive team and every full-time staff member we have, we run a marketplace. It’s like a farmer’s market. And a good farmer’s market, people come week after week. There are transactions that happen that are completely different… People bringing vegetables and leaving with dairy or bringing money and leaving with flowers, whatever it might be, but it happens over and over again.
And in our construct of our marketplace, we take our marketplace, and we put it in a disaster-stricken area. The community that has been impacted? They’re part of that marketplace. What can we deliver to them so they welcome us back another time? The government, that’s a part of that. Can we deliver value to the citizens and the government of that locality? Can our volunteers enter this marketplace, understand that they’re giving time, but they’re leaving with this sense of accomplishment and impact is a big piece of it? Our employees are the same way. I don’t care if they’re remote and up in Seattle and the disaster is in, I don’t know, Florida. My hope is that they can connect and understand that in that transaction, they’re giving value and getting value.
And finally, and I think this is also really important, are the people who donate or I like to say invest in our organization, I need them to understand that their dollar isn’t just for that disaster. It becomes a person who’s trained to use a chainsaw, that if we do this right in our delivery of value to that customer, in that case the volunteer, they’ll come back year after year after year after year. Their dollar becomes a legacy of impact in communities across the country, done properly.
Denver: Your money just keeps on working. Even if you don’t give any more, it just keeps on working because that person will be able to do it over and over again. Now, do you have to be a veteran to volunteer with Team Rubicon?
Art: No, we are inclusive. We like to say we’re a veteran-led organization, and we take the things that are great about the military and we inculcate those, and they become part of our cultural values, but we’re not running people through bootcamp here. We’d love to have people from different walks of life – civilians from the community, spontaneous volunteers, military veterans, of course, first responders.
And what we find as well, and this is a beautiful by-product, is with such a small percentage of U.S. population being military is, there is no better place to have a conversation between a civilian and a military veteran than when you’re working side by side for eight hours in a house that’s been absolutely destroyed, or in a field getting rid of fuel for a mitigation operation out west. So, it’s a really nice ability there to learn about the people that you’re volunteering with.
Denver: For sure. Art, how has the operational focus of Team Rubicon U.S.A. expanded since COVID-19, and what are some of the things you guys have been doing?
Art: You know, it’s funny. I think in the history books– and our goal is to build an organization that’s going to last a hundred years– is: I think what happened in March of 2020 will be a good chunk of the formulative pivot for the organization.
So, on March 12 of 2020, when they declared the national emergency because of COVID, Team Rubicon had our Apollo 13 moment where we said, “All right, throw what we have on the table, and Team Rubicon can either thrive in COVID, which means we will find a way to apply the skills, experience, tools, process, and energy we have to help people in this disaster; or we can hibernate and wait for it to be over.” And we saw a lot of organizations that initially started to hibernate, thinking that after spring break, this thing will blow over, we’ll be good to go. And we surged to it. We broke the organization up and created these task forces and we said, “What can we do?”
And we took some of the principles we had for disaster response. We ended up doing medical decompression. We ended up running testing sites. We ended up surging to support feeding operations in 235 cities where the primary volunteers were now in the high-risk category because they were over the age of 65, and we have a young population of volunteers, and we surged in. When the Navajo Nation was ravaged by not just the virus but the fact that their hospital staff was severely undermanned, we were able to reach in and find people who were able to surge there.
And then as we got into the end of 2020, unique to this disaster is, we said, “This is a unique disaster because it’s one that we have an answer to and that’s to convert vaccines to vaccinations.” So, we launched into vaccine distribution. We helped queue up sites. We went to really, really remote places to deliver vaccinations, in some cases going door to door to deliver to people who were homebound.
And then most recently, we pivoted the organization when we were asked by the State Department if we could support Afghan resettlement. We ran all of the distribution of donated goods across the bases as they resettled our Afghan allies, and we’ll continue to do that as they begin to pivot into cities across the country and their resettlements.
So, when we threw that on the table, it wasn’t carbon dioxide that we’re getting out of the capsule, it was: What will move the needle for these communities and people that need our help?
Denver: Let me ask you a little bit about vaccination hesitation on the part of veterans. You guys have been trying to engage with that. What have you been doing, and then how successful have you been?
Art: I think a good starting point is veterans are a mirror of our population. There are similar pieces of our society that have these different beliefs. We actually coalesced a group of five other veteran service organizations, nonprofits, called the Veteran Coalition for Vaccination. We created a campaign in coordination with a nonprofit called AdTech Cares and the National Ad Council. And in billboards from Times Square to far-flung places, this “call to arms” is what we call it, and it was literally people rolling up their sleeves; and similar to Rosie the Riveter and with that, kind of World War II vibe, our call to action is to get vaccinated.
And I think what’s interesting about that veteran piece of it is our veterans, from day one at bootcamp, understand that the strength of the chain is dependent on the weakest link. For a sailor like me, that concept of “You’re only as good as the person to your left and your right, and they’re only as good as what you can do” is a lot of what we pitched. This is not an individual action. This is not about the “me”; this is about the “we.” How does getting vaccinated help your grandmother or your kid that is unable to get the vaccination?
So that’s really what we pushed, and the primary messenger for that was other veterans. So, we held a lot of different trust campaigns. We called them “Vax Me Anything.” And we had a chief medical officer that was a combat surgeon talking with people. We had veterans lend their voices just to, at the very least, ensure that they make the best informed decision they can.
Don’t think of a veteran as they were– an infantry man or a tanker, a pilot or a nurse. Think of the veteran as someone who’s graduated from a different kind of school, because if you can look at it as and envision a military career, however long it is, as attendance to different courses – crisis management, safety, process adherence, timeliness, all of these different things – it’s easier to digest the skills, the experience, and the education that a military veteran can bring across all of the different points of their transition.
Denver: And you got politics out of it, and I think that’s been part of the problem. Once this vaccination becomes political, people kind of dig in, but when it becomes peer to peer, you look at it a little bit differently, and hopefully we’ll take the action that is in everybody’s best interest. Tell us a little bit about the Clay Hunt Fellows Program.
Art: So the Clay Hunt Fellows Program originated through Jake Wood, again, our co-founder. His sniper partner lost his battle. He committed suicide, and it became a catalyst for our Clay Hunt Fellowship, which is essentially an opportunity for veterans to understand who they are and what they can be. It’s a journey of self-discovery and application. It’s a journey for turning inward, which I think is something that a lot of people don’t necessarily do. And then this understanding that everyone can live a purposeful and meaningful and impactful life, but it takes first this opportunity to understand yourself. So, we bring in cohorts on a regular basis; they run through a program of self-discovery and then understanding their strengths and weaknesses and how to apply them as they move forward.
I think another really nice by-product of the Clay Hunt Fellowship, and this is something that we emphasize all the time is: people have this vision that the veteran transition is that moment in time where you take off your uniform and you put on your next uniform – it’s a suit, it’s scrubs, a reflective vest, whatever it is. I would argue that the transition is a lifelong thing for a veteran. I have been retired for eight years. I am in multiple transitions, be it home life and jobs and locations, all of these different things. So that’s a big deal.
And one of the things that we have begun to describe that veteran in that transition is: Don’t think of a veteran as they were– an infantry man or a tanker, a pilot or a nurse. Think of the veteran as someone who’s graduated from a different kind of school, because if you can look at it as and envision a military career, however long it is, as attendance to different courses – crisis management, safety, process adherence, timeliness, all of these different things – it’s easier to digest the skills, the experience, and the education that a military veteran can bring across all of the different points of their transition.
Denver: Do you think employers are beginning to wake up to that fact?
Art: I don’t know. I think, not unlike other things, there’s this stereotype of a military veteran. There’s this stereotype that they’re objects of charity. There’s this stereotype that they’re broken after coming back from all of these different battles, versus this other narrative of : it’s untapped potential. They could be the greatest generation if you find a way to apply it. And I think that’s where employers need to make that bet. They have to bet that these classes these men and women took, they might not be exactly what I was looking for in those requirements and the job description, but I bet you they’ll learn. I’ll bet you they’ll apply these other skills like leadership in a way that other people necessarily can, and they’ll go out there and do it.
So, my hope is that, and through mediums like yours– and again I appreciate you having me on your podcast– is we begin to understand that you look for the reasons to say “yes” and understand that that investment will pay off, instead of finding and identifying the barriers that get you to “no” when you make that employment decision.
Denver: I think to a degree that the veterans are broken, it’s kind of a narrative sometimes, unfortunately, the media loves to play up. They don’t play up nearly as often the success stories, but this is what—I mean I wouldn’t even apply it to veterans, I’d apply it to everything the media does. It’s just like the worst thing that can happen, let’s go with that. And that can sometimes just reinforce non-existent stereotypes as you mentioned before. But I’ll tell you, being a veteran, I guess, leaves an imprint. And I was impressed when Bob Dole said the other day, I saw that tape, he’s had a lot of titles. He said the one that he’s most proud of is “veteran,” and I thought—I was really touched by that.
I believe that you said, Art, that you do not fully appreciate or understand how important the role of running an organization like Team Rubicon is and how challenging it can be. Talk a little bit about that and what you’ve kind of learned as you’ve gone through this role.
Art: So, I’ve had the fortune of having a somewhat diverse career – 22 years in the military, time in private industry, a fellowship with a leading consulting firm. And my view of running an organization, specifically the nonprofit I’m at right now, is: I have to run it, and I have to build talent, and I have to have strategies and philosophies that would rival a Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 company.
And the way I like to explain it is: we are not a nonprofit. I think calling an organization and categorizing them as a nonprofit from a business perspective does a disservice to the way it’s run. It’s an accounting, an auditing type of function. And I like to…
Ultimately, it’s about having impacts in the field. My quarterly better say ‘Your dollar became these kinds of outputs in communities that had no other option, and we delivered the outcomes that they needed at that moment in time,’ a for-impact organization and communities across the country and around the world.
Denver: And also, if I may add, it says what they’re not, it never says what they are. Who said you make a profit? Well, that’s great. You know what I mean? What color is it? It’s not blue. It doesn’t do it justice.
Art: Yeah. And I think that’s a perfect segue for the way I describe it. I tell people, I go: listen: I run a for-impact organization. I don’t create dividends. I don’t drive shareholder value, but every dimension in that marketplace we started with, I better create value. I better be able to take resources and turn them into positive outcomes in a community impacted by natural disaster. I better be able to take donors and say, ‘Your investment is paying off, and it’s paying off because I built a standing army of men and women that are ready to deploy to help people after this. We’ve taken and injected new capabilities and skills into them. We’ve helped enhance their leadership, and they’re at the ready.’
And as a for-impact organization, how do I judge that? For my employees, if they get poached by other companies because they say, ‘Wow! You have accountability and responsibility and scope of mission that we’d love,’ I will celebrate that because it shows we’re doing things right. If our volunteers find connection to wellness or new purpose or find opportunities, that’s great. If our investors feel positive about it, that’s great. Ultimately, it’s about having impacts in the field. My quarterly better say ‘Your dollar became these kinds of outputs in communities that had no other option, and we delivered the outcomes that they needed at that moment in time,’ a for-impact organization and communities across the country and around the world.
You begin to figure out how good your organization is when they begin to make the decision based on: We can deliver value; we can do it in a cost-effective manner; we can keep people safe, and it’s something that we can uniquely deliver.
Denver: Which is actually a lot harder than a for-profit because it’s more difficult to measure. It’s not as black and white. It really becomes even more of a challenge.
I’ve had a few CEOs on who have said that they have had to make more decisions in the last 18 months than the previous 15 years, and it really has been that way for so many leaders like yourself since March 12 of 2020. What would you say is the most difficult decision you’ve had to make in that span of time?
Art: It’s been really interesting from the difficulty perspective, and the ones that were always the most difficult and weighed the most heavily were built on three commitments that we made on March 12. And those commitments were: one, we’re going to keep every one of our volunteers safe; two, we’re going to keep the communities our volunteers return to safe; and three is, we’re going to keep the communities that we serve safe by not introducing this virus.
And it became really, really difficult because we had people who said, “Why can’t I deploy?” Highly engaged volunteers pre-vaccination that were at high risk because they’re 67 or 70, above the age of 65 that we didn’t deploy. We ended up deploying pre-vaccination, 20,000 days of employment, we had single-digit infections because people wore N95s, or they were in the vehicles and the windows were open. So that was the biggest decision with how you constrain volunteers that are engaged and eager to do that.
We had another one. We mandated that in order to participate in person, our volunteers had to be vaccinated. And we had a lot of people who said, “Pfft, you’re not telling me what to do.” And again, it got to that point of saying, ‘Listen, we’re not telling you what to do. We are telling you what we will do and the commitments we’ll make to meet those first three things.’ So those, I think, were some of the harder decisions we had to make. And the other one was kind of, I guess: Do what you do best, and partner for the rest was some of it, and really defining which missions we were going to take on that were brand new.
So, all of those were really, really different, difficult decisions, but what was neat about it is you begin to figure out how good your organization is when they begin to make the decision based on: We can deliver value; we can do it in a cost-effective manner; we can keep people safe, and it’s something that we can uniquely deliver.
Denver: You never take any greater pride as a leader sometimes than when your people say “no” to a good idea because it doesn’t fit that criteria… because we don’t want to do that, and that’s hard, but the key to it is saying “no” to some good ideas to be able to do what you do best.
As a leader, have you noticed if your self-talk has changed any since this started? That little voice we have in our head, and we’re talking to ourselves all the time. Is it pretty much the same as it’s been, the 22 years in the Navy, or has that actually changed over the course of the last two years?
Art: Some things have really amplified and I’ve said, based on my life experience, and we always talk through this lens of diversity, I had a really unique life in this application. I flew fighters for 22 years, and you know very little about who’s going to be in the cockpit on the enemy side… or who’s on the ground is going to shoot you, so you kind of define your life by executing a plan and then being very, very reactive as you go into it. And that’s been really, really beneficial, and that has been a huge help as we’ve entered the pandemic, and I’ve found that’s a really great strength.
I think one of the weaknesses it’s exposed– to your point about: How have you changed– is it’s made me realize that what I have in a non-profit and with volunteers is very different from the people who populate a fighter squadron ready room, where everyone’s like they’re used to that mentality. And I found that you really have to cater and be so deliberate in how you communicate and what you say and what you ask of people because they’re operating underneath this different construct of comfort. For me, it’s been having to dive into the details.
The other people I learned from in this pandemic are my four kids at home, and I use that at work, too, which is the big lesson me and my wife with three teenagers now in the house, is that what we say is really, really different from what they hear. And I found in the pandemic that that is true as well.
Denver: That’s a great point. And really, you also find it’s what they hear is the only thing that counts. You know what I mean? That’s what it gets down to.
Finally, Art, what’s next for Team Rubicon, and what is your vision for the organization in the years ahead?
Art: Yeah. So, we’ve set an audacious goal to envision how we can be a great organization that’s going to last for a hundred years… some of the things that we’re really going to expand on in 2022, are our international operations. We know the need is great, and COVID is a great example and backdrop for that. We know medical services will be required around the world. We believe we still have a lot of people that we can engage to volunteer with us. There’s still a huge set of people that we believe can have incredible impact and move this idea of helping people out on their worst day forward. So, we’re going to dive into that.
And just like any business, we have aspirations for growth of our brand. How do we make it something that every veteran understands as they leave? How do we get communities across the country to understand that we’re a resource at the ready when they call? And I think we’re kind of in that stage right now where we’re the biggest organization in our field that nobody knows about. It’s how do you get to be the smallest that people know about, I guess, is the next step.
Denver: Well, it sounds to me that the best-kept secret days are short-lived here. They’re going to be disappearing pretty soon, and that’s good to hear. Everybody will know.
Tell us about the Team Rubicon website, some of the information you have there, and two things: 1) how people can get involved with the organization if they’re so inclined, and also 2) how they can financially support your work.
Art: Yeah, well, you can find all of that under teamrubiconusa.org, be it donating or participating. On our website, we’ll tell you about what we’ve done, the impact we’ve had, the agents of our mission, some of our past. And certainly, if you want to donate and support, you can find it there.
Our philosophy is: time is a valuable donation. If you’re inclined to make a difference, please register. I will be happy to ask you a hundred times if you can deploy, and you tell me “no” 99 times, but you say “yes” once, it was worth it… every single point of contact up ‘til that point. So, I understand it’s probably not the perfect time for anyone to sign up, but you’ll know when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and join people in the field to help people after disasters.
So again, teamrubiconusa.org. We would love your support, be it financial or donating your time or energy to make sure we can continue to make a difference.
Denver: They should know you’re persistent. Thanks, Art, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Art: Well, thank you for having me, Denver. Thank you for the incredible service you do for nonprofits or for-impact organizations like ourselves in giving us access. So, thank you.
Denver: Right. Thank you.
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