Bernie Marcus an ‘Entrepreneurial Philanthropist’
Ruzek, a decorated Army combat veteran, says he knew next to nothing about philanthropy when he first signed up to work at the Marcus Foundation, the family foundation of Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, and said the first year was a learning curve as the former Green Beret familiarized himself with the organization and what the family most cares about when it comes to their charitable giving.
“The whole first year of working at the Marcus Foundation was all about kind of learning Bernie, spending time with him, understanding his priorities, his focus areas and really his values and the way that he approaches philanthropy, which we believe and know is quite unique — you know, he’s an entrepreneurial philanthropist and Bernie’s all about identifying issues out there that resonate with him and getting his hands dirty to find solutions.”
That ‘entrepreneurial’ style of philanthropy meant Ruzek and a handful of his fellow military veterans were tasked with drawing on their own experiences in the Armed Forces to better help the philanthropist understand and prioritize the needs in the military community — valuable intelligence that Marcus relies on and leans into to help veterans and their family members.
Marcus Invested in 50 Veteran Organizations
In those early stages of supporting the veteran community, Marcus and his team made gifts to approximately 50 veteran charities focused in a variety of issue areas, including homelessness, veteran employment, veteran education, veteran care-giving, supporting families of veterans and, among others, charities that specialized in helping veterans get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We learned a lot. We had some successes, we had some failures and that really informed the way that we would eventually kind of pivot and go very narrow and very deep into the invisible wounds of war by starting a national network. So, that’s kind of a quick background. Like I said, we funded a lot of organizations. What’s also been a lot of fun is there’s a small community of other funders — foundations and individuals who give to military and veteran causes.”
Some of those groups, says Ruzek, include the Call of Duty Endowment, a nonprofit committed to providing grants to charities dedicated helping veterans prepare for the job market and, ultimately, placing veterans in high-quality jobs. The organization also generally works to build awareness around the importance of veterans and the value they bring to the civilian workforce.
Younger Generation of Veterans Face ‘Different Set of Issues’
Businesses now in large part understand the value of veterans in their workforce, but civilians weren’t always so welcoming to our military veterans, says Ruzek, especially to the Vietnam War-era veterans who arrived home after suffering or witnessing the devastating effects of napalm, more colloquially known as “liquid fire,” only to experience a population protesting veterans’ sacrifices and not aware of how to treat the emotional and psychological toll war inflicts.
“I think the younger generation of veterans is dramatically different and faces a different set of issues — some are the same but a significant societal difference is the way that we were received. I mean, like, let’s look back at the Vietnam era. Two very distinct differences: No. 1 — they were drafted. It was massive conscription to man-of-war that went on very long with a rough ending. So, there’s a pretty interesting parallel to what happened in Afghanistan just a couple years ago.”
Contrast that homecoming to the warm welcome subsequent cohorts of veterans received and the difference is astounding, says Ruzek, adding that he and fellow military veterans that served during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve in 2009 and 2015, respectively, received a hero’s welcome compared to many of their predecessors.
Don’t Have to Support the War But ‘Always Support the Warrior’
“Since 9/11, I think that our country has realized you might not have to support the war itself but we always support the warrior. And, so, I think that’s great and I think that’s part of the reason we have so many organizations now — is because you have a grateful nation — and yet you have a grateful nation that is very disconnected from the military and from its veteran population.”
Charities referenced throughout the remainder of the podcast episode include the Avalon Action Alliance, the Bouldercrest Foundation, Shepherd Center, Warrior’s Heart, Team Rubicon, the Mission Continues, Team Red White and Blue, the USO and the Gary Sinese Foundation.