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Call of Duty Endowment more than triples veteran job placements

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Last year there were nearly three-quarters of a million unemployed veterans in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor. And it's likely going to get worse as the military continues to downsize.

That's where the Call of Duty Endowment comes in. The non-profit, launched by Activision in 2009, works to find returning veterans not just jobs, but well-paying, long-lasting jobs. Since bringing on a new full time executive director, the endowment has excelled at this goal.

From the 2009 launch until 2013, the endowment found just under 2,000 returning vets jobs. In 2013 alone, CODE under the leadership of Dan Goldenberg has nearly tripled that number, helping more than 19,000 veterans and placing more than 5,600 of them in new careers. The average salary for those jobs is $46,000, $1,000 higher than the national average, not starting, salary, Goldenberg told Polygon.

Those placed through endowment-backed programs had a six month retention rate more than 85 percent of the time, according to the group.

Part of that has to do with the fact that prior to Goldenberg's hire, there was no full time leader. But a big part of the recent success is also likely tied to Goldenberg's history and vision for the group.

Goldenberg, who is currently serving as a commander in the Navy Reserve, had active duty tours as a commanding officer, carrier-based naval flight officer and special assistant to the Secretary of the Navy. After leaving active service, Goldenberg, who is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Harvard Business School, went to work for a research and management consulting firm. He joined the Naval reserves after 9/11 and has been in the reserves ever sense. During his time working in the civilian world, Goldenberg said, he spent a lot of time trying to find returning veterans jobs. Word of this passion project got around to Activision, and the company asked if he'd want to make it a full-time job.

Goldenberg took on the new role in March 2013, tackling the issue of unemployment among veterans from a unique angle.

"We really take a business approach to a social problem," he said. "I have been really surprised at how few organizations do that.

"..most of them are well intentioned but few are well run."

"There are 43,000 non-profits out there trying to help veterans, most of them are well intentioned but few are well run."

As one of his first major initiatives, Goldenberg focused his and the endowment's energies on creating a vetting process of sorts for other non-profits that might be seeking money from CODE to place veterans. The end result was the Seal of Distinction, which launched in August 2013. The seal, which comes with a one-time unrestricted $30,000 grant, essentially means that a non-profit is an efficient and effective partner to work with on the problem of veteran unemployment. To earn the seal, an organization has to open its books to Deloitte for a full audit and verification.

"We apply an approach like venture capitalists," Goldenberg said. "We have a screening protocol, we rank them and Deloitte does a very vigorous assessment."

The endowment is looking for organizations that are effectively placing veterans with good jobs. Specifically, they want to find groups that help post 9/11 veterans, he said.

"We have a very systematic approach of identifying who the best nonprofits are," he said. "They we invest money."

When he came in, the average cost for placing a single veteran through their donations was about $1,500, now it's down to about $1,000.

Goldenberg says the organization is focusing on younger returning veterans because most of them went into the military thinking it was going to be their career and now they're finding themselves essentially laid off.

"Up to about a year ago everyone getting out, they were willing to leave," he said. "Most people were getting out because they did their time and duty. Now the military is downsizing by 100,000 service members. For the first time, we're seeing people who went in expecting to do their whole career in the military and now they're told they need to go home.

"It's a different dynamic. That's the thing we're really worried about."

The handed out the seal to 11 non-profits last year. This year, seven received the seal.

Once these organizations are identified, Goldenberg said, it makes it much easier to start granting them money for specific projects.

"We're applying that business mindset," he said. "We expect to be pitched. And now when we decide how to fund it's not about ‘Do we trust this organization?' It's about ‘Are they coming to us with great ideas that we want to fund?' It's very liberating."

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What the endowment and Goldenberg has found that some of the most efficient non-profits are the ones few have heard of before. Hire Heroes USA, for instance, placed 1,100 vets this year alone and CASY has placed more than 3,000.

"These are high-quality jobs," Goldenberg said. "$30,000 to $40,000 starting salaries. These are not part-time hourly work in the fast-food restaurant jobs."

Beyond awarding the Seal of Distinction, funding programs and raising awareness, the group also does a share of its own fund raising. Most recently, the Call of Duty Endowment kicked off a Veterans Day Gameathon. The fundraiser allows anyone to host a Veteran's Day gaming session for the endowment. The idea is that people play games in return for donations to CODE. Anyone who raises $100 for the organization receives a free copy of Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, while supplies last. And Activision is matching ever dollar raised, up to $1 million.

That obvious connection to Call of Duty the game never gave Goldenberg any pause when he decided to become a full-time employee for the game-maker, he said.

"Any company doing this, I'd ask the question how deep is their commitment," he said. "Is this a PR stunt or is it something they are committed to. And they are so all in for this at Activision from [Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick] on down. It goes very, very deep."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.