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August 15, 2023
Jake Wood
From Marines to Humanitarians: Transforming Disaster Relief with Jake Wood

From Marines to Humanitarians: Transforming Disaster Relief with Jake Wood

Show Notes:

“We talk now a lot about addressing some of the systemic inequities in post disaster scenarios and really fighting to equitably apply the work that we do to ensure that people aren't left behind.”

In this episode, Jake Wood discusses his journey from being a Marine to co-founding Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that provides disaster relief and humanitarian aid. The episode explores the humble beginnings of Team Rubicon after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and how they gained traction through viral donations. The conversation also delves into the role of technology in their success, particularly their partnership with Palantir, a big data intelligence platform. The episode highlights the evolution of culture and leadership within Team Rubicon, as well as the importance of measuring impact and prioritizing vulnerable communities. 

Topics covered:

(00:06:11) From Student Hunger Drive to Enlisting in the Military

(00:12:30) Team Rubicon's Humble Beginnings

(00:19:22) Formation of Team Rubicon

(00:25:39) The Impact of Technology on Team Rubicon

(00:32:04) Evolution of Culture and Leadership

(00:38:52) Measuring Impact and Prioritizing Vulnerable Communities

(00:45:25) Equity and Transition

(00:50:55) Democratizing Philanthropy

Links mentioned:

Once a Warrior book

Guest links:

Episode Tags:

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00:00:00 - Jake Wood
You were running through a list of things, updates back and forth, and he said one last thing. Team Rubicon has now been incorporated as a 501 C three nonprofit, and you're the president of it. And I didn't even know what a 501 C three was. I had no idea what that phrase meant. And he said, It's a nonprofit organization. You're the president of a charity now. And I'm like, what? That was not the plan.

00:00:27 - Mike Spear
Welcome to Cause and Purpose, the show about leaders, innovators and change, agents working on the front lines to solve some of the world's greatest social challenges. My name is Mike Spear, and our guest today is the co founder and executive chairman of Team Rubicon and the founder and CEO at Groundswell, Jake Wood. Jake is a friend and someone I really respect and admire for his humble, innovative, and no nonsense approach to impact work. Jake has always been someone for whom the mission and the people come first, and I hope that comes through in the episode. Team Rubicon has been a disruptive and wildly successful organization, shaking up the social sector for more than a decade.

00:01:01 - Mike Spear
And I'm sure the work he's doing today at Groundswell will be no different. Enjoy the show.

00:01:04 - Mike Spear
Jake, thanks so much for joining us. Been a wild ride over the past, what decade, 15 years? Something like that. Really excited to record with you.

00:01:14 - Jake Wood
Yeah. No, I'm excited to join cause and purpose.

00:01:18 - Mike Spear
Here a guy like you, like most of the folks in the social sector, you could have chosen any path, there could have been a million different career paths, ways to spend your time that would have been different and possibly more directly lucrative than what we chose to do. So I always like to start by unpacking kind of where that begins. And it seems like with you, it's probably childhood started at a very early age. Tell me about your family, kind of what that was like, where that spirit of service came from.

00:01:43 - Jake Wood
I'm very blessed to have grown up in an amazing family, nuclear household, great father, great loving mother, wonderful sisters. Having been around the world a few times, both literally and figuratively now, I think I probably took for granted just how blessed I was to always have food on the table, always have a roof over my head, to be in a great public school system, never fearful for life or property or anything like that. And again, going to bed every night knowing that I was loved and taken care of. But I had, I guess what in the Midwest would be called maybe a typical childhood. Again, grew up in a great area, midwestern values, all that stuff. But the one thing that also kind of stood out about my upbringing was I did move around a lot. So my dad was working in manufacturing jobs, and that took us, kind know, from Nebraska to Texas to Europe momentarily to Illinois to Iowa, which is what I call home now, Iowa. Well, I shouldn't say I call home California's home now, but when I go home, I go home to Iowa. There were a couple of experiences over the course of those years that were formative. I wrote about one in my book that happened when I was probably six or seven years old. When we were living in Europe, we were living in Austria, and it was probably 1989 or 1990. So really interesting time in Europe. The Berlin Wall was just coming down. The Soviet Union was just kind of on the edge of collapse and a lot of tectonic shifts happening. And one weekend my parents took my sisters and I to a place called Modhausen, which had been a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. And that was just kind of one of those really formative moments and experiences for me. I think two really important lessons learned. The first is that human beings can be truly evil. And I think when you're six or seven years old, you have a pretty naive concept of what evil like, you know, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons versus what the Nazis were doing to Jews and others in Europe. But the second realization know, you had these hundreds of thousands, millions of Americans that went across the Atlantic Ocean to go fight for people they'd never met in a country that they'd never been to. And that was a really remarkable thing for me to wrap my head around. So I kind of look back at that as kind of a formative moment in my upbringing that really got me thinking about what my role in the world could be or should be and how I might be able to live a life for others and not just for myself. Not that I always did that, but certainly got me thinking about it at an early age going into the camps.

00:04:34 - Mike Spear
Could you guess what you'd seen? Did your parents frame it for you in any way? Part of the reason I ask is I grew up Jewish, and I've actually never been to the camps. But when I read that story in your book, Once a Warrior, it really resonated deeply, especially, like, how unusual it is, middle class kids in the Midwest who may not have any connection with that at all, not even not growing up Jewish to have that experience. So I would love to hear more about kind of how it impacted you.

00:05:01 - Jake Wood
Well, yeah. I mean, I don't know that I never met a Jewish person in my life. I don't think it mattered. At the end of the day, you're six or seven years old, and you're staring at brick ovens that they use to burn kids your age. You walk into a gas chamber, and outside the gas chamber, there are black and white photographs of women and children being led off to them, completely unaware that they're about to go be murdered. It's just one of those experiences where if there's a haunted place on this planet, it's Mothausen and Auschwitz and Dachau and all those, you know, the horrors there are just totally unspeakable.

00:05:42 - Mike Spear
You ended up playing football and going to Wisconsin and making the decision to join the military after that was in between there. Were there other sort of steps that are notable on your journey in terms of experience you've had or decisions you made to be more dedicated to service.

00:05:56 - Jake Wood
When I was in Iowa in high school, I started to get involved with student government, and through that became responsible for various charitable activities. So one thing that our athletic conference in that part of the state did every year was this student hunger drive, and all the schools competed against each other to collect food for the local food pantries. And it was something that all the schools took really seriously, and there was a lot of pride for the schools that won. And our high school set a record for the year that we did it. And it was just one of those things where I'm like, all right, giving back can also be fun. It can be personally fulfilling. It's not just something that you kind of have to get dragged into doing. You can ignite people to be passionate about it if you approach it the right way. So, I mean, I had a lot of fun doing that in high school, I think college. I felt so frankly lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to go play football in college. I'll say that when I made that decision to go, I was evaluating a bunch of different opportunities. I had the chance to go play for the service academies. I was getting recruited by West Point and the Naval Academy to play football there. And that really appealed to what had become a sense of service, a desire for service in my life. But then I was tempted by this idea to go to a major college football program, and I thought for sure I was going to go play any like any kid that's going on scholarship to a Power Five school, I thought, I'm going to go to Wisconsin. I'm going to play for four years. I'll be all conference, and I'll get drafted in the NFL, and that's what I'm going to do with my life. That dream maybe lasted for two years on campus, and then I was quickly convinced that I was not destined for the NFL. So I think while on campus, my kind of search for what was next, it started almost from the beginning. I was a freshman when 911 happened, and I think watching those events unfold, being only a year removed from this decision not to go to the service academies or join the military and instead go play football, that was a pretty consequential moment for me, a moment of a lot of reflection. But to be honest, I got really good at making excuses for why somebody else should go off and fight. And I as interested in what was happening overseas as I was. I was consuming as much as I could about the wars and watching these young Americans go off, I just was like, I don't know. I don't know. Just never had the courage to make that then, you know, right as my time plan was coming to an end, I knew I was going to graduate. I wasn't going to go to the NFL. And I thought, okay, am I really ready for corporate America or should I go do this thing and answer that voice that's been chirping in the back of my head for four years? And that's when I decided to enlist.

00:08:51 - Mike Spear
How did your family take that? Were they surprised or they say that, of course. It's the obvious thing.

00:08:59 - Jake Wood
I think that they were surprised, but not surprised. Right? Yeah. It's kind of hard to explain. Right. I think that they kind of sat there and said, okay, this kind of makes sense because we know Jake, and this is the type of thing Jake would do. At the same time, I think they were shocked. I mean, this was 2005. The wars were not going well. Battle of Fallujah had just happened. The US was taking massive casualties in that, and it was all over the news. And here I am saying, I'm going to go do and I think my mother was terrified, understandably. She was really stoic, though it still amazes me, the strength that she showed in that I have kids now, and my God, I don't know what I would do with myself. If we fast forwarded the clock 20 years and my daughters were going off to war. I don't know that I can handle it. I don't know that I have the same strength that my mom did.

00:09:59 - Mike Spear
One of the things that you seem to have always done is just sort of shown up and sort of been there for other people. Is that something you were kind of born with? Or did your experience seeing the camps in Europe and influence from your parents and stuff like that sort of build you into that? Because not everybody's willing to sort of throw other people on their shoulders and protect them, serve them in that way.

00:10:19 - Jake Wood
I certainly think that the experience in the camps were formative, and seeing these young Allied troops show up to those camps and liberate those camps, I think I can still kind of, in my mind, imagine those photographs of those young GIS riding into Motaus. But I don't know. And I guess I don't maybe dispute your characterization, but sometimes there's more I could do. I think about the times I failed other people in my life, and there's plenty of those in some of them. The failures were catastrophic. Yes, I've lived a life of service as an adult. I'm really proud of that. But man, there's a lot of stuff in this world that needs fixing, a lot of stuff that needs doing.

00:11:10 - Mike Spear
But as you're leaving the military, the Haiti earthquake happens. And some people watch it on TV and send some checks or empathize, but you decided to go show up. Can you tell us a little bit about that story?

00:11:25 - Jake Wood
Yeah, so I joined the Marine Corps in the fall of 2005. I served for four years, and so I got out in the fall, late fall of 2009, the last week of October. The plan was I was going to apply to graduate school, go get my MBA. The economy was in shambles. It's 2009, and I just got off two really hard, brutal combat deployments. So I'm thinking like, okay, two years to get some space would be good. So two months later in January of 2010, I'm sitting around, I'm waiting for these grad school decisions to come back, and the Haiti earthquake happens. And I had never thought about disaster response, really. I think it was a combination of a couple of things, right? It was seeing just how horrific that disaster was. And this was playing out live on CNN for people that don't recall. They estimate 100 to 150,000 people died instantly in that earthquake, and another 100 plus thousand people died in the coming weeks and months. So one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the last century just 100 miles off our shore. And then, so there was this empathy, this compassion for the suffering that was happening on the ground. And then, if I'm being completely honest, there was like this cockshire young marine who thought that he was invincible and probably had an overinflated sense of self, who thought, well, surely I can go and help. This is exactly what I do for a living. And there was a lot of naivete in that. Right after, I don't know, five or 6 hours of watching the news, I finally called one of the organizations that I knew was on the ground. And I tried to maybe drop my voice an octave and convince this woman who picked up the phone that I was the most important person in her world and that she should allow me to deploy with her teams to Haiti and help manage operations on the ground. And of course, she said, hey, kid, why don't you just hang up the phone and text us $10? Obviously that was really irritating to me at the time, but of course, fast forward a decade running a global humanitarian organization. If some idiot called me after the Haiti earthquake and told me how special he was, I'd tell him to text me $10 too. So I don't begrudge her or them at all. But in the aftermath of that phone call, I started calling Marines that I'd served with and friends, and we organized a team of veterans and doctors to go down to Haiti. We went down four days later, got into Porta Prince. Things were still I mean, it was like a Civil War battlefield. That small team of eight volunteers that crossed the border was the founding Team Rubicon. And fast forward 13 years, we've got 150,000 volunteers across North America. So pretty remarkable the humble beginnings that that organization started with.

00:14:27 - Mike Spear
You have all this military training, this logistical training you can handle. The rest of the team can handle themselves, adverse situations.

00:14:35 - Jake Wood
That was the logic that I was trying to apply. I mean, there's elements of it that are know, we got on the ground in Haiti again, for listeners that aren't as familiar. So massive earthquake, poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere at the time, total corruption, a lack of government services before the earthquake, and then a total evaporation of government services following. So no police, no military, the whole government bureaucracy crumbled alongside the buildings, and so total vacuum. And so, yeah, it was dangerous. And there were elements of the military training that were probably helpful, and it's not just navigating some of the potential for violence, but also just like, hey, can you throw a pack on your back and climb down this ravine, across this rubble and possibly carry somebody out? Or you get down there and the first time you see an amputated limb, are you going to freeze up, or have you seen it before? And tragically, I'd seen a lot of that stuff before, and so there were elements of that that worked now again, but there were a lot of things that we didn't know anything about, how these situations evolve and unfold and what the various layers of operational control and authority were and how to navigate that. And maybe in some sense, our ignorance of those things allowed us to actually operate effectively on the ground because we weren't encumbered by the system. But, man, I think we're lucky that we got out of there with our lives and limbs, and we're fortunate because the result was this organization that's evolved from there into something that's really special today, all by accident.

00:16:21 - Mike Spear
When you arrived, how did the other aid organizations respond to you guys? Did they know what to make of Team Rubicon at that point, or no?

00:16:29 - Jake Wood
We were flying so low under the radar that we would occasionally encounter other aid organizations. I remember encounters with groups like Samaritans Purse and Doctors Without Borders and several others. And in some interactions, there was a level of contempt because they knew that we were kind of outside the system. And again, fast forward the clock ten years. I get it now because we're a part of that system, and there's a reason why you want really great coordination across different agencies, and you want to know that organizations are going to be operating at a high standard of care. There's a reason for that. There were other interactions, though, with really well established groups who saw that, hey, this is not a normal operation. This is all hands on deck. And if these yahoos are here to help, we're going to figure out a way to help them be helpful. And it was good. And we also were able to demonstrate our value. I mean, a great example, the second day that we're on the ground, we evacuate some patients to a local hospital. It's like the only hospital that has a currently operating room in the aftermath of the earthquake. So like getting flooded with these really severe trauma injuries and we show up and the emergency room is just total chaos. And looking around, somebody shouts like, hey, who's in charge here? And all the nurses and doctors kind of like, look. And it was just clear like nobody was in charge. And so we basically just said, hey everybody, listen up. We're in charge. It basically just required somebody to just take command of the room and really own managing the chaos. And so we were able to demonstrate some level of competence in bringing some order to the chaos there. I think that was helpful. You had organizations who were willing to follow. They just needed somebody to lead. I think that was maybe the one thing that we knew how to do in that moment was provide some leadership and some structure to it. So again, so many crazy stories from those first couple of days on the ground.

00:18:46 - Mike Spear
But yeah, pretty wild while you guys were down there. You're raising money. I know your dad was instrumental in that. I think it sort of went beyond your expectations pretty quick. And then somebody went ahead and incorporated Team Rubicon for you guys.

00:19:02 - Jake Wood
What was that like?

00:19:03 - Mike Spear
And then when you got like, what was sort of the reaction to this structure that was now suddenly in?

00:19:08 - Jake Wood
Yeah, yeah, it was crazy. So when we first went to basically I went on Facebook and I said, hey, I'm going to go to Haiti. And if you're connected with me on Facebook, you know, me and who I am and my background and all that stuff, if you're willing to kind of support the effort, here's my PayPal account. I promise to do good with the work. And of course people were sending in money. None of those were tax deductible donations. They were basically like a Venmo account, right and shit. A couple of days later we'd raised like 75,000 or $100,000 and the money just kept coming in because it just became, I guess, viral. Back before viral was a thing. So we're bringing more teams down, we're organizing more equipment to come in. And a guy that had been a Marine called my dad, who as you mentioned was kind of managing called Stateside Logistics for us, took a week off of work to do it. I mean, he was having the time of his life. He thought this was the coolest thing ever. That he was going to be a part guy. This random stranger calls my dad. He's like, hey, I'm following your son's work in Haiti online because we were running a blog. And he said, I'm an attorney in Minnesota and your son's going to have a ton of liability either just kind of general liability or tax liability if he doesn't incorporate and figure this out. So he's offered to incorporate us for free. So my dad said, sure. So the guy does the paperwork. My mom and dad are the initial secretary and treasurer of the organization, and I'm the president. It's incorporated in the state of Minnesota for totally random reasons. And my dad called me later that afternoon and said, hey, we're running through a list of things, updates back and forth. And he said, one last thing. Team Rubicon has now been incorporated as a 501 nonprofit, and you're the president of it. And I didn't even know what a 501 C three was. I had no idea what that phrase meant. And he said, It's a nonprofit organization. You're the president of a charity now. And I'm like, what? That was not the plan. So like you said, we came back a couple of weeks later and we had to figure out what to do with it. There was debate back and forth. Do we just kind of, okay, distribute all the leftover funds and shut this thing down because we've got other plans for what we want to do? Or do we kind of keep this thing going and see where we can take it? And we ended up emailing all the people that had donated us money and said, hey, we used I don't remember what the number was, but we used 72% of the money that was donated. So if you want your pro rata share back, we'll give it back to you so you can send it on to somebody else. It's going to continue work in Haiti long term. Otherwise we're going to keep the money and we're going to see if we can build this into something special. We had one person request their money back out of like 2000 unique donors and the other 1999 Let it ride. And it probably one of the all time best investments in the history of the nonprofit space because it definitely paid off.

00:22:15 - Mike Spear
Yeah. Was there resistance from you or from, I don't know, from Willie about rolling this into like a long term operation for you guys? Or were you sort of like all in right away?

00:22:25 - Jake Wood
No, I think we were all half in all the way. We had this vision that the organization would never have full time staff, that it would always only just be a group of volunteers who, when the bat signal would go up, we'd have a roster of 300 highly vetted people and we'd send 20 somewhere. When bad things happened, I think it was maybe a combination of we didn't want to run it full time, and we didn't like the idea of somebody running it full time. We thought it was more special if it didn't have anybody on it full time. And by the end of 2010, call it nine months later, it was very obvious that if it was going to do anything and be at all impactful in the world, it was going to need someone running it full time. So we went, and we actually hired someone else. We hired this woman from local university here who we had met, and her name was Joanne. And we said, okay, Joanne, you're going to be the full time administrator of Team Rubicon. And we pulled the trigger on hiring her after we got this huge pledge from a donor for $100,000, which was big, big money for us, and it gave us the confidence to hire her full time. And then that donor rescinded on his pledge two months later, literally two weeks after she started. And we had to look at her and say, Joanne, this is what happened. Not sure if we can pay you beyond the next couple of months. And that was right around the same time that we lost Clay. And those kind of events were the spark know, at least for me, brought me into the organization full time, in it to win it.

00:24:15 - Mike Spear
But I do want to take a know, just to let you talk a little bit about Know. I know about him from Tr and the stories and from your book and all, you know, for our audience that maybe doesn't know who he is.

00:24:26 - Jake Wood
Clay was a Marine that I served with in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were very close. We were partners in sniper school, Iraq and Afghanistan together. I was nearby. Clay, when he was shot on our first tour and wounded, helped get him off the battlefield, and I was the best man at his, you know, very close. He was the first guy that I called after the didn't he couldn't join us with the initial team that went down, but he joined us a couple of days later and found us in the middle of the city kind of by himself, remarkably. I mean, just kind of a crazy story. And then he ended up taking his own life about a year after we got back from Haiti in March of 2011. It was just this total tragedy. Obviously. He was a really special guy, really talented, really gifted, just struggling with his life after war and his life after the service ultimately just decided he couldn't go on. It was a real defining moment for the organization for a couple of reasons. One, obviously he was a major part of our first mission in Haiti. He was a major part of our second mission in Chile after an earthquake and tsunami there, and just kind of beloved by everybody that met him. So there was just this deeply personal loss that a lot of people inside the organization felt he's how we met that woman Joanne, who we hired as the first administrator. She was devastated by the news, and we've honestly thought about just kind of packing it up. And this coincided with this donor rescinding, this pledge. And so we thought, man, we're not even solvent anymore. And something remarkable happened, which is in the weeks after Clay's death, we got flooded with donations in his memory to the organization, to Team Rubicon. And I can't remember what the number was 30,000, $40,000 worth of checks. But it was enough where we could turn to Joanne and say, actually, we can pay you. And it was also a moment where we just kind of looked in the mirror and said, hey, what do we want to, like, do I really want to go finish this MBA and go work for Goldman Sachs, or do I want to try to build something special here? And so for me, that was the moment where I decided to go in and commit to Team Rubicon full time, a little over a year after we started it. And, yeah, we never looked back.

00:26:56 - Mike Spear
And that wasn't too long before Hurricane Sandy happened, right? Which is sort of one of the next big milestones for you guys.

00:27:03 - Jake Wood
Yeah. So this is April. Call it 2011. You fast forward about a year and a half to the fall of 2012, and the organization is in dire straits again. It was really hard to build a nonprofit after the Great Recession, and we were a couple of young entrepreneurs that, frankly, was hard to get people to really buy into our vision for what we were building. And so we were kind of scratching and clawing our way and doing some good work, responding to maybe a dozen or 20 disasters a year. But as we approached the fall of 2012, we were running out of money and looking at what bills we were going to stop paying. And Hurricane Sandy hits New York, and it was kind of a bet on ourselves moment. We knew that there was a huge need, and if we stepped up and kind of went all out, guns blazing, to respond, there's a decent chance we'd bankrupt the organization. But we weren't completely oblivious to the fact that there's a lot of money and media in New York City, and if we did good work, there was a chance that somebody would notice and want to back us. We made that decision. We rolled the dice on ourselves, and it was remarkable. We had big banks and major Fortune 500 companies come out and visit us at our work sites and repeatedly just say the same thing, that we were running a more capable and organized and coherent response than anywhere else in the city. And people presidents were flocking to come and work with us. We had President Clinton come out with 500 volunteers one day because he was. Convinced that we were the only organization that could effectively put 500 people to work in an afternoon. And we did. And it just kind of hockey sticked the organization in our growth, and I don't know if we would have survived if not for the decision to make that bet.

00:29:13 - Mike Spear
One of my friends who, you know, Brian Fishman, was always asking, like, what organization should we pay attention to? He was at Palantir at the time, having without the opportunity to go there and do the work with you guys, I really felt like I was in it with you. Just being able to make that connection for Tr and was really excited about the direction that it took and proud of all you guys, frankly, because even Brian at Palantir was sort of new in that space.

00:29:36 - Jake Wood
Well, I remember I met Brian at the Classy Collaborative, and I think I was speaking on a panel, and he came up to me afterwards. He's like, hey, I'm Brian Fishman. I've worked for Palantir. And I think he just kind of assumed that I knew what Palantir was because I was a Marine, and Palantir had done a bunch of work with the Marine Corps, but kind of after I'd gotten out, so I wasn't actually familiar with it. So then he goes on to explain what it does, and for anybody that isn't familiar, it's kind of a big data intelligence platform, really complicated and technical. So he goes into explaining what it does, and I looked at him, and I go, I actually have no idea what you just said. But he was convinced that Palantir could be helpful to us. And so it was probably only a couple of weeks later when Sandy hit. He kept calling me. He kept just calling me three, four times a day, jake, let us help. Let us help. I'm like, Dude, I still don't know what you do. And he goes, Just trust me. We can help. So I said, all right, bring two of your engineers, fly to JFK in New York, and we'll pick you up. Just don't get in the way. And try to add value where you can. And I tell you, fast forward 96 hours. I looked really smart because they were so incredible. I'm joking because I can't take credit for any of what they did, but basically, they transformed how we were collecting damage assessments across these structures throughout the city and then geomapping that in a way that was easily shareable with city officials. And it seems silly to think that back in 2012, disaster response organizations were still doing these structural assessments, and not just structural, but all damage assessments via paper, like pads of paper, pen and paper. And then they're handing in these paper reports, lord knows who to. I can promise you nothing was done with those reports. Like, nobody was collating them and synthesizing them into any sort of actionable intelligence. And that's exactly what palantir did. And so in many ways because of that partnership, we were able to really move the entire disaster response space forward into this geospatial disaster mapping, which was one of the things that really put us on the map after 2012.

00:31:56 - Mike Spear
What is just in the general sense technology done for Tr and how have you guys continued to invest in it?

00:32:03 - Jake Wood
Yeah, the way I used to say to people is the US. Military is the most technologically enhanced in the world and young soldiers and sailors and Marines, when they're on the battlefield and they encounter a problem, they expect there to be like a cutting edge technological solution or force multiplying platform to help them overcome that. And so you think about the kind of the digital native volunteers that we had who again, had been using really cutting edge technology. It was really easy for us to get people to adopt this stuff quickly. The average demographic for a lot of these disaster response organizations out there are retirement age demographic and they're just naturally not as leaning into technology as a 25 year old sergeant coming out of the Air Force. So we saw that kind of early as something that could help differentiate us, that we could bring to the space. And so we've been fortunate to partner with great technology companies over the years. And some of that was quid pro quo. These companies would say, hey, we've got this really great tech. We'd love to get somebody to take it out in the field and kick the tires on it. We'll let you have it for free. We'll send some engineers and consultants along with you. And so we get access to this cutting edge stuff at no cost. They get this feedback loop in. I mean, I look to some of those partnerships like we had with Palantir and Microsoft and these satellite imagery companies and man, really powerful stuff.

00:33:44 - Mike Spear
After getting back from Sandy, you sort of had this recommitment moment where you saw the trajectory Tr was on and you essentially fired everyone and gave them a chance to come back to their jobs in a new way, which I've heard in other places, but it's certainly not certainly not much as early as when you guys did it. Can you talk about that decision and that moment to really ask everyone to up their game as you enter the new phase?

00:34:08 - Jake Wood
Yeah. So basically through the first couple of years, basically through Sandy, from 2010 through the end of 2012, we basically embraced this call it cowboy culture, where relatively few formal systems and processes we were just kind of like, hey, we're just going to invent it as we go in this approach. And we saw during Sandy, hey, the stakes were getting really high. We were lucky that nobody got really hurt in Sandy. We didn't have uniform safety standards and precautions or training programs. And it was just evident coming back from Sandy I joke that the first two phone calls I made when I got back from Sandy were our insurance broker and I told him to triple our insurance coverage and to our lawyer to make sure that we did a scrub of our release of liability waivers. And so it was obvious that one, the organization was facing greater and greater risk. Two, we were finally at this precipice where you could sense that we were onto something special. The stakes were getting high and the decisions that we made in the next six to twelve months after Sandy were going to determine whether or not we were going to be just like this middling also ran nonprofit or whether or not we were going to grow it into an upper echelon top nonprofit in America. But that latter was a choice, right? It was a choice to be great and we had to actively choose that. Probably three or four months after Sandy, we had a leadership conference. We only had twelve or 15 full time staff members and so we had a bunch of volunteer leaders that we relied on. So we brought 40 or 50 of them into La. And I basically told everybody that they were out of a job. I told them I kind of outlined what the expectations were for the organization going forward, how the roles and responsibilities needed to be delineated, but I think more importantly, communicating to them that, hey, this is going to no longer be a disaster response club. This was going to be a real professional organization and people were going to have to approach it like that. And I knew that that was going to frankly piss some people off. And it did. We had some people who did not reapply for Tr 2.0, and I don't begrudge them that. They were hugely consequential to the prior phase. Tr 1.0, I think that they could have fit into 2.0, but they chose not to. And that's just their choice. But they've contributed to where we are today and we'll always be grateful for that.

00:36:52 - Mike Spear
How did you see the culture change? Was it markedly different after that?

00:36:56 - Jake Wood
I think the spirit was still the same. It was a lean into the moment spirit. It was high in camaraderie, high in compassion and empathy, high in having fun, but we knew that we were going to have to evolve. Right? And I think that's one of the things about culture and leaders that's kind of universal. Like if your culture never changes, and I'm not talking about abrupt departures culturally, I'm talking about like an evolution. A cultural value means one thing at 20 employees. It means something totally different at 200 employees. That doesn't mean that that value failed as you grew. It means it had to evolve as the organization evolved. And that's where a lot of leaders and organizations fail, is they don't adapt to these stages of growth. So I think the spirit of everything that we stood for remained the same. It's just how they manifested themselves throughout the organization had to evolve.

00:37:54 - Mike Spear
I think it's important for any leader, anyone in an organization really, but especially leaders, to kind of know where they plug in, where they fit the best and adapt if they can, or know that it's time to move on.

00:38:03 - Jake Wood
No, absolutely. You see it, you see people who have fun at one phase and then they're bored out of their mind at others and then vice versa. You have scalers who come into a startup and they're overwhelmed right by the all hands on deck environment, the lack of process. And I wasn't quite sure how far I could scale as CEO. I tried to be self aware. I think I was pretty self aware. I was pretty good at the early phase. As we started to evolve towards kind of that middle stage of growth and that late stage of growth, every time we started to approach those new stages, I had to really evaluate like, hey, am I still the best person to lead us through this stage? And I could sense where my gaps were as a leader or as an operator. I was fortunate that over twelve years I was able to fill in, at least to some degree, most of those gaps. And frankly, maybe one of the most important lessons is learning like, hey, this is a gap I ain't going to be able to fill, but I can hire against it, surround myself with really smart people that make me look good and my job is just to support them and stay out of their way. That was probably one of the most important lessons I learned.

00:39:13 - Mike Spear
You talk about how you guys thought of impact and how it was actually measured over time, how that evolved throughout the years of the organization.

00:39:21 - Jake Wood
Early on we vacillated back and forth a little bit between whether or not we were a disaster response organization or a veteran service organization that just happened to respond to, you know, I think a lot of that obviously was the impact of Clay's death kind of the shadow of that. But it didn't take long for us, I mean, three years to settle on like, no, we're a disaster response. So now we've kind of come to talk to that in this way. We have a single mission which is responding to disasters with dual impact, right? And that first impact is helping the survivors in the communities impacted by these storms or catastrophes. And the second impact is that we do provide this fulfilling purpose to both transitioning veterans who are our volunteers, but also to our non military volunteers who we have probably 35% of our ranks now, never served in the military. And I think that we can't lose sight of how important both of these impacts are. I mean, again, we're there to help people on their worst day after storms and catastrophes. But as we see an increasingly fractured country, communities pitted against one another in the US. The Surgeon General coming out recently saying that there's an epidemic of loneliness in the country and it's equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day on someone's mortality. We can be a cure for that. Bringing people together in a common cause under a common purpose. So cause and purpose, universal human needs, man is it powerful. Give them a sense of identity. Give them something to be proud of. It's really pretty amazing. It's really pretty amazing.

00:41:10 - Mike Spear
When you think about Brass tax impact that Tr does, how do you think about that as you're reporting out to the world? Kind of the impact of what's going on?

00:41:18 - Jake Wood
Yeah, we've been really laser focused on measuring impact and outcomes. It's hard as anybody that's in the nonprofit space knows. There's a lot of organizations out there that do kind of a lot of hand waving, and they say nice things about what their impacts are. You ask them for the receipts and they're not as good at producing those. And that's because it's just frankly, it's hard to measure some of these things. I think a lot of organizations can do a better job of even just trying. So for us, there's very concrete things that we measure. We know exactly how many square feet of homes we mucked out following a flood. We know exactly how many cubic yards of debris that we removed, how many miles of road we cleared following a hurricane, how many homeowners were served. Those are all indisputable numbers that we collect and we track and we report out to maintain accountability with the people that are funding our missions. I think the human side of it is harder. Right. So we've tried in the past to conduct longitudinal surveys on our volunteers to see what types of human impacts we've had in their lives. Frankly, outside of bringing a couple of PhDs onto the staff determined that it was just perhaps that was where we could do some of the hand waving and say, like, listen, we've got thousands of anecdotal stories about how we've profoundly improved people's lives. I have letters written to me by spouses who say, thank you for giving me my husband or my wife back. They were a curmudgeonly old shit for ten years after coming back from Iraq. But now they're the person that I married again because they've rediscovered purpose. I think we can point to those things, and I think most of our investors can look at the hard empirical outputs and impacts that we can demonstrate on the disaster side. And it doesn't take a stretch to connect the dots in what we're doing on the human side.

00:43:12 - Mike Spear
I thought it was really interesting how you called out, I forget where I saw this, but how the teams prioritize the sites to fix up with the highest socioeconomic impact, not the most severe damage.

00:43:24 - Jake Wood
Yeah, and this was one of those things that was just a big learning that we had over the first couple of know when we were an unsophisticated outfit. We'd show up to Joplin, Missouri, after a massive tornado and lacking any sort of operational planning element, any sort of intelligence element, you'd kind of like drive into the town and you'd stop at the first neighborhood you saw that had damage, and you just walk around, start offering people to help. And if the median home price in that neighborhood was a quarter million dollars and unbeknownst to you, 2 miles further down the road, the median home price was $75,000. And largely a BIPOC community, you just didn't know these people need help, and who cares if they have insurance and they're going to be made whole? But we knew. We knew sometimes as we were sitting there helping some of these homeowners, we could kind of look around and say, like, this might even be a vacation home, right? Yeah, you were still doing something nice for a fellow citizen, but you knew that there were people that needed something more. It's just, how are you going to find them? So one of the things we do really well now is we have very sophisticated operational planning teams, mission planning elements, and we use these geospatial systems. We ingest all sorts of data sets, like the US. Census data, which has things like the social vulnerability index that we can kind of cross map against the damage and say, all right, hey, this census tract has average populations over the age of 65, median household incomes below the poverty line, and, oh, by the way, there's fewer than one hospital bed per thousand citizens. And these are all indicators of a highly vulnerable population. We're going to go there, and, man, that feels a whole lot better.

00:45:19 - Mike Spear
Good on you guys for really elevating your own bars there.

00:45:23 - Jake Wood
Well, one of the things I've learned is this idea of equity is kind of a buzword in kind of the progressive space, and how can we make for a more equitable and just society? And when you talk about systemic inequities, you can see them very clear in a post disaster environment. You know, I don't have the statistics in front of me, but it is significantly more challenging for minorities to recover money from FEMA in a federally declared mean. The contrast is stark. You look at the fact that the majority of people that are living in flood prone areas are people of color because that was the only place that they were allowed to build during the Jim Crow era. You fall victim early in your time at Team Rubicon going into community and looking around and saying, who's dumb enough to build here? And then you kind of peel back the layers of the onion a little bit, and you're like, oh, well, this black family that's had six generations live in this home. This is the only place that the city would let them build. And it just starts to make a lot more sense. Right? We talk now a lot about addressing some of the systemic inequities in post disaster scenarios and really fighting to equitably apply the work that we do to ensure that people aren't left behind.

00:46:46 - Mike Spear
Tr is at this time, it's growing fast and sort of hockey sticking. There's exciting new things like this technology and new ways of measuring impact that you guys are doing. How do you know it's time to leave? And what was that decision like?

00:46:58 - Jake Wood
I'm still amazed that I ran Team Rubicon for almost twelve years. I don't think I ever intended to run it for more than two. Even at the time in 2011 when I said, okay, I'm all in, I'm all in, I'm going to drop everything else, I thought, I'm going to do this for two years and then pass it off to somebody else. And so coming into 2020, it was kind of my 10th year in the role. My plan was to transition out. That was the plan I had. My COO had been on board for four years and he was great, he was ready. And then we all know what happened in 2020. COVID Hit and my plan to kind of leave in Q One or Q Two of that year completely went out the window because I knew this is the biggest crisis the organization has ever faced and I'm not going to leave them now. So I wanted to lead the organization through COVID, and by the end of 2020, though, it was clear that we were going to survive. The organization, in fact, stepped up to the plate in remarkable ways during COVID and my second daughter was born and I realized the organization was going to be fine, but it was going to be forever changed after COVID. And I just felt like it was the right time with that change coming, to have the next leader in place to lead the organization through it. Because you're a little too close to home when you're the founder and you may not be willing to make the tough choices that are necessary on the backside of an event like that. And I wanted to be an entrepreneur again. I turned to Art, my number two, and I said, Art, you got the con. We put a transition plan in place and I stepped out and it was great. And I think it's been great for the organization. They have thrived over the last two years without me, and I don't say that in any sort of self deprecating way. I mean, they have not missed a beat and it's been amazing.

00:48:46 - Mike Spear
Yeah, well, it's a testament to the people and the culture and the structures that you put in place while you were there. So congratulations on a seamless exit.

00:48:53 - Mike Spear
That's incredible.

00:48:54 - Jake Wood
Well, yeah, it does feel lucky because I unfortunately have watched some of my colleagues try to make that transition. And listen, it doesn't always go well. Yeah, I mean, we probably did some things right. We probably got lucky in a few ways, and it feels good. I kind of made the joke the other day. You always hear grandparents say, being a grandparent is way better than being a parent, because you can hand the baby back at any time. When the baby starts crying, and it's kind of like being chairman of the board. Like, I get exactly the level of involvement that I want. And the moment the organization starts crying, I can hand it back to Art and say, okay, you take care of this. You go change the diaper.

00:49:26 - Mike Spear
Did you know what you were going to do when you left? Or you just sort of needed a minute to clear your mind and see what's next?

00:49:32 - Jake Wood
I did not have a plan, and I call it a midlife crisis, where, again, it was late 2020. I knew the organization was going to survive. COVID, my second daughter was born with a heart condition. We were at the hospital after her open heart surgery. Fortunately, she's fine. But I just had this moment maybe like, I freaked out a little bit, and I'm like, if I don't do it now, I'm never going to do it. So I turned to my wife and I said, I'm going to step down as CEO of Team Rubicon. She looked at me, she's like, you're out of your mind. She starts poking holes in the idea. She's like, what are you going to do? Do you have a job lined up? I'm like, no, but I won't think of the next thing unless I give myself the space to think of it. So I finally convinced her that it would work out, and I started communicating with folks, and the idea for Groundswell came to me honestly within, like, six weeks. And I knew as soon as I started thinking about it, I'm like, this is it. This is what I want to do for my next campaign. And took a couple of months to pull the pieces together, but haven't looked back since.

00:50:35 - Mike Spear
What is groundswell. And what about it really resonated so much that this is my next campaign, this is what I'm going to do for the next period of my life.

00:50:43 - Jake Wood
So, again, for kind of context, we became very successful at Team Rubicon. We grew a ton. And so by the time I stepped down, we'd raised close to $300 million in philanthropy. So I learned a lot about fundraising and how rich people give their money away, how companies give their money away, how normal people give their money away. And so really, the goal with Groundswell is to democratize philanthropy. And what we mean by that is rich people, high net worth people have certain tools and resources at their disposal to give money away more efficiently, that normal people like us don't have access to. And I never found that again. Going back to this idea of equity, I never found that to be equitable. I thought that there was no excuse in 2020 for only rich people to have access to things like donor advised funds or consultations on issues and how to smartly give money away at a strategic or a tactical level. And then I also ran into just a ton of corporate giving programs that were terrible. They had anemic participation terrible systems and process times. When we were getting money for matching programs, 180 days after an employee donated and the storm had passed, our operations had ceased four months ago. And I just thought this was just crazy. So we've built a platform that is the world's most modern donor advised fund. Modern, inclusive, and accessible. And we have packaged that as an employee benefit. So we sell software to companies, they roll donor advised funds out to their employees as an employee benefit, like a health savings account, and then they can automate their giving and matching programs through those donor advised funds. So we're giving these employees access to a tax advantage charitable giving vehicle that they've never had access to before because they're not rich. And we've eliminated 99% of the administrative burden for companies who are managing employee donation matching programs.

00:52:41 - Mike Spear
I know it's super early stage, but what's early traction been like and what are you learning as you've gone?

00:52:46 - Jake Wood
Well, just like starting a nonprofit in the shadow of the Great Recession was poor timing. Starting a B, two B software company in the Great Recessionary period that we're in right now is also really poor timing. Listen, I mean it's tough to be a software company right now, but we're doing really well. I think we're on plan. We've got bigger and bigger companies that are coming on board and going live with the platform. We've got some really exciting and game changing innovative features that are coming out over the next six months that are going to be like game changers. And then I'm working on a top secret project internally, not ready for primetime yet, but taking groundswell and applying it very uniquely in a way that dovetails with one of my previous lives. I'll be very coy about it, that we're really excited about. It could actually become the entire company.

00:53:41 - Mike Spear
Can't wait to hear more. We'll have to have you back on when that's ready for release and we'll talk about it then.

00:53:46 - Jake Wood
Yeah, we'll do the post mortem on that.

00:53:48 - Mike Spear
You mentioned the sense of naivete sort of parachuting into Haiti with everything, you know, now having built tr successful company, moving on to private sector ish stuff. Would you still have done that or like, would Jake today still have done that or would you look back and be was that was real dumb.

00:54:09 - Jake Wood
I still occasionally will watch events unfold on the news and think to myself, if not Haiti, it would have been this event, right? I looked at what happened in Ukraine a year ago, and I thought, man, if I didn't have two young girls and I hadn't done Team Rubicon, I might be on an airplane to Kiev right now. And I don't know what that would have ultimately led to. I don't know if that's me joining their foreign legion and fighting or if it would have been me in a humanitarian role. I don't know. But there's these moments of consequence that you see unfold before you, and I've seen a couple since then that I think I would have taken the leap on.

00:54:45 - Mike Spear
Thanks so much for spending the time and sharing insights. Hopefully, we covered a lot of ground. We'll have you back on when you're ready to announce some of these new features. Excited we'll do it again, but really admire you and the work you do, and thanks so much. Learned a lot.

00:54:59 - Jake Wood
I appreciate it, man. Thanks for having me on cause and Purpose.

00:55:01 - Mike Spear
Thank you.

00:55:05 - Mike Spear
That's our show for this week. Hope you enjoyed it. To connect with Jake and learn more about his work, you can find him on LinkedIn and check out his new book, Once a Warrior at JakeWood Co. For information on Team Rubicon and information.

00:55:17 - Mike Spear
About how to revolutionize your employee giving.

00:55:19 - Mike Spear
Program, check out and groundswell. IO, respectively. There's more information, as always, including the transcript in the show If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend or colleague who you think might find it valuable. You can follow, subscribe, or leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts.

00:55:45 - Mike Spear
Next week we'll be back with another longtime friend and collaborator in the space, Derrick Feldmann. Like many of us, whenever I need some data on giving behaviors among Millennials, Gen Z's or in the workplace, I've sought out Derrick's research. He's one of the pre-eminent thought leaders in the space, especially around building social movements, and I couldn't be more excited to have him on the show. Until then, Cause and Purpose is a production of On behalf of myself, Jake and our entire team, thanks so much for listening, and we look forward to speaking with you again sooner.

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Cause & Purpose is a production of Altruous, an impact discovery and management platform for the next generation of philanthropists. Learn more about our work by visiting

This episode was edited by Worthfull Media. Original music composed by Justin Klump of Podcast Music and Sound.

Copyright 2024, all rights reserved.

People in this episode

Mike Spear

Social entrepreneur, consultant, and podcast producer, Spear has been a member and critic of the impact sector since 2006. His work spans product, innovation, impact advising, storytelling, and go-to-market strategies. Part of the founding team at, specializing in helping social good organizations build amazing products, increase their impact, and scale.

Jake Wood

CEO at Groundswell - The World's Most Modern Employee Giving Platform | Executive Chairman at Team Rubicon


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