Iconic Tour

How a former Marine sniper turned entrepreneur is raising millions to help Harvey victims

David Hochman, special to CNBC.com
Quintin Sanders is carried to dry land by volunteer rescuers after his neighborhood was inundated with the flooding of Hurricane Harvey on August 31, 2017 in Beaumont, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi August 25, hit parts of Texas with more than 50 inches of rain.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Jake Wood, the former Marine sniper and co-founder of relief organization Team Rubicon, has caught the attention of the White House.

On Wednesday President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump announced they will donate a total of $1 million to 12 charitable organizations to aid relief efforts following Hurricane Harvey. Among the list, which included large national organizations, such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, was Woods' nonprofit NGO, which calls on ex-service people to put military training to good use in times of need.

Wood, who expects to dispatch more than 2,000 volunteers — almost all military veterans — to help storm-battered communities dig out, rebuild and stabilize from the epic storm that has displaced more than 1 million people, says his phone began buzzing on Aug. 21 and hasn't really stopped since.

The moment Hurricane Harvey hooked toward Texas, he knew he needed "many, many boots on the ground," he says. So far his organization has received about $4 million in funding and contributions as a result of Harvey. The Trumps have now donated another $25,000. Bankrolling the response effort will cost roughly the same.

Wood likes to say Team Rubicon's success is measured less by money raised and dollars expended than by "person-to-person engagement and lives changed," but he is also a true entrepreneur, having raised more than $41 million since launching the venture with a guerrilla-style relief trip to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Among Team Rubicon's board of advisors are retired generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus; as well as Gregg Lemkau, co-head of global mergers & acquisitions for Goldman Sachs; and Jeff Dailey, CEO of Farmers Group.

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"Jake is very passionate about what he does and very smart in the growth of Team Rubicon as a business," says Heather Prill, who manages charitable partnerships for the Home Depot Foundation, which has contributed $4.5 million to Team Rubicon since 2012. She recalls an early visit to the organization's first headquarters at a warehouse in Los Angeles: "They had a whiteboard with a list of volunteers in every state," she says. "There couldn't have been more than 500 names, and they were so proud. Fast-forward to 2017 and Team Rubicon has 52,000 registered volunteers."

For Wood that number is still way too low. He believes passionately that America's military veterans are "the most underutilized resource we have in this country" and that reintegrating those individuals not only supports disaster relief and eases the strain on local and national crisis teams but also gives former troops purpose and dignity.

Team Rubicon has raised more than $41 million since its 2010 launch, yet co-founder Jake Wood says its success is measured less by money raised and dollars expended than by "person-to-person engagement and lives changed."
Getty Images | Randy Shropshire | Stringer

"Our mission has always been, let's take these idle assets in our communities and prepare them to be first responders," Wood says, noting that there are 20 million veterans across the country, including 3 million from Iraq and Afghanistan. "These men and women have all been trained in specific skills, but there's no framework for tapping into that potential. It's just sitting there. It's this latent possibility."

Team Rubicon requires its volunteers to attend training sessions in disaster response and emergency management and encourages further education and training through higher-level tactical and leadership workshops. That's different from The Red Cross, which draws from the ranks of untrained civilians. Team Rubicon has provided relief services in nearly 200 operations, mostly in the United States.

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"I can't help think what would have been different if all the military vets in Houston had been organized and equipped to mobilize when Harvey struck," Wood says. "You'd have boats ready and escape routes planned. We saw the so-called Cajun navy of residents rising up, which is great, and The Red Cross doing critical work on the ground. But imagine what might have been had men and women of the military been working together as a single operation."

I can't help think what would have been different if all the military vets in Houston had been organized and equipped to mobilize when Harvey struck.
Jake Wood
co-founder of Team Rubicon

Wood envisions Team Rubicon as being the next Red Cross, a goal he thinks is achievable with ongoing funding from the public and private sectors — "a combination of Americans springing up and doing what they can and also corporations taking responsibility," he says. There's certainly room for a new player in the realm of disaster relief. The American Red Cross has come under fire recently for lack of transparency on its funding. A report last year by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley found that a quarter of the money donated after the Haiti earthquake — roughly $125 million — ended up covering Red Cross internal expenses, far more than the charity previously had disclosed.

It's no wonder establishing credibility in the eyes of the public takes many years, says Sara Nason, a spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, an independent charity watchdog. "It's definitely a struggle early on for organizations [like Team Rubicon]," she says. "They need time to build infrastructure and gain respect, and contributions are often inconsistent, with spikes after disasters but then weeks or months of much slower growth."

Wood is determined to play the long game. He sees too much potential among America's vast corps of veterans. "To not use this abundant talent pool is a tragedy but I'm optimistic," he says. "This work is what they live for — to help people on their worst day. Everything we do has these moments in mind, and we rise to the occasion. I'm optimistic for the next 10 weeks and for the next 10 years."

— By David Hochman, special to CNBC.com