In early March, as everyone started to prepare for a virus that they knew so little about, the Veterans United Foundation’s Erik Morse was working with other leaders in the community on what would eventually become the beginning strategy for how Central Missouri would battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
As board president for the Veterans United Foundation, the nonprofit charitable organization created and driven by the employees of Veterans United Home Loans, Morse found himself in conversations with other local leaders on what they could do to help early on in the pandemic.
Between the phone calls on what they could do and asking each other what they were going to do, they had an idea – why don’t they just work together on the impact they can have in the community?
From there, CoMoHelps was born. CoMo is the nickname for Columbia, Missouri, where Veterans United is headquartered.
CoMoHelps is a joint effort of Boone County, the City of Columbia, Community Foundation of Central Missouri, Heart of Missouri United Way and Veterans United Foundation. Together, the group works with local nonprofits, community partners and government agencies to meet the needs of the community during the pandemic.
“What we tried to do is create a centralized response to the immediate emergency needs in the community, so we could all work as individual funders who were working together to make sure there wasn’t redundancy of funding,” Morse said. “By working together to best respond to the emergency needs, we also were able to better forecast what the long-term recovery needs were going to be for our community, so we’re now in a much better position than we ever could have been if we all just worked individually.”
But this is only one of the most recent examples of how the Veterans United Foundation has come together to serve the growing needs of communities across the nation.
The history behind the Veterans United Foundation actually goes back to 2011.
Amanda Andrade, chief people officer at Veterans United, explained that giving back is such an integral part of the company, adding that it’s a direct reflection of their cofounders and CEO.
“Our cofounders are brothers, and they are so focused on giving back to the community and looking for ways to help,” Andrade said. “It’s been threaded through our value statements and through the way that we make decisions.”
The foundation is funded from employee contributions that are matched dollar-for-dollar by the company, with more than 90% of Veterans United employees donating at least 1% of their salary to fund Veterans United Foundation. And due to the pandemic, that percentage has even gone up.
Morse said that when the pandemic first started and everyone was still so uncertain, the employees not only cared about being informed and understanding what’s happening, but they wanted to know what the company was going to do about it.
Thinking back to that day, Morse added, “This happened at a time when I really could use some extra wind in my sail because day in and day out you just hear of all the hard things that are going on.”
After sending an email to the company at the time that told employees what they were doing, Morse said emails started coming in from employees asking him to raise their contributions to 2% or 5%. He was even asked what the max donation allowed is, a question he’s never had to answer.
The foundation has grown into a $60 million foundation, and with that, comes the opportunity to get to know people and programs in a different way, Morse said.
When it comes to operations and how the foundation chooses to donate money, he said, “We look through to make sure that we’re actually being good stewards of all of our employees’ dollars, and that we’re responsibly funding these organizations. We also have a lot of follow up within the communities to make sure that the mission of those organizations is being carried out.”
The foundation also commonly supports individuals, with both Andrade and Morse recounting times that they’ve supported funerals or provided adaptive vehicles for employees who have children with special needs.
Since the start of the pandemic though, the foundation has significantly ramped up its efforts on how it can support its local communities, people serving on the frontlines of COVID-19 and military personnel.
Starting at the internal and local level, the company gave each employee $100 to support local businesses, adding up to more than $330,000. They’ve purchased 50,000 masks to be distributed amongst hospitals, first responders and nonprofit agencies. They’re even assisting the local Columbia farmer’s market in providing food deliveries for elderly and disabled citizens.
Employees often take it a step beyond these initiatives too, with Andrade sharing how one girl on their team has been working with assisted living homes in their area to create movie packs that contain popcorn, candy and a movie to make sure they still feel loved since they can’t have visitors.
It’s united and creative efforts like these that also build to a national impact.
Veterans United launched the #HereForOurHeroes in April, which encouraged people to submit messages of support to National Guardsmen, first responders, healthcare workers and other military personnel who are serving on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic response. In partnership with Operation Gratitude, the messages are printed on postcards and sent with care packages.
Since launching the campaign, they’ve received almost 17,000 messages, and the website is still live for people to keep submitting messages of support. The campaign also included a $250,000 contribution for delivering the care package to 50,000 military COVID-19 frontline responders.
“At a time when there was so much uncertainty, there was something we could do to try and jump in there and help,” Andrade said.
And that’s exactly what the foundation continues to do.
Founded with the goal to intensify and expand the impact of giving initiatives by creating its own charitable arm, Veterans United Foundation is a united effort. “We own it together,” said Andrade. “And collectively, we can just do so much more than we could just on an individual level.”
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