During times of war or in conversations on service and patriotism, we often wonder what we would do if we were called upon to serve our country. Or, as war draws on longer than we ever imagined, and as we regard those who have and do serve, we typically marvel at their commitment. And we notice that people who have served do not wonder or marvel, at least publicly -- they just do.
At the same time, within our business settings, we talk a lot about giving back. Typically we are talking about mentoring those around us who are up-and-coming and in need of a wise or guiding light. We may also talk about philanthropic or charitable giving. Sometimes this conversation is unfortunately erratic, seasonal or opportunity-driven.
If you are in media and have been honored enough to be in the room with Tom Deierlein, a leader among us -- accomplished ad executive, U.S. Army Major and founder of the Tom Deierlein Foundation -- you might find yourself blown away by his record of military as well as civilian service. Though it's a lot to summarize, if you don't know Tom's story, it went something like this:
In 2005 Tom, a West Point graduate, was called back to active duty military service after 12 years in the inactive reserves. He'd come home from a business trip for Dynamic Logic, where he served as COO, to receive the call from the military. Doubtless, he was shocked by the turn of events so many years out of active service, and a bit scared. But, having committed to a lifetime of service, he was going.
Then, as he was getting ready to leave his civilian life, standing amid storage boxes in his Manhattan apartment, he received an 11th-hour call. An Army official explained that Tom didn't have to report for duty after all. He may have remained in the Individual Ready Reserve, but his obligation to the Army had ended years ago. Tom went anyway.
While deployed as a Civil Affairs Officer focused on reconstruction, he observed brutal conditions in Sadr City, a slum of 2.3 million people in East Baghdad, Iraq, and decided he wanted to help. After Tom was seriously shot in September of 2006, industry friends and fellow advertising executives took charge and formally launched the Foundation with a kick-off fund-raiser in November 2006.
The first recipients were Iraqi and Afghan children affected by the current war. The mission has remained to raise funds domestically and then use them to arrange for medical treatment and/or purchase critical daily items.
On top of Tom's story itself, with its confluence of head-spinning personal sacrifices and commitments to service, what is remarkable to me is the steady industry support Tom has received. What started as his observation and idea in East Baghdad has become something of a congregation, drawing on the various worlds and industry circles that Tom occupies.
I recall receiving Tom's stirring emails from Bagdhad through an industry association private list serv. I recall industry colleagues rallying in the first year of the Foundation, giving personally or on behalf of their companies -- all inspired by Tom's story. The foundation today spends about $75,000 to $100,000 a year, delivering $20,000 in school supplies and $10,000 in medical supplies, and usually conducting six to eight lifesaving surgeries.
Recently, I asked Tom to reflect on how he regarded contribution in our circles before establishing the Foundation -- and how he sees it now. "Before I left in 2005, an industry friend of mine and I were talking over breakfast about the importance of education and giving people opportunity. She asked about my interest in joining the board of a nonprofit she had worked with for 10 years," he said. "So there are many people that are active in various groups that perhaps we don't know about.... Although we may not see it on the surface every day other than Ad Council, I am confident that companies and individuals at all levels are getting involved locally, nationally and internationally.
"But, now that I have a nonprofit, I see it all around me -- from all of the pro-bono legal work [done for my Foundation] to my logo and free creative from Basement, Inc.... We as an industry I feel are VERY generous and giving. Everyone is always interested in hearing about the kids and our latest efforts."
The roster tomorrow at the 5th Annual TDF Cocktail Fundraiser reflects this industry engagement as well. It's hosted by Time Inc. Digital. Others behind Tom and the Foundation include Collective, NBCU and NBC Audience Platform, Tremor Media and Quantcast.
While I have my own involvements and passions that I explore all year long -- food education in schools; urban gardens for the inner city; the little girl I sponsor in Peru named Alessandra -- I confess there's something about the holiday season that leads me to ask whether I am doing enough.
This year, I felt compelled to pause and reflect on Tom and the good works of TDF -- and just how far it has come from our man standing among storage boxes in his New York apartment at the proverbial crossroads. Thank goodness he did not turn back.