Smart AdServer spoke with Tom Deierlein, founder of the TD Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding children impacted by war. A former ad tech executive and a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, Tom created the foundation in 2006. With help from the advertising industry, it hasn’t stopped growing since. The foundation’s annual fundraiser will be on December 1, in New York City.
After a decade of growing your career in advertising, you were called up to serve in Baghdad in 2006. Have you always had military ties?
TOM DEIERLEIN: I graduated West Point back in 1989 and served as an Infantry Officer in Berlin just after the fall of the Wall. I left active duty in 1993, and for 12 years I built a civilian career. In 1996, I entered the digital media world with a company called NetGravity, now part of Google. From there, I went to Dynamic Logic. Right after we were acquired by WPP in 2005, I got a Western Union telegram ordering me to report back to Active Duty. You can imagine my shock. Most people I worked with didn’t even know I used to be An Airborne Ranger.
So, a month later, I reported for a 1.5 year assignment. I headed to Baghdad in April 2006. While there, I wasn’t kicking down doors or chasing bad guys. I was part of Special Operations Command, but as a Civil Affairs Officer. I was focused on what most people labeled “reconstruction” – building schools, hospitals, and essential services like electricity and fresh water. One of the primary missions of Civil Affairs is also humanitarian aid.
The TD Foundation grew out of requests you made to friends and family during your tour in Iraq. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
I was on a digital media email list at the time called “Old Timers” for folks who had been involved in digital media since 1996 and 1997. So I would send monthly emails home. People would write and ask what I needed. But I didn’t need anything. I was okay – so I requested things for the poor and destitute children I would see each day as I drove through the slums of Baghdad called Sadr City. Next thing I knew the packages start rolling in. My army unit started doing little side projects to distribute the items.
Why did you choose to focus on children rather than another demographic impacted by war?
TD: Children are the most innocent and needy. They are not yet self-reliant and certainly had nothing to do with the war or hatred or sectarian violence. It was devastating to have to see them on the streets suffering because of issues or actions that had nothing to do with them. There seemed something inherently unfair about their particular plight and situation.
It’s one thing to give a bit of money or send some supplies every once in awhile. But your friends, family, and colleagues did more than that. They helped you build a non-profit. What makes them different?
TD: Like a lot of people who see injustice or a travesty, they were touched by the stories of these children stuck in an awful and inherently unfair situation. So, Sean Finnegan, Paul Bremer, and Bill Flately took an informal fundraiser we had planned and turned it into a kick-off event for the Tom Deierlein Foundation. We raised over $33,000 that first event. We immediately used that to fund our first medical case and flew a boy from Baghdad to Michigan to get his leg repaired from an RPG wound.
Medical cases are tricky and filled with bureaucracy, but Marikay Satryano, a Staff Sergeant at the Jordanian Embassy, connected us with a variety of groups including Gift of Life International, the Assyrian Medical Society, and Iraqi Children’s Project. We got involved with those folks and Riley’s Children hospital to do more than 25 heart surgeries over 5 or 6 years. Doctors and nurses would fly from Indianapolis to Jordan. We would get children from Iraq to Jordan, and for a week or two straight the medical personnel would do surgeries all day, every day.
Are surgeries and medical aid the foundation’s primary focus at present?
TD: Actually no, although we still have done about one of two a year. The reality is without U.S. military personnel on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, we don’t learn about cases or have the access needed to be successful.
These past few years, we have mostly done school supplies including our partners at Razia’s Ray of Hope, an all girls school with 550 students outside of Kabul. Here in the States, our aid can be anything from school supplies and clothes to rent, utilities and mortgage payments to prevent homeless families.
Since that very first medical case back in 2007, we have helped fund over 50 life-saving surgeries, sent more than $150,000 in school supplies and more than $25,000 of vitamins.
At the beginning, the foundation focused principally on Iraq and Afghanistan, but do you have plans to expand to other war-torn areas of the world? Syria, maybe?
TD: We have recently shifted our mission to be 100% focused on the needy and children here in the US. It isn’t that we don’t want to help children overseas and we are certain that the need still exists, it is a matter of two things. First, it is hard to learn about the cases and extremely difficult logistically to support them without US folks located there to assist. Things we take for granted out West like an accurate mailing address for shipping is a huge barrier. Second, our mission has always been to help innocent and needy children impacted by war. More specifically Americans at war. Much of the aid needed today is not directly related to issues or situations created by combat. Sadly much of it could be considered systemic.
At the same time, since 2013, we have seen a huge demand for help right here in the US. Unfortunately, many of the safety nets and systems set up to help our wounded warriors and their families are either broken or filled with errors and issues. We have families that are in danger of becoming homeless or can’t afford clothes and school supplies for their children. Our current mission is to provide aid to children of wounded warriors and fallen heroes. In short, we help American Veterans’ families in crisis.
Are you still working in advertising, or are you concentrating on the TD Foundation full time? What are your plans for the future of the organization?
TD: I work with a small company in Washington DC called ThunderCat Technology that sells information technology solutions and services to the federal government. My call sign in Baghdad was ThunderCat6, hence the name. I am still engaged with the advertising and media world as an angel investor and advisor.
TD Foundation only takes a small part of my time; our operational needs are minimal and the majority of our work is through a network of like-minded charities such as Boulder Crest Retreat, Code of Support, and Luke’s Wings. We basically fund cases they bring to us.
Right now, our focus is to promote the new mission and look to add a couple of fundraisers throughout the year including a West Coast event in 2017. We would like to double the amount of aid we give out each year by 2020.
What role does the NYC advertising world play in all this?
TD: From the very beginning, the NYC advertising world and in fact the entire digital media world has jumped in with both feet and embraced this cause as their own. Some of our most ardent and early supporters came from LA, San Fran, and Chicago and everywhere in between. More than 95% of our donations come from people in the advertising and media world. When you look at our events and our corporate sponsors, they are media companies. Our very first fundraiser took place at the Forbes Galleries and since then locations have included, Google, Time, Inc, Reuters, Tremor Media, HULU, Spotify, Simulmedia, AdMeld, Extreme Reach, and this year’s host Yext.
At different points, we have worked events with the NFL and UFC and many different companies and individuals. But we are definitely proud of our digital media roots and supporters. This is their cause and we continue to work hard to help those in crisis to make our donors and supporters proud. We are not huge but continue to have an impact one child, one family at a time.