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Businesses Backing Vets: Pro Bono Aid for Homeless Heroes

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Part of a Causecast ongoing series that examines how Corporate America is finding new ways to help veterans.

What would the world look like without the dedication of nonprofits trying to improve it? Tough to imagine, which is why I consider the business of nonprofits so vital. As a matter of fact, it's why I built a company around helping businesses and other organizations support nonprofits through impactful volunteering and giving programs. What I've discovered along the way is that sometimes responsible businesses go a step further than they imagined they could, finding innovative ways to fill support gaps that no one realized existed.

Such is the case with Merck. More than a year ago, the pharmaceutical leader decided that as part of its corporate social responsibility efforts it wanted to help homeless veterans, so the company began funding a terrific nonprofit called Community of Hope. The nonprofit doesn't limit its support to veterans, but it has become a special port in the storm for veterans who have found themselves with nowhere to go. Community of Hope provides a safe haven where homeless vets -- both men and women -- can regain their footing, finding not only food and shelter but important job training skills that will help them become self sufficient again. Merck's funds were earmarked for precisely this sort of job support.

As Merck's relationship with Community of Hope deepened through its continued support, however, Merck employees realized that there was often another obstacle that many of these homeless vets faced in order to get back on their feet: legal problems. Some veterans had single legal issues and others had multiple issues that overwhelmed the veteran as well as the Community of Hope staff attempting to assist them. It might be divorce agreements from the past, or housing, or parking tickets or health issues that required legal counsel in order to secure benefits -- but whatever the issue, it often served as a roadblock to stability.

A lightbulb went on above the collective Merck head. The company's attorneys realized that they could provide services through their substantial pro bono program that would be as helpful if not moreso than the checks their company was writing to support Community of Hope. Thus was born the Hope for Veterans Program.

Pro Bono Clears a Path

Typically, when an attorney does legal pro bono, they must work through a local nonprofit legal services group -- which means that you don't have the funds to manage details like case histories and multiple court dates. So Merck partnered with their local legal services nonprofit and funded Merck lawyers to work with veterans to help solve their legal problems. Providing these legal counseling services helps vets clear their records, take care of debt and change their credit scores, for starters -- all of which clears the path to employment.

With Merck, each case that has been resolved has helped veterans continue their progress and regain their independence. Sometimes simple legal advice is all that is needed to help a veteran solve what seem to be intractable barriers to self-sufficiency.

For example, AJ. Overwhelmed with large debts to the IRS and a creditor, AJ thought she had no choice but to file bankruptcy, despite the adverse effects that a bankruptcy would have on her aspirations to operate her own business. A Merck attorney assisted AJ in learning about establishing a voluntary payment plan with the IRS once she is employed full-time that would prevent garnishment and other collection efforts by the IRS. The attorney also advised AJ about options on handling the creditor debt. With this information, AJ decided that she did not need to file a bankruptcy.

Or, for another example, a veteran we'll call Joe, whose driver's license was revoked by the State of New Jersey 20 years ago. When the Merck attorney contacted the New Jersey DMV, he discovered there was no reason for the license revocation other than New York State had revoked the veteran's license in 1990 and New Jersey had followed suit. With several phone calls and a letter, the attorney was able to reinstate the veteran's license. For two decades, the veteran's employment opportunities and other major aspects of his life and livelihood had been hampered by the inability to drive. Now, with a fresh start, he planned to explore new job opportunities and purchase a used vehicle with funds he had saved in the Hope for Veterans Program.

The Movement of Skills-Based Volunteering

The high unemployment rate amongst returning vets is a national concern, but many people don't understand all of the impediments that stand between vets and jobs. The issues that veterans face are multi-faceted, so when companies bring their unique skills to the table they can improve the employment prospects for vets in surprising ways.

The power of pro bono services on all causes is why A Billion + Change was formed. The organization has mobilized more than 100 leading companies to commit to more than $1.7 billion and at least 11.5 million hours of time and talent dedicated to building nonprofit capacity, with the goal of inspiring the largest commitment of corporate pro bono service in history.

A Billion + Change hopes that one day skills-based volunteering will be the 'new normal' in every workplace. Given how companies like Merck are changing the lives of veterans through pro bono services, I look forward to this new normal being a commonplace fact of corporate life.