To Jim Hake, the idea behind his nonprofit Spirit of America is no different than the notion that activates citizen service and private-public partnerships to address critical needs in education, healthcare, and other sectors of society.
“What people don’t understand is that there also are gaps in national security or gaps in defending freedom and democracy,” Hake says. “No matter what we’re trying to accomplish as a country, government can’t do it all. That’s just the nature of it.”
Spirit of America, founded by Hake in 2003, is the only nonprofit recognized by Congress and approved by the Department of Defense to work alongside deployed U.S. troops and provide private assistance in support of their missions.
Spirit of America has filled thousands of those “gaps” by doing everything from opening sewing centers in Iraq to providing a radio station and ballistic vests to Ukrainian defense forces to supporting crisis response training in Taiwan. Like Congress and the defense department, private donors have recognized the value of what Hake’s organization can do. Its budget last year was about $33 million, and the Spirit of America team has grown to 35 people.
Hake brought a proven entrepreneurial spirit to Spirit of America. He founded and sold Access Media, one of the first internet media companies, and in 2000 he was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.
What sparked the idea for Spirit of America?
The attacks of 9/11. I had always felt strongly about what America stands for — the promise of a free and better life. What we stand for are the best ideas the world has going for it. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in Philadelphia, the birthplace of our beloved albeit imperfect country, but I always felt strongly about that. After those attacks on the idea of America, I wanted to do something to help.
Do you see yourself as a partner to the U.S. government?
Look at the range of threats and challenges to freedom and democracy around the world and within our own country. You have to ask, “Is it better to take what our government apparatus can do and just leave it up to that, or is it better to add to it everything our citizens can bring to the table?”
You said you see American troops and diplomats as entrepreneurs. Explain that idea.
They’re out there in some difficult and challenging places. They’re a lot like conventional entrepreneurs — trying to solve difficult problems and achieve difficult objectives with limited resources and know-how. As an entrepreneur, your quest is to access help. A place like Silicon Valley is fine-tuned to support entrepreneurial activity, but it’s the exact opposite in our government and military. That kind of venture capital support does not exist. There’s no way for someone to go outside the system to access that.
So Spirit of America is like a venture capitalist?
We represent a new kind of capability in the same way venture capital represented a new capability to support entrepreneurial activity and economic growth back in the 1950s. Those who represent America officially around the world are in the lead. The venture capitalist is not running the business and telling the entrepreneur what to do. But the best ones are supporting that entrepreneur’s activity and bringing all they can to bear — their experience, what they’ve seen, what they know, and the capital to test new ideas — to help them succeed. That’s just about exactly what we do to help America’s troops and diplomats.
How do you determine what kind of help is needed in a given situation?
We ask lots of questions and do a lot of listening. It starts with speaking with U.S. personnel, both from the military and State Department, and understanding what their objectives are, and how we can help. It varies quite widely. Sometimes it’s clear and simple and discrete, and sometimes it involves problem solving over a longer period of time. We also talk to local people and partners.
What about with your less complicated projects?
Sometimes the answer is instantaneous. You’re in a village in Syria and the Islamic State is creating problems for U.S. special forces and the people in the village. It’s a dynamic situation but it’s not especially complex, so what might need to be done there can be figured out in minutes or hours.
Didn’t military attorneys at first tell you the collaboration idea wasn’t possible?
There’s something called the Joint Ethics Regulation. It’s enormously complex. One of the problems was that these military attorneys said if a soldier or Marine or commander tells you something is needed, that’s actually a solicitation of gifts, which violates the Joint Ethics Regulation. That prevented the military in some cases from even talking to us or taking advantage of our assistance or providing logistical support.
How did you address that concern?
The first way was with a regulation created at U.S. Central Command that cleared up some of this legal confusion. But the real breakthrough was in 2018 when Congress recognized our partnership and collaboration with the military and encouraged it under the National Defense Authorization Act. That Congressional OK led to an agreement between Spirit of America and the Department of Defense that provides a legal and operational framework that allows the military to collaborate with us. Since then those issues have disappeared.
You’ve said some projects make it “harder for extremist groups to exploit poverty as a recruiting tool.” Can you give a specific example of how Spirit of America is doing that?
Around 2015, the commander of special operations in Africa asked us to focus on Niger. When we got there the U.S. Army special operations captain said, “My job here is to prevent a war.” He explained that extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS were all trying to undermine and exploit the undergoverned areas of Niger. They were trying to get those folks who were scratching out a living each day to align with them and take the country in the wrong direction. So our personnel went with that captain and his team to meet with tribal leaders and understand their problems and concerns.
Livestock health, and opportunities for their youth. We put together a package of immediate assistance; we hired veterinarians and gave them dirt bikes and medications to treat the livestock. We also created a scholarship program for tribal youth to get veterinary education, so they could go back and make money and improve the livestock health themselves. Those scholarships went on annually for four or five years. Who has the budget for veterinary scholarships for tribal youth in northern Niger? Well, nobody! It certainly wouldn’t have fallen into a military funding bucket. So those are the kinds of things where being able to be innovative and flexible can make an enormous difference.
Why do you feel that approach is a better way to show the world what America stands for?
It represents a full spectrum of who we are. [Former Secretary of Defense] Jim Mattis has said America has two fundamental powers — intimidation and inspiration. The military and government institutions are pretty good at intimidation, but the power of inspiration is even more important. That’s what moves people to choose to be our partners and allies. Inspiration takes the American people, not just American institutions. Americans want to help, and we want to help for the right reasons. What we stand for is what most people aspire to — a free and better life. But it takes personal connection and personal expression of those things to move and inspire.
Why is Spirit of America’s “not neutral” approach important?
My motivation is to stand up for what we stand for and built into that is taking a side because it involves supporting the efforts of U.S. troops and diplomats. About 10 years after starting the organization, we applied for membership in InterAction; it’s an organization of organizations that provide assistance around the world. CARE, Mercy Corps, and Feed the Children are all members. I thought it would be a great set of people to learn from, and maybe we could use it as a platform to talk about this public-private collaboration model we’d come up with.
What was the result?
After they reviewed our material and saw that we supported the safety and success of U.S. troops and diplomats, they rejected our application because we take a side — America’s side — and taking a side violates universal humanitarian principles that demand neutrality. Universal humanitarian principles were defined by the United Nations in the early 1990s. The logic was that humanitarian workers need to be able to work in conflict zones without fear of attack by one side or the other. It was better logic back when people actually respected those rules.
Does that approach increase risks?
Not any that weren’t there anyway. And our relationships with the organizations that do have [neutrality] as their policy are good. On the ground, people’s overwhelming motivation is to get the right things to happen. Ukraine is a good example of that. A lot of organizations that have done great humanitarian work want to help Ukraine preserve its freedom, but because of their focus, they’re unable to help the Ukrainian military. But they’re happy we do.
What did you learn during your time at GSB that has been especially useful during your work with Spirit of America?
Open mindedness is the biggest thing. Second is the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley, which seeps into the GSB in all kinds of ways. My background as an entrepreneur turned out to add value in the work we do — speed, flexibility, that willingness to try things and see what works, a willingness to start from the bottom up.
What has been the response to your efforts in Ukraine, and what does that say about American support for the Ukrainian cause?
I’m encouraged by the response. It mainly shows up for us through donors and people asking how they can help. About two weeks ago one of our donors made a $5 million gift on top of previous gifts. That’s because he understands what’s at stake. Ukraine is not just about Ukraine. Ukraine is on the front lines of the fight to defend the free world. We will live with the consequences for generations.
Photos by Cheriss May