Yesterday the founder of Operation Supply Drop announced he has left the charity he founded just five years ago to start a new one, saying only that he’s eager for his new group at Stack-Up.Org to “get back to the original missions and values” of being a games-based organization.
Polygon conducted numerous interviews over the past week to try and learn more, and found an emotional and conflicted story. On the one side OSD, a rapidly growing charity eager to assume what its CEO sees as its role among the nation’s largest military-focused non-profits. On the other OSD’s founder, a veteran who feels he was duped into giving up control of the organization he loves.
During his time with the organization, it raised more than $8 million dollars in donations. But, on Nov. 1, Machuga voluntarily resigned. When contacted, neither Machuga nor OSD’s current chief executive officer, Glenn “Commander” Banton, would go on the record to discuss exactly what caused the separation between the successful military charity and its founder.
What we do know is that soon after Machuga left, he announced that he would launch a brand new charity called Stack-Up.Org which he says will return to the original goals on which OSD was founded.
So has OSD strayed from its mission? And what caused its founder to become so estranged from it that he felt it necessary to leave?
Machuga tells Polygon that shortly after our profile was published in 2013 he met Glenn Banton, an Austin, Texas-based businessman.
“He made a substantial donation,” Machuga said last week by phone. “A whopping $200. At the time that was a whole heck of a lot of money. It was great!”
After that initial donation, Machuga made the decision to bring Banton on as a partner, a decision that he says was like “pouring rocket fuel” into OSD’s engine.
“It would have taken me five years to do what he did in six months,” Machuga said. “He offered his business development experience to help grow OSD. … Six months of Glenn Banton was amazing.”
In early 2014, Machuga says Banton asked for the title of CEO as a way to leverage more negotiating power when working with their partners in the gaming industry. Machuga agreed to it with a “digital handshake.” It’s at this point, he says, that he began to lose control of the organization.
“I didn’t know any better. I was just an infantry grunt trying to do some good out there, trying to help fellow veterans out of my basement on the weekends when I had some time.”
We reached out to Banton for his account of the event and, with the help of his PR firm, were able to speak with him by phone late last week.
“I actually don’t know what the specific moment was [that I became CEO],” he said. “I don’t want to make something up. But the particular thing is, Stephen had a great idea. He was entrepreneurial. He had this vision of supporting veterans in gaming. But, at the same time, he asked me very specifically, ‘I want to make this into something that’s a viable business, be something that we can have as a job, that is super awesome and to be able to support ourselves and our family and bring other people in. But what comes with that is a set of accountability and a set of bringing things into compliance.”
An innovator’s dilemma
Without a doubt, Banton’s tenure with OSD has been marked by exceptional growth. Machuga himself notes how its total donations, including cash gifts and in-kind product, expanded by a factor of five through 2014.
“Personally I raised $20,000,” Machuga said. “The next year, I raised $100,000 by myself. … The third year, with Glenn on … we raised $500,000.”
That growth, Banton says, puts OSD in a unique position to compete with the largest veterans organizations in the U.S.
“As you continue to grow,” Banton said, “and the need is out there, you start looking at the generational relevance and the fact that gaming, in and of itself, is something that a lot of people participate in. … When you look at that, you have to realize that what we do is first and foremost for veterans. It’s not just for gamers, it’s not just for gaming veterans; it’s for veterans.”
Ultimately, Banton sees OSD growing to match the efforts of organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project.
“If we weren’t aiming for that, I actually believe we’re doing it wrong. Our goal is to look at this generation, identify ways that we can support them and we’re doing that very successfully through gaming.
OSD’s leadership sees it growing to compete with organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project.
“We need to fill a major void right now. You have organizations, amazing ones like the VFW, AMVets, and the American Legion that face an innovator’s dilemma. What do they do? They’re, in a broad sense, becoming more and more irrelevant to this generation. At the same time, they need to be respectful to the older generations that they have.
“Somebody has to step in. Somebody’s got to, otherwise we’re going to continue to have 22 [veteran] suicides a day. We’re going to continue to have high unemployment specifically for veterans, and we’re going to continue to have a disproportionate amount of vets that are homeless in relation to the civilian population.”
Many people close to the situation that Polygon interviewed said that OSD was showing signs of drifting from its original mission as a gaming-based charity. It’s an allegation that Banton firmly denies.
“I think it’s just a misconception,” Banton told Polygon. “I don’t know where they’re getting that from other than our messaging not being correct, because what I put out — or I should say what we put out and what we actually do is more gaming stuff and gaming events and gaming experiences and gaming gear and bigger opportunities.
“We were the beneficiary of Humble Bundle. We have a very solid and growing partnership with GameStop. I don’t know how many of our local chapters were out recruiting [during] the Black Ops 3 release. We have many, many of those types of suggestions. So, I’m not sure where that’s coming from. I almost wonder if they’re actually participating.”
Regardless of whether OSD is straying from the gaming space, Machuga tells Polygon that he never wanted OSD to compete at such a high level with organizations such as Wounded Warrior. He was more than happy to be “a big fish in a small pond,” and to continue to do the hard work of shipping lavish care packages to active-duty troops around the world.
However, as 2014 progressed Machuga says that Banton began to seed the OSD board with his friends and business associates from the Austin area. Those board members undoubtedly raised the profile of the charity, which gave it both access and influence with larger partners. The board currently includes Chris Keeling, director of product vision at Wargaming Americas as well as Jason Schauble, the chief revenue officer at weapons manufacturer SilencerCo, formerly the CEO of Android-based firearms startup TrackingPoint.
But, Machuga says, none of these individuals even made the effort to personally reach out to him, the
organization’s founder, when they were brought on. Over time, Machuga says they helped to enable Banton to take more and more responsibility away from him. Eventually, he says they also allowed Banton to hire the man who would come to replace him entirely, OSD’s current chief operating officer Ray “DBLDeathDealer” Whitaker.
Polygon reached out to Whitaker for this story, as well as each of OSD’s board members, and received no comments in return aside from our call with Banton and a prepared press release.
“Glenn would come and ask me for something, such as moving the bank accounts from out of Virginia where the charity is based,” Machuga said. “‘Maybe we should move it to Texas?’ Well why would we do that? ‘Well, because Texas smiles on military charities, and I can get a deal at our bank to waive a lot of the rates. And I can talk to them,’ this that and the other thing.
“And again, why would I think anything is wrong? … At no point in time did I think that I should have a lawyer take a look at this, because we were just doing this together. It was just two friends just running down the road together.”
After Whitaker was brought on in June of this year, Machuga says that he became the go-between for all points of contact with Banton.
“There was a two month period where I didn’t hear hide-nor-hair of Glenn,” Machuga said. “That’s when things started to go sideways. … Without going too much deeper down this rabbit hole, I felt personally that it was time to leave the organization.”
While neither Machuga nor Banton would comment specifically on how or why the resignation was tendered on Nov. 1, it’s clear that the change in the organization’s locus of power was among the reasons its founder left.
No promises were made
Machuga isn’t the only person splitting with OSD. Among those leaving the organization are members of OSD’s Teams program, a stateside effort to drum up local support around the country and host in-person events with veterans.
Throughout 2014 the Teams program was ramped up nationwide. Several members of the Teams, as well as other OSD volunteers, tell Polygon they were initially unpaid. However, some claim to have received verbal assurances from Banton that they would be brought on as full-time employees in 2015.
Many volunteers were involved in OSD’s ambitious 8-Bit Salute, a marathon streaming event hosted across multiple channels on Twitch that sought to raise $1.337 million in cash over a single weekend in May. That effort fell remarkably short, earning just over $300,000. It was then transitioned into a year-long event and, to date, has only earned $418,000.
Sources tell Polygon that in the months following the 8-Bit Salute, those who had been verbally promised salaries either found those packages significantly reduced or were not offered them at all.
“No promises were made for any employment,” Banton told Polygon. “No promises whatsoever. In a general sense, to anybody that would be seeking employment for any position within Operation Supply Drop, the expectation is that they’re going to have a role, that is defined with metrics associated with it, and they are going to earn the wage based upon being able to execute on those agreed upon responsibilities.”
A pincer movement
The end result is that as of this week, the gaming world has two remarkably similar military charities, both of which share the same founder.
“At OSD, we believe that no one person is bigger than the mission,” Banton said via a statement prepared by his PR firm. “The team we have in place is continually working to enrich the lives of veterans, active-duty military, and their families, through our activities.”
“OSD is a tremendous organization,” Machuga said, via his own statement made on behalf of Stack-Up.Org. “But I personally wanted to get back to the original missions and values on which I founded the charity, by helping our troops solely through the healing power of video games.
“Video games saved my life.”
“Video games saved my life, and helped me transition when I came back home from my deployment overseas. With Stack-Up, I hope to bring what helped me personally to others in similar positions. Hence our promise — ‘Veterans are our mission. Gaming is our passion.'”
Speaking with Polygon, Banton sounded genuinely pained to see Machuga go, nevertheless he said that “the beautiful thing about a non-profit is that everybody and nobody owns the non-profit. It’s nobody’s.”
“My hopes for myself,” Banton said, “for every employee, for the board members, is that they’re not choosing to work with Operation Supply Drop, or partner with us, because of me or because of anybody. They’re doing it because of the mission as they see it, and as they see us executing on it. This happens. It’s not awesome, but at the same time we’re still going to carry on.”
We asked Machuga what he’d learned from his time working under Banton, the man who now controls the charity he founded.
“There’s a lot of great take-aways from my time with Glenn Banton,” he said late last Friday, sounding tired. “It’s lessons that I plan on taking into my new charity. Ah, you know where I’m goin’. I don’t know how to answer that. It’s tough.”