The Wounded Warrior Project is an admirable cause that often gains bipartisan support and mentions along the presidential campaign trail. However, disturbing reports from the New York Times and CBS News about the organization’s excessive spending on overhead raise issues of accountability.
That’s too bad. The Wounded Warrior Project, in its infancy in 2003 handing out backpacks to wounded veterans, deeply resonates with Americans. The sentiment is a byproduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the latter a seemingly endless exercise in near futility. The spirit of giving is well founded and the Wounded Warrior Project remains a worthy cause, but reports have revealed a less attractive side to the nonprofit, operating more as a for-profit, at least in its overly corporate culture.
The New York Times recounted a celebration in 2014, following 10 years of rapid growth, and an “all hands” meeting at the five-star Broadmoor hotel in Colorado. Five hundred employees had been flown in for the meeting to celebrate the biggest year at $225 million raised and a nearly doubled workforce. The opening night extravaganza featured Chief Executive Steven Nardizzi stepping off the edge of a 10-story bell tower and “rappelling toward the cheering crowd.”
The Wounded Warrior Project is “the country’s largest and fastest-growing veterans charity,” according to the Times, taking in more than $372 million in 2015, mostly from small donations from people over 65. The charity has branched out to 22 locations, running a variety of programs for veterans and contributing to smaller veterans groups. Smart brand imaging has taken its logo and placed it on everyday items and featured the organization in television commercials.
However, a number of former employees have offered accounts of excess, from millions spent per year on travel, dinners, hotels and conferences. The organization has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on public relations and lobbying campaigns, according to the Times, to counter criticism of its spending, in addition to fighting legislative efforts to restrict how much money nonprofits spend on overhead.
Citing the charity-rating group Charity Navigator, the article said about 40 percent of the organization’s donations in 2014 were spent on its overhead, or about $124 million. The Wounded Warrior Project has staunchly defended its practices and the for-profit model it emulates. Nardizzi said spending on fundraising and other expenses not directly related to veterans programs has enabled the organization to “grow faster and serve more people,” with a self-estimated 80,000 veterans using its services.
Yet Charity Watch, an independent monitoring group, gave the organization a “D” rating in 2011 and has since declined to give it a higher grade.
Wounded Warrior gave $150,000 to a nonprofit called the Charity Defense Council and Nardizzi joined its advisory board, according to the Times, citing its website, which said the council’s mission includes defending charity spending on overhead and executive salaries. Nardizzi’s compensation in 2014 was $473,000.
The focus should strictly remain on the wounded warrior. That’s the goal, not lavish parties and over-the-top salaries.