In early 2014, after 10 years of rapid growth, the charity Wounded Warrior Project flew its roughly 500 employees to Colorado Springs for an “all hands” meeting at the five-star Broadmoor hotel.
They were celebrating their biggest year yet: $225 million raised and a workforce that had nearly doubled in just a year.
On the opening night, before three days of strategy sessions and team-building field trips, the staff gathered in the hotel courtyard. Suddenly, a spotlight focused on a 10-story bell tower where the chief executive, Steven Nardizzi, stepped off the edge and rappelled down toward the cheering crowd.
That evening is emblematic of the polished and well-financed image cultivated by the Wounded Warrior Project, the country’s largest and fastest-growing veterans charity.
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Since its inception in 2003 as a basement operation handing out backpacks to wounded war veterans, the charity has evolved into a fundraising giant, taking in more than $372 million in 2015 alone — largely through small donations from people over 65.
Today, the charity has 22 locations offering programs to help veterans readjust to society, attend school, find work and participate in athletic endeavors. It contributes millions to smaller veterans groups.
And it has become a brand name, its logo emblazoned on sneakers, paper towel packs, peanut butter cups and television commercials that run dozens of times per day.
But in its swift rise, it also has embraced aggressive styles of fundraising, marketing and personnel management that have caused many current and former employees to question whether it has drifted from its original mission.
It has spent millions a year on travel, dinners, hotels and conferences that often seemed more lavish than appropriate, more than four dozen current and former employees said in interviews.
Former workers recounted booking business-class seats and regularly jetting around the country for minor meetings, or staying in $500-a-night hotel rooms.
“People could spend money on the most ridiculous thing, and no one batted an eye,” said Connie Chapman, who was in charge of the charity’s Seattle office for two years. “I would fly to New York for less than a day to report to my supervisor.”
All staff members flying to the charity’s office at a military hospital in Germany traveled in business class, employees said. One current employee said her last-minute ticket cost $7,000.
Chapman, an Iraq veteran with post-tramatic stress disorder, said she was fired in 2012 as part of a “management restructuring.”
The organization also has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years on public relations and lobbying campaigns to deflect criticism of its spending and to fight legislative efforts to restrict how much nonprofits spend on overhead.
About 40 percent of the organization’s donations in 2014 were spent on overhead, or about $124 million, according to the charity-rating group Charity Navigator.
While that percentage, which includes administrative expenses and marketing costs, is not as high as for some groups, it is far more than for many veterans charities, including the Semper Fi Fund, a wounded-veterans group that spent about 8 percent of donations on overhead.
As a result, some philanthropic watchdog groups have criticized the Wounded Warrior Project for spending too heavily on itself.
Some of its own employees have criticized it, too. During five years with the Wounded Warrior Project, William Chick, a former supervisor, said of the charity, “It slowly had less focus on veterans and more on raising money and protecting the organization.”
Chick, who was fired in 2012 after a dispute with his supervisor, said he saw the Wounded Warrior Project help hundreds of veterans. But like other former employees, he asserted the group has adopted a policy of swiftly firing anyone leaders consider a “bad cultural fit.”
Eighteen former employees, many wounded veterans themselves, said they had been fired for seemingly minor missteps or perceived insubordination. At least half a dozen former employees said they were let go after raising questions about ineffective programs or spending.
A spokeswoman for the charity said it fired those people because of poor performance or ethical breaches, and that each person was given the opportunity to address their work problems.
The spokeswoman, Ayla Tezel, said more than a third of the charity’s employees are veterans, and that the organization is rated one of the top nonprofits to work for by the NonProfit Times.
“Sometimes employees make poor choices that can’t be overlooked,” Tezel said. “And sometimes those employees are veterans.”
Veterans organizations in United States often reflect the era in which they were created: After World War I, they resembled fraternal orders. After Vietnam, many focused on advocacy in Washington.
The Wounded Warrior Project cuts a different profile. Under Nardizzi’s direction, it has modeled itself on for-profit corporations, with a focus on data, scalable products, quarterly numbers and branding.
In an interview at the organization’s four-story headquarters in a palm-lined office park in Jacksonville, Florida, Nardizzi, 45, said spending on fundraising and other expenses not directly related to veterans programs has enabled the Wounded Warrior Project to grow faster and serve more people. It estimates that 80,000 veterans have used its services.
“I look at companies like Starbucks — that’s the model,” Nardizzi said. “You’re looking at companies that are getting it right, treating their employees right, delivering great services and great products, then are growing the brand to support all of that.”
The charity recently pledged to raise $500 million for a trust to fund lifetime supplemental health care for severely wounded veterans. And on Tuesday, it started a program to provide care for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, two of the most common injuries for veterans of recent wars.
Such ambitious programs would be impossible without significant spending on fundraising and staff, said Nardizzi, who has become a vocal advocate of the idea that charities should be able to spend what they want on travel, fundraising and executive salaries.
“How many others are not scaling up to cure cancer, to help the environment, because there is a belief we shouldn’t invest in those things?” asked Nardizzi, who was given $473,000 in compensation in 2014.
The Wounded Warrior Project asserts that it spends 80 percent of donations on programs, but former employees and charity watchdogs say the charity inflates its number by using practices such as counting some marketing materials as educational.
The spending began to attract attention. Charity Watch, an independent monitoring group, gave Wounded Warrior Project a “D” rating in 2011 and has not given it a grade higher than C since.
Part of the organization’s drive for growth has been a tough stance toward workers considered unproductive or disloyal.
After Jesse Longoria recovered from a roadside bomb blast that nearly killed him in Iraq, he got a job with the organization training veterans to help other veterans.
“I loved it,” the former Marine sniper said. “By giving back, I was helping myself and helping other vets.”
In 2012, after Longoria had been working for the charity about a year, he had to have his right arm amputated because of lingering damage from Iraq.
Soon after the amputation, he said, he was racked by haunting emotions from Iraq and checked himself into suicide watch at a psychiatric ward.
A week later, he was back at work. After one of his training sessions, a fistfight broke out between veteran mentors who had been drinking. Longoria was not in the room at the time but was held responsible for the fight, his boss at the time, Chick, said in an interview.
Chick’s own supervisor told him to fire Longoria. Chick said he refused, but was ordered by his boss to write an email recommending the firing.
“He said you better do this or you are going to look disloyal to the organization,” Chick said.
The Wounded Warrior Project said Longoria was terminated at Chick’s recommendation. The organization fired Chick later the same day for insubordination.
Longoria said he was offered money in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement, but refused. Other former employees said they had signed such forms and could not speak.
Longoria said that after he was fired, he fell into depression but was also relieved to be gone. He said he felt guilty about what he saw as widespread waste at the charity.
“It got under my skin, started eating at me,” he said. “I knew where the money was going to. It seemed to me like it was a big lie.”