As charities go, the Wounded Warrior Project’s stated mission is about as noble as it gets: “to honor and empower Wounded Warriors.”
Even civilians who haven’t supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan feel concern for the many young people who have come back from those wars with injuries and mental conditions that could affect the rest of their lives. Donors — mostly senior citizens giving small amounts — have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the Wounded Warrior Project, and the organization has used those donations to assist injured service members and to raise public awareness of their needs.
That’s commendable. What’s not so commendable is that a lot of that money, according to investigations by The New York Times and CBS News, was used in ways that donors probably didn’t intend. For instance, it funded aggressive fundraising and lobbying efforts fighting legislation to limit how much nonprofits can spend on overhead.
In 2014, WWP spent about 40 percent of donations on overhead, or about $124 million. That’s according to Charity Navigator, which tracks how much charities spend on non-mission purposes. It has placed the WWP on its “watch list” because its direct spending on veterans is 20 to 30 percent lower than several other veterans charities.
For example, the Semper Fi Fund spends about 8 percent of donations on overhead and Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust spends about 4 percent.
Another independent monitor, Charity Watch, has given the WWP grades of C or D since 2011. It cites an even higher percentage of donations going to overhead: 46 percent.
Many current and former employees also charge that the WWP spends extravagantly on travel, dinners, hotels and conferences. The Times quoted Connie Chapman, an Eatonville resident who headed up the charity’s Seattle office for two years, as saying that “People could spend money on the most ridiculous thing, and no one batted an eye” — things like lavish parties; $500-a-night hotel rooms; and expensive, last-minute airplane trips to attend routine meetings.
WWP CEO Steven Nardizzi defends the organization’s non-mission expenditures, arguing that they have helped the organization grow quickly and, thus, be able to help more veterans. Nardizzi, who earned $473,000 in 2014, “has become a vocal advocate of the idea that charities should be able to spend what they want on travel, fundraising and executive salaries,” according to the Times.
Although the WWP says it has helped about 80,000 veterans, a study commissioned by CBS News could not verify that. Marc Owens, ex-director of tax-exempt organizations at the IRS, reviewed the WWP’s tax documents and reports that he was unable to determine how many people had been assisted.
At first, the WWP went into attack mode, but on Monday its board promised an independent review to look into the concerns rising out of the investigations. That’s welcome. Donors should be confident that their money is actually helping our nation’s wounded warriors, not paying for big parties and ritzy travel.
In the meantime, donors should check with either Charity Navigator or Charity Watch before writing a check to any organization. So many are doing good work without funneling donations to frills. They deserve donor support.