If the now-former top executives of the Wounded Warrior Project had the capacity for shame, and if shame left visible scars, they would be among the most visibly wounded figures in the American public spotlight.
Those wounds, however — unlike those of the courageous men and women for whom donations to WWP are supposed to provide healing, medical care, job training, disability equipment and education — would evoke no sympathy or admiration, and certainly no respect.
Wounded Warrior Project Chief Executive Officer Steven Nardizzi and Chief Operating Officer Al Giordano were fired Thursday by the organization’s board of directors after a series of jaw-dropping revelations about how much of the money the organization collected in recent years was spent on lavish living instead of wounded warriors.
Reports by, among others, CBS News and the New York Times surfaced in January about what the latter called “aggressive styles of fund-raising, marketing and personnel management that have many current and former employees questioning whether it has drifted from its mission.”
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Specifically, the Times reported — with corroboration from then-current and former WWP employees — that they regularly traveled around the country to “minor meetings” on business-class air fares and stayed in $500-a-night accommodations.
And in what has to be among the bitterest ironies involving a scandal of this nature, the Times reported that WWP had also “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.”
Perfect. After getting caught spending too much money on themselves instead of the people they were supposed to be helping, they spent still more to control the spin and lobby against political calls for legal accountability.
Erick Millette, a former WWP employee who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, told CBS News that he left the organization after just two years because of “how they spend their money … I’ll be damned if you’re gonna take hardworking Americans’ money and drink it and waste it, instead of helping those brave men and women who gave you the freedom to walk the face of this earth.”
CBS obtained Wounded Warrior Project tax forms that showed the charity’s spending on such junkets rose from $1.7 million in 2010 to $26 million in 2014 – the same year about 500 WWP staffers attended a four-day conference at a Colorado luxury resort, to the tune of approximately $3 million.
The New York Post cited a report from Charity Navigator, a watchdog organization, indicating that WWP spent only about 60 percent of the donations it collects on veterans. (The same source reports that the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation uses about 98 percent of its donations for veteran services and programs.)
Fred Kane, the father of two Iraq War vets, told CBS, “I feel like I’m representing all these people who have donated over the years, all these seniors over 65 sending $19 a month, all these people on fixed incomes … If no one is going to talk about this right now and it has to be me, then it has to be me.”
A January interview in the Times with then-CEO Nardizzi is appallingly revealing:
“I look at companies like Starbucks — that’s the model. 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.”
Should anybody have needed to explain to Nardizzi that the appropriate “model” for a charitable organization is not a private business that’s supposed to make money for its shareholders?
Fortunately, if belately, it seems the WWP board of directors just did.
That’s welcome news, because the Wounded Warrior Project needs to rebuild confidence in its commitment to the core mission. Since its founding in 2003, WWP has done a lot of good for a lot of Americans who served us with a degree of selfless courage we can never repay.
“Selfless” is the operative word here. Somewhere along the line, that got lost in the process of “growing the brand.”