The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) is a very popular charity, obviously: its purpose is to provide charitable assistance to wounded military personnel. There is, however, now a troubling CBS News report alleging that the charity has been spending more and more on staff perks and junkets since new CEO Steven Nardizzi took over. Basically, the charity now reportedly spends only about 60% of its revenues on veterans’ services, which is… not very high for a charity that is supposed to be dedicated to veterans’ services. This sentence from the report is probably the meat of it: “According to the charity’s tax forms obtained by CBS News, spending on conferences and meetings went from $1.7 million in 2010, to $26 million in 2014, which is the same amount the group spends on combat stress recovery.” (Fox News is also reporting on this story, but it’s mostly just repeating the CBS one. The local news reports on this are likewise generally from CBS affiliates).
This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the charity; there was, in fact, a somewhat ugly set of accusations and counter-accusations back at the end of 2014 as to whether the charity was or was not a scam. The major argument by WWP and its boosters back then was that it was necessary to grow staff and aggressively fundraise in order to grow the charity – which is a valid argument. And if you look at the trend line over time (image via WWP’s Charity Navigator page), you will see that obviously the rise of WWP’s Primary Revenue has outpaced that of WWP’s Program Expenses. So, clearly, the fundraising (which makes up about 85% of WWP’s Program Expenses in 2014) is working.
But we’re still going to get hung up on things like conferences, and staff spending. Come, I will conceal nothing from you: CBS has been preparing this piece for a while now. In fact, they dropped the second part to this series this morning (this one alleging a lack in mental health services for veterans). Also, and let us be honest here… this is not a ‘CEO is embezzling the money and planning to decamp to Belize’ story. What this is, though, is a ‘CEO of charity sets UP an HR project like the charity is actually a for-profit business’ story. That is problematical.
I mean, I am sure that the people who work for WWP do appreciate getting to go to conferences in nice hotels now and having a little money spent on their working conditions for a change and how many of those same people got upset when the IRS was caught spending taxpayer money on Star Trek spoof videos? …Kind of the same kind of thing, there. Not quite – there are differences between involuntary taxpayer money and voluntary donation money – but close enough for this discussion*. The rules are simply different for nonprofits, and people can get legitimately touchy on the subject.
One last note, and I’m tacking it on the end for a reason: no, I do not think that CBS News deliberately put together this story on a moment’s notice, just to hit Donald Trump (who is reportedly now planning a Wounded Warrior Project event to run opposite of Thursday’s debate). Stories like these are planned out and scheduled well ahead of time. I do think that CBS News cannot believe its luck, though. As for Trump: well, his instincts have always been to find the biggest and splashiest thing that’s available, and go with that. Possibly he should have… picked a smaller charity to raise up, this time? Presumptuous of me to even suggest that, of course – but then, ‘presumptuous’ has become kind of a null word, this campaign season.
PS: Yes, I remember 2004 and Dan Rather, too. That’s why I went and looked up the Charity Navigator data for myself. Click the links, make up your own mind: as I noted above, I don’t think that the charity is actively embezzling the money. I do think that the CEO needs to stop treating WWP like it was a for-profit corporation, though. Even if you don’t think asceticism is a virtue generally it’s still kind of a required one for nonprofits and charities.
*It does not actually matter if any one individual donor is happy or unhappy with Wounded Warrior Project’s budgetary process. Said individuals only speak for themselves, after all.