Can Wounded Warrior Project pick up the pieces?

The Wounded Warrior Project announced a list of changes in response to several reports that too much of its money goes toward well-paid officials and perks, but the road to regaining the public's trust could be long. 

Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau/AP
On Jan. 8, 2016, flag wavers greet wounded soldiers traversing the Florida Keys Overseas Highway in Marathon, Fla., during Soldier Ride, staged by the Wounded Warrior Project. The organization has announced changes following reports it has used too much of its money on employees.

The Wounded Warrior Project has announced a series of changes to its structure and staffing after accusations that the nation's largest veteran charity group spends too much donor money on itself.

The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) announced a first attempt at changes, including that chief executive officer Steve Nardizzi and chief operating officer Al Giordano have left the organization, in a statement from Thursday. If it ultimately regains public trust, it will be an unprecedented success story, says Greg Hillgren, chairman of the Patriots Initiative, in a phone interview. 

"Once they’ve lost that public confidence and trust it can be game over," says Mr. Hillgren founding member of the San Diego-based watchdog of charities for veterans that removed the WWP from its directory in February. "You’re investing for impact, and when that trust is gone it’s hard for that organization to recover."

Mr. Hillgren praised the WWP's goal of supporting veterans injured physically or mentally by combat, noting it has impacted the public by its "poignant" commercials alone. He said even that does not make up for problems with both spending and transparency, and he hopes the leadership will begin providing information to donors "out in front instead of having to be repeatedly asked about it and having it dragged out in media reports."

"In terms of getting questions answered, in terms of finding further information, they scored very low," Hillgren says. 

Although it has grown from 1,850 participants to 144,000 between 2010 to 2015, reports from various news organizations and other charity watchdogs have revealed areas where the non-profit needs significant improvement, The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Last year, The Daily Beast noted that WWP spent tens of thousands of dollars in court and threatened other charities over their use of similar logos or names. And in a separate report, the Beast criticized WWP’s payment of its employees – the group's top 10 salaries totaled around $2.6 million – as well as its selling donor information to outside parties.

Now, a new CBS News investigation is calling into question the practices relating to the charity’s operational costs and employee spending. 

A 2015 report showed Wounded Warrior Project was spending 59.9 percent of money on programs, according to data compiled by The Christian Science Monitor. That is the lowest share of expenses to devote toward programming of any of the nation's top 50 largest charities, and only two others devoted less than 70 percent, with most charities spending much more of their budgets on the cause. 

The non-profit's self-assessment was more generous, suggesting 80.6 percent of donations go toward programming and an employee conference at a resort cost $970,000 rather than $3 million. Following an independent review ordered by the board, the Wounded Warrior Project not only removed two top officials, but also promised to more firmly limit air travel to economy class, retrain employees, change policies on employee expenses, and make financial statements available. While searching for a new CEO, the Wounded Warrior Project Board of directors and Chairman Anthony Odierno will lead the organization. 

The group's larger employee culture may need more change, however, as a whistleblower told the Daily Beast that "selfish attitudes, egomaniacal actions, and self-interest led to donors being lied to and veterans being used for personal gain."

"While the firing of Nardizzi and Giordano is a solid first step to ending the rampant wasteful spending and poor organizational management at WWP, the board must continue their investigation to hold all of the executive officers accountable," the whistleblower told the Daily Beast. 

Hillgren says the steps taken Thursday were a good beginning, but they must continue over years for the WWP to regain its place on the watchdog's directory – and the public's good graces.

"They are really going to have to re-prove themselves over the next couple of years," Hillgren says. "It’s not going to take a year."

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