WAR AT HOME

Wounded Warrior Project Under Fire

Is a much-touted charity for American veterans everything it says it is?

09.26.14 9:55 AM ET

Over the past decade, the Wounded Warrior Project has emerged to become one of the celebrated charities in the country—but with its prominence comes deeper scrutiny and criticism.

It’s a broad but closely held sentiment within the veterans’ advocacy community: grumbling and critiques about the fundraising behemoth WWP has become, and whether it has been as effective as it could be.

In interviews, critical veterans’ advocates and veterans charged that the Wounded Warrior Project cares more about its image than it does about helping veterans; that it makes public splashes by taking vets on dramatic skydiving trips but doesn’t do enough to help the long-term wellbeing of those injured in combat.

These criticisms come from a broad cross-section of veterans and their advocates, the vast majority of whom refused to speak on the record due to the sway the Wounded Warrior Project carries.  

“They are such a big name within the veterans’ community. I don’t need to start a war in my backyard,” a double-amputee veteran who served in Iraq told The Daily Beast. 

But granted anonymity, the vet gave voice to what is at the very least a perception problem for the WWP: “They’re more worried about putting their label on everything than getting down to brass tacks. It’s really frustrating.”

The same veteran spoke of waking up in the hospital after an IED hit his supply truck—WWP, he said, had given him only trivial merchandise: a backpack, a shaving kit and socks.

“Everything they do is a dog-and-pony show, and I haven’t talked to one of my fellow veterans that were injured… actually getting any help from the Wounded Warrior Project. I’m not just talking about financial assistance; I'm talking about help, period,” he said. 

Some gripe in interviews with the Beast about how the charity has become more of a self-perpetuating fundraising machine than a service organization. WWP certainly is successful at fundraising: It had revenues of more than $300 million, according to its most recent audited report, up from approximately $200 million the year before.

“In the beginning, with Wounded Warrior, it started as a small organization and evolved into a beast,” said Sam, an active-duty Army soldier who works with Special Forces. It's “become so large and such a massive money-maker,” he says, that he worries the organization cares about nothing more than raising money and “keeping up an appearance” for the public with superficial displays like wounded warrior parking spots at the Walmart.

Sam said he’s not interested in becoming involved with the Wounded Warrior Project after he leaves active-duty service—he prefers small nonprofits that are “just trying to survive” with a smaller budget and narrower mission.

“They’re laser-focused on making money to help vets, but forgetting to help vets,” said one veterans’ advocate. “It’s becoming one of the best known charities in America—and they’re not spending their money very well.”

The organization also engages in branded partnerships for everything from ketchup to paper towels to playing cards—something that rubs other veterans’ groups the wrong way.

“It’s more about the Wounded Warrior Project and less about the wounded warrior,” said a second veterans’ advocate.

Here are the charity’s self-reported results: As of September, the Wounded Warrior Project said it was serving more than 56,000 wounded vets and nearly 8,000 family members.

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To date, the WWP's benefits team has helped 6,600 veterans submit benefit claims, and their Warriors to Work program helped place 1,900 veterans in jobs. The organization offers peer mentoring, employment assistance services, physical health and wellness activities, and long-term support initiatives. 

But of the more than 56,000 veterans the group counts as “alumni,” meaning that they have been registered with the organization, many don’t directly engage with WWP.

Less than two-thirds (62 percent) of alumni participated in at least one WWP activity or service in the past year, according to a survey of alumni the group shared with the Beast. But according to their internal database, 78.9 percent of alumni have been involved with “engagements and interactions” with WWP this year.

The Wounded Warrior Project has also gotten mixed results from charity watchdogs: Charity Watch gave Wounded Warrior a C+ in 2013, up from a D two years prior. Charity Navigator gave it three out of four stars.

WWP claims to currently spend 80 percent of its budget on programs for veterans. But their formulation includes some solicitations with educational material on it as money spent on programs.

A 2013 collaboration between the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting reported that the charity spent just 58 percent of donations directly on veterans’ programs. That year, the figure WWP self-reported was 73 percent.

In contrast, a veterans’ charity like Fisher House, which received four stars from Charity Navigator and an A+ from Charity Watch, spent close to 95 percent of its budget on its programs.

There is also a distinct bitterness, especially from smaller advocacy groups, about the level of executive compensation doled out to the group’s leadership: For example, CEO Steven Nardizzi makes an annual salary of $375,000, according to their most recent tax report. 

WWP counters that its volunteer Board of Director studies similar organization to determine executive compensation, and that their CEO’s compensation is approximately one-tenth of 1 percent of its budget. Nardizzi himself has dismissed charity ratings as unhelpful in the past.

Ken Davis, a veteran who served in Iraq before being injured, is considered among the “alumni” of the Wounded Warrior Project—even though he said he no longer wants to be associated with it.

“I receive more marketing stuff from them, [and see more of that] than the money they’ve put into the community here in Arizona,” he told the Beast. “It’s just about numbers and money to them. Never once did I get the feeling that it’s about veterans.”

He could have used a ride to a VA facility for health care, he said. But rather than receive practical assistance from the WWP, he got a branded fleece beanie.

“They’re marketing, they’re spending money—but on what?” Davis asked.

Outside defenders of the Wounded Warrior Project, in interviews with the Beast, suggested that critics were merely jealous of the charity’s success, and that the disapproving criticisms were merely a function of fear that WWP was eating up their donor dollars.

“There’s a certain level of jealousy, that [WWP] have such cachet, and on a daily basis people will associate [other prominent veterans’ groups] as Wounded Warrior. That rubs people the wrong way,” said one such defender in the nonprofit sphere.

As for the administrative costs of the charity, the nonprofit worker continued, “There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the public sphere about what it really costs to run an effective nonprofit.”

For its part, the Wounded Warrior Project dismisses much of the criticism. 

The branding of products will “help to create awareness of the challenges and needs of this generation of veteran... help fund the 20 free programs and services we provide to injured veterans, their families and caregivers, and inform veterans of the programs and services we provide so that they can register as Alumni to take part in them,” their spokeswoman said.

As for the comfort packages and merchandise, Roberts notes that it reflects the group’s origins: WWP started with just six friends packing backpacks to provide items to wounded services warriors at Walter Reed Medical Center. And the group also says employees are empowered to provide direct assistance to veterans such as rent, utilities, food, and emergency repairs.

The Wounded Warrior Project is certainly not a scam, nor an ill-meaning charity. Even its fiercest detractors admit that WWP has the right motives, even if they believe WWP can be a lot more effective.

But as the Wounded Warrior Project has grown to become one of the nation’s most prominent veterans’ groups, it still has room for improvement.

Can it claim to serve 56,000 vets when at least one-third haven’t engaged with the group in the past year? Or claim to be maximally effective if it spends more of its budget on administrative costs than the top-ranked charities in the field do?

At the very least, the Wounded Warrior Project has a perception problem among a broad group of fellow veterans advocates and vets themselves.

“You have an organization that is spending God knows how many millions of dollars saying that they’re helping people, but they’re not,” said Davis, an Iraq veteran.