via Moak: Wounded Warrior project faces scrutiny, clarionledger.com, 2/10/2013
It started with a great idea. A wounded veteran named John Melia, who had been seriously injured in a helicopter crash during military operations in Somalia in the early 1990s, wanted to do something to help his fellow veterans who had suffered injuries during their service. In 2003, Melia and some friends began collecting simple items such as toiletries, socks and playing cards and stuffing them into backpacks. The group (which soon became known as the Wounded Warrior Project) distributed the backpacks to veterans at VA hospitals, helping provide much-needed help to people who had risked life and limb for our country.
As the fledgling organization began to grow, it found itself meeting a crucial need during protracted military operations in the Middle East, and the money began pouring in. Americans rallied, because most Americans consider supporting veterans to be a patriotic duty. The organization adopted the slogan, “The greatest casualty is being forgotten” and received endorsements from high-profile celebrities such as Trace Adkins and Gary Sinise. According to Charity Navigator, the organization raised more than $342 million in 2014. Programs have expanded to include helping veterans reintegrate into society and find work.
But recently, the organization has come under fire for what some have called lavish spending. WWP has reportedly hosted pricey fundraisers and company meetings and has been accused of spending only six of every 10 donated dollars on programs that actually help veterans. As the New York Times and CBS News broke stories about alleged misuse of donated money, other media jumped in, and whistleblowers began coming out of the woodwork, alleging various questionable practices and a corporate culture that discouraged employees from asking too many questions.
Initially, the WWP appeared defiant, demanding a retraction from CBS in a fiery letter refuting the charges. But then the organization’s board of directors promised a full accounting of WWP’s finances and governance. “The Board takes very seriously the concerns that have been raised in recent days and is in the process of retaining independent advisors to conduct a thorough financial and policy review of the concerns,” the letter noted. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to our warriors and supporters and will ensure that the organization is effectively fulfilling this important mission.”
Any nonprofit that receives public donations to carry out its work is expected to be accountable for how that money is spent. The public demands that. Many charity rating watchdogs, such as the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator, use a broad-based approach to rating a charity and consider factors such as how the organization is led and governed, their commitment to transparency, their focus on the mission, how much money is actually spent on the cause to which they’re committed, how well they treat their donors and other factors. There is much more to assessing a charity than just a number, but that number (called the overhead ratio) is often given more weight that it should be in the minds of donors. Most donors understand a charity has to keep its lights on, its employees paid and to take care of the many “overhead” costs involved in providing help. As a general rule, though, donors also expect their dollars will go toward helping a group of people, rather than lining the pockets of highly paid staff, consultants and fundraisers.
With all the news breaking about this one organization, it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon of condemnation. Many have begun to get nervous about sending their money to this or other large organizations. It’s important to note such condemnationmay be deserved, but all the facts aren’t in yet.
In this column, we have always tried to encourage people to give, but give wisely. If you’re sending in your donation to any organization, they should do everything in their power to give the maximum they can to help the people and causes they’re committed to helping. That means balancing their support of the “cause” with the need to provide that support in a responsible and ethical way. Never should they lose sight of the understanding they are stewards of a valuable commodity — not money, but trust. Once that’s been lost, it’s gone forever. WWP’s response to this crisis will have a lot to do with whether it survives, or just becomes another cautionary tale in the history of American charity work.