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Answering Senator Grassley’s questions about Wounded Warrior Project

Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and a fierce champion for veterans, sent a letter on March 18 to the board of directors at Wounded Warrior Project – our former bosses. His letter repeated sensational charges from CBS News and The New York Times about purported abuse of donor gifts. We welcome the senator’s scrutiny as a chance to vindicate our record, a period when this charity grew many-fold in contributions, programs and effectiveness. Of wider importance, is a need to address misconceptions about “overhead” and “fundraising” that pose a danger to the effectiveness of charities and the people they serve.

Here are some facts behind the outrage generated when the media reported that only 60 percent of WWP’s donations were spent on veterans. An independent investigation by Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and FTI Consulting, ordered by the WWP board of directors, determined that in fact 80.6 percent of the charity’s spending was on programs benefitting wounded warriors.

{mosads}This independent investigation corrects other misreported facts. For example, Chairman Grassley asks about the media charge that WWP lavished $26 million on staff conferences. In fact, $24.4 million, or 94 percent of that sum, was spent on program expenses, including the cost of travel, food and lodging for wounded warriors and their families to participate in therapeutic activities.

Chairman Grassley’s letter repeats a media charge of profligate first-class travel. Ninety-nine percent of all organizational travel, including our own, was coach and economy class. The 1 percent that was not economy-class included lengthy business-class trips for travelers dispatched directly to the Department of Defense Medical center in Germany to provide immediate services to wounded warriors.  

Chairman Grassley repeats the discredited allegation that WWP spent $3 million on a staff training conference in 2014 at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado. The true cost was less than one-third of that sum, which reflected a deeply discounted rate negotiated for the more than 400 staff and guests of $150 a room per night. The Broadmoor was generous, discounting meals and conference facility costs.

The larger issue is why did WWP hold such a conference for our people? How could we justify spending a reported 40 percent of income on “overhead”? Such continuing questions about WWP reveal the depth of misconceptions about how charities should operate.

At many human services charities, overhead and service are the same thing. WWP hires highly skilled people trained in physical rehabilitation, mental health, job preparation and training. For such a charity, good works flow from the brains, hearts and hands of our people. Bringing them offsite for an intensive session on strategy and team-building improved the effectiveness of their services. Counting them as overhead undervalues what they do.

We also invested in fundraising – another category widely considered to be waste – to increase that the charity’s reach and impact. Over the past eight years the board and staff put in place policies and programs that increased spending from $12 million annually serving a few thousand wounded veterans to $275 million in services for 100,000 warriors and their families.

The senator asked why a portion of WWP’s program spending includes “advertising and lobbying” efforts. Almost all national charities engage in advocacy activities to support their mission. Since its inception WWP has consistently advocated for improvements in government benefits for veterans and their families. Among its accomplishments, WWP spearheaded efforts for the creation of two new government programs, Traumatic Service Members Group Life Insurance and the Caregiver and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, which have provided $1.8 billion in payments to warriors and their families.

Some question WWP’s membership in the Charity Defense Council, a group that promotes awareness about how charities really operate (their mission statement: “low overhead is not the way the world gets changed.”) WWP has been able to scale its programs at a rate of over 50 percent year over year and launch new innovative programs because we made reasonable investments in fundraising and operations. Steven Nardizzi sits on the volunteer advisory board (not the governing board) along with executives of other prominent nonprofits including the Nature Conservancy, Boys & Girls Club of America, Share Our Strength, and Goodwill Industries. These leaders and entrepreneurs in the independent sector are working to change the understanding of how to maximize the reach and benefits of charitable organizations on the communities they serve.

We also feel compelled to answer the question Senator Grassley didn’t ask: What were the outcomes for warriors and their families generated by WWP’s reasonable investments in fundraising and administrative costs?

The impact generated for warriors and family members is unparalleled. Last year alone, WWP placed 2,555 wounded warriors and their caregivers in jobs, generating $87 million in annual income for their families. We launched a $100 million healthcare network to provide free mental healthcare to warriors who could not access timely, quality care from the government. We provided comprehensive in home support, including attendant care, life skills coaching, and physical rehabilitation – helping the most severely wounded warriors to maximize their independence and stay out of nursing homes and at home with their families.

Senator Grassley commitment to veterans is unmatched. We hope that he understands that such outcomes would not be possible without the reasonable investments charities make to fundraising, infrastructure and, most importantly, the training and development of passionate, dedicated staff who live and fulfill great missions every day.

Steven Nardizzi and Al Giordano were the CEO and COO of Wounded Warrior Project until March 10, 2016, when they were fired by the board of directors.

Tags Charles Grassley

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