JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Wounded Warrior Project responded Monday to the firestorm surrounding the charity.
A News4Jax investigation uncovered reports of lavish spending on employees, a discrepancy in funds used for veteran programs, and a culture of fear inside the organization's Jacksonville headquarters.
The charity's CEO, Steven Nardizzi, remained silent Monday after three whistleblowers came forward last week to News4Jax to share concerns over how donor dollars are being spent.
But the WWP Board of Directors released a written statement:
"For more than a decade, the Wounded Warrior Project ("WWP") has operated with the sole purpose of honoring and empowering the courageous men and women who have been injured in service of our country. As a Board, we volunteer our time in support of this mission because we profoundly believe in its lasting, positive impact on the 83,000 wounded warriors and over 15,000 family members that the organization serves. We want to thank the Wounded Warrior Project's donors, sponsors, employees and partners whose extraordinary generosity makes this possible.
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. We remain steadfast in our commitment to our warriors and supporters and will ensure that the organization is effectively fulfilling this important mission."
Since the allegations surfaced, Charity Navigator, an independent charity oversight group, placed WWP, the nation's best-known charity that helps veterans, on its Watch List as an alert for donors. Before doing so, Charity Navigator's committee gave WWP two days to respond, but never heard from the organization.
“I think it's concerning anytime a charity doesn't want to answer questions about its operations,” said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator. “I think great charities out there are willing to stand behind whatever decision they make and speak to their donors about that. We usually tell donors it's a red flag if a charity won't answer your questions.
Miniutti said donors are “rattled” after the reports on WWP, and she advises donors to do their research into it and other veteran organizations before making financial contributions.
“I think based on feedback we're getting from donors, they're quite concerned,” Miniutti said. “I think many people who give to charities in this space they give with their hearts, because who doesn't want to help America's heroes.”
Charity Navigator examined Wounded Warrior Project's financial filings with the IRS and found just under 60 percent of all donations go back into veterans' programs.
Another charity watchdog, Charity Watch, used a different financial resource, Wounded Warrior Project's independently audited financial statements, and found just 54 percent of donations went to veterans.
Wounded Warrior Project disputes both ratings on social media, saying 80 percent of spending goes back into programs for services.
Both watch groups explained the difference to News4Jax, arguing that WWP is counting packets mailed to the public asking for money as a program expense instead of a fundraising expense, where Charity Navigator said it actually belongs.
“We are all quite aware of vets and their needs. That's not this charity's mission,” Miniutti said. “They're supposed to be providing services, so we don't see how those mailings are programmatic based.”
Donor support for the charity has exploded. In its first fiscal year 2005 to 2006, the charity collected $10 million. By 2010, it was $40 million. Then donations grew to $70 million. The following year it doubled to $143 million, followed by $225 million. In fiscal year 2014, WWP received $312 million.
In the most recent financial statements available, fiscal year 2014, News4Jax uncovered that the group's CEO Steve Nardizzi took home $496,000 in salary and benefits. His number two, Al Giordano, made $424,000. Ten other executives made up to $285,000 each, all paid with donor money.
An audit of that same year shows WWP taking in an additional $88 million of in-kind contributions, or goods and services, on top of the $312 million in donations. That brings the non-profit’s total resources to $400 million.
WWP will remain on the Charity Navigator Watch List for six months.
Both Charity Navigator and Charity Watch said the unfortunate fallout to the news stories is if donors stop donating to America's veterans.
Charity Watch has given an A rating to nine veteran and military-focused charities. Those charities are:
- Armed Services YMCA of the USA
- Bob Woodruff Family Foundation
- Fisher House Foundation
- Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind
- Homes for Our Troops
- Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund
- Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund
- National Military Family Association
- Operation Homefront
For more on these charities, go to charitywatch.org and click on Veterans & Military.