Charity watchdog drops Wounded Warrior Project from watch list

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After eight months of scrutiny, the Wounded Warrior Project's effort to rebuild its reputation in the nonprofit community got a big boost when a major charity watchdog group removed WWP from its watch list.

Charity Navigator, known for its independent review of nonprofit’s across the country, added Wounded Warrior Project to its watch list in January 2016 after the I-TEAM and national news outlets began reporting on whistleblower claims of questionable spending by the veteran’s nonprofit headquartered in Jacksonville.

Last month, Charity Navigator changed its grading system from a watchlist and donor advisory to an all new advisory system. That new system placed WWP on a “Low Concern CN Advisory,” and that designation was removed this month.

On its website, Charity Navigator explained, “In accordance with our policy for removing CN Advisories, Charity Navigator removed the Low Concern CN Advisory for the Wounded Warrior Project on October 1, 2016 because the CN Advisory had been in place for more than six months (since January 2016) ... How long a charity keeps its advisory depends on the level of concern. Low Concern CN Advisories will remain in place a minimum of 6 months and High to Moderate Concern CN Advisories will remain in place for a minimum of 12 months.”

Charity navigator now rates Wounded Warrior Project an 82 out of 100, giving it high marks for accountability and transparency but a lower score for its financials, largely tied to how much of its donations are spent on fundraising.

"We're working hard to get the highest rating we can with all the charity organizations that access us, because I know that's how a lot of folks judge which organization to give to," WWP's new CEO Mike Linnington told the I-TEAM previously. "That's also a part of why we're restructuring to reduce cost every way we can."

The embattled charity has been in the spotlight when media reports exposed questionable spending practices and a culture of intimidation and fear by the nonprofit after whistleblowers came forward.  Seven former employees all relayed stories to the I-TEAM of wasteful spending at employee training events and unnecessary office parties. That spending included a training event at the Broadmoor in Colorado, which cost $970,000.

Along with spending practices, former employees also questioned the group's practice of printing expensive annual yearbooks for its staff that cost more than $20,000 a year.

The charity has publicly denied any fiscal wrongdoing but agreed the optics may have left donors with questions about the Wounded Warrior Project’s management decisions.

Former chief executive officer Steven Nardizzi and chief operating officer Al Giordano were terminated by the charity’s board of directors following an independent review of the nonprofit’s financials.

In the wake of the spending scandal, nearly 100 employees and executives have been replaced, nine regional offices were closed, up to $200 million in donations were lost and new leadership is in place.

"We're coming to the end of the year. We've lost about 25 percent of generous Americans' donations and we hope to build that back quickly. Next year is going to be a very important year for us," Linnington said of the importance on rebuilding and focusing on the future.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which was also investigating Wounded Warrior Project, told News4Jax in September there is still lots to consider in what went wrong and reforms necessary going forward.