Wounded Warriors Program’s spending under fire

Beware of do-gooders with dollar signs in their eyes. People donate their hard-earned money because they want to support a worthy cause. The fastest way for a charity to lose the public’s trust is for its administrators to treat donated money as their personal stash.

We’ve watched tough-guy actors such as Bruce Willis and Mark Wahlberg on television ads extolling the heroism of American war veterans, followed by appeals for donations to the Wounded Warrior Project. It’s almost impossible not to feel emotions welling up while watching a person whose legs were blown off by roadside bombs trying to restore some semblance of normality to his life. Yes, by all means, they deserve our support and dollars.

But now they’re being victimized a second time. In the corporate world of big dollar philanthropy, the administrators of the Wounded Warrior Project have engaged in profligate spending, according to a recent New York Times report. They’ve jetted across the ocean in expensive business class seats, held planning sessions at $500-a-night five-star hotels and generally behaved as if their employer were Microsoft or Exxon instead of a charity.

Veterans have been posting complaints online for more than a year, charging that WWP has abused the wounded warrior cause.

The New York Times detailed multiple accounts of how veterans have been dismissed from their jobs at the Wounded Warrior Project for challenging the way money was being spent or questioning executive decisions.

Even the project’s founder, John Melia, appears to have been shunted aside after registering concerns about lavish executive lifestyles and emphasis on fundraising over helping actual veterans in need.

There’s no question that Steve Nardizzi, the charity’s chief executive, has elevated WWP’s profile and given it name brand recognition across America. Nardizzi, who has never served in the military, earned about $500,000 in total compensation in 2013, according to the group’s federal tax records. His chief operating officer earned nearly $400,000. Nardizzi’s business philosophy appears to lean heavily on the you have to spend money to make money model of financial management.

But he’s spending other people’s donated money. One charity-watch organization estimates that the Wounded Warriors Project in 2014 spent $124 million — 40 percent of donations — on overhead. Reputable charities aim for something in the 20 percent-or-lower range.

The bottom line remains the same wherever you choose to donate your money: Never give blindly. Check them out first. Two online monitoring sites are an excellent place to start. Go to Charitynavigator.org for a listing of reputable versus questionable charities focusing on the cause you support. And Guidestar.org allows you to examine federal tax filings and see for yourself exactly how charity executives are rewarding themselves with your donated money.
— ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH