August 7, 2016; Florida Times-Union

The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) is beginning its long process of rehabilitation. WWP’s new CEO recently announced that an undisclosed number of the charity’s 600 employees would be laid off, funding for smaller veterans organizations will be cut back, and some of the executives’ salaries will be reduced. Details will be released in September.

When the New York Times and CBS News exposed lavish spending and other offenses at WWP earlier this year, the story surged as other veterans organizations distanced themselves from WWP, a PR firm was hired to manage the crisis, the board took the reins, the former leadership was fired, and Iowa’s Senator Grassley opened his investigation. 

This transition in leadership and organizational culture follows an intense period of growth for WWP. Founded in 2003 in the basement of Marine Corps veteran John Melia, WWP grew rapidly after Steven Nardizzi (not a veteran) took over in 2009. By 2013, WWP was raising more than $300 million a year. Complaints arose that WWP had become the “neighborhood bully” among veterans groups, suing to guard its fundraising brand. WWP fought with charity rating agencies and others that did not condone its aggressive fundraising spending and tactics. When investigative news reports emerged about WWP’s internal workings, peers, donors, and the general public were ready to believe what they read.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael S. Linnington became CEO of Wounded Warrior Project in June. A year before, Linnington became the director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the military agency that searches for and identifies the remains of missing servicemen. Before that, he served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Linnington must now rebuild WWP’s credibility and organizational culture. It will not be easy to change the behavior and attitude of staff members and volunteers to reflect the new values and beliefs he needs to bring to the cause. Linnington will need to make sure he has the right people in positions of leadership and that they receive the support they need. He will need to set clear expectations and clarify decision-making processes. He will need to meet with donors and beneficiaries. And Senator Grassley is not yet ready to let go of his investigation.

Linnington should take a good look at WWP’s fundraising and advertising practices to ward off the complaint that WWP is profiteering off the suffering of veterans. It can be assumed that extravagant staff parties and business-class air travel are now not given so much as a fleeting thought. Linnington’s salary is $280,000 compared to Nardizzi’s salary of $473,015. WWP executives can expect corresponding salary cuts.

A problem that persists at WWP is that the same board that approved Nardizzi’s annual budgets and management style remains unrepentant and fully in place. Moreover, Linnington is not exactly repudiating WWP’s past fundraising and advertising practices that inflamed the crisis and keeps Senator Grassley’s office breathing down WWP’s neck.

Linnington said that his assessment will examine how the Wounded Warrior Project spends all of its money and what programs it should drop or reduce. But he cautioned that he believes there is a “misperception out there that Charity Navigator percentages are what every nonprofit should drive for.”

The difference, he said: Wounded Warrior Project invests heavily in fundraising in part because of the scope of services it provides to wounded veterans and their families.

“There’s a certain amount of investment that needs to take place to maintain our facilities and do our advertising and do certain things that preclude us from getting to a very high percentage of donated dollars to warriors,” he said.

That tone, even if it is primarily meant to save the organization’s face, is not encouraging. Even if Linnington is eventually successful in returning WWP’s credibility and viability as a leading veteran’s organization, WWP may never be entirely free from its past neatly summed up in this “Doonesbury” strip that satirizes WWP’s aggravating and crass advertising.—James Schaffer