The controversy surrounding the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that provides life-saving services to disabled veterans and their families, is fueled by sloppy, simplistic reporting. Of far greater importance, this "scandal" story is driven by a widespread misunderstanding of how modern charities operate, and the resources they need to scale solutions equal to vast social problems.
The stakes are high. Since 9/11, more than 700,000 veterans have come home requiring VA care for service-related disabilities. A Harvard University study estimates the cost of their care within 40 years will total $1 trillion. Last year alone, the Wounded Warrior Project provided services to almost 100,000 wounded warriors and family members. The WWP also launched a $100 million network to provide mental health treatment to veterans who could not obtain timely service from the government.
Misreported facts about how the WWP meets such challenges are easy to correct. An independent investigation by Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and FTI Consulting ordered by the WWP board of directors should set the record straight.
For example, journalists reported that the WWP spent lavishly on travel. Ninety-nine percent of all organizational travel, including our own, was coach and economy class. The 1 percent includes business-class trips for lengthy international flights in which travelers were sent directly to the Department of Defense Medical center in Germany to provide immediate services to wounded warriors.
Journalists reported that the WWP spent $26 million on conferences and events in one year, implying that those expenses were for staff. In fact, $24.4 million, or 94 percent, of that sum was spent on veterans programs, including travel, food and lodging for wounded warriors and their families to participate in therapeutic activities.
The media fixated on a staff conference at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado, alleging it cost $3 million. The investigation determined that it came to less than $970,000. No one reported that we negotiated a deeply discounted rate of approximately $150 per room a night or that the Broadmoor generously discounted both meal and conference facility costs.
While the media reported the WWP spent 54-60 percent on programs, the investigation confirmed that 80.6 percent of its spending went towards programs.
That's not to say that the organization, or we, have been perfect. Any organization, particularly one growing as fast a the WWP, needs to continuously improve year over year, and it has. But if the allegations leveled agains the WWP's spending were proven untrue, why do questions about the WWP's spending persist?
Because the way we think about charity is fundamentally flawed. The prevailing view is that the less a charity spends on fundraising and administration, the more good it can do. That notion is reinforced by charity-rating agencies like Charity Navigator that rank charities based on their overhead spending without any evaluation of the impact a charity makes.
The truth is that without reasonable investments in fundraising and administration, charities like the WWP would accomplish far less for fewer veterans. The WWP was a small organization when it set its goal to impact a generation of warriors. Thanks to marketing in the form of advertising and fundraising — often portrayed in the media as an extravagance if not outright larceny — the WWP programs grew by over 50 percent year over year.
This drove program spending from $12 million to serve several thousand wounded veterans in 2008 to $275 million in services for almost 100,000 warriors and family members by 2015.
The WWP board approved every budget and plan to increase the scope, depth and quality of programs. We hired the most skilled and committed people we could find to provide warriors with professional support in mental health, physical rehabilitation and job preparation and job training. We provided that team with the tools, training and support to help warriors and families in crisis every day.
After all, without its 600 passionate and dedicated staffers, the WWP would have no services to offer at all. Even with our focus on recruiting and training the best staff, spending on salaries remained flat between 2008-15 while spending on programs for wounded warriors grew 2,200 percent.
The results of these investments have paid off. Last year, the WWP's people placed 2,555 wounded warriors and their caregivers in jobs generating $87 million in annual income for their families. WWP also provided home care to the most catastrophically injured warriors at an average annual cost of over $40,000 per family to maximize their independence and keep them out of nursing homes.
But such outcomes never would have been possible if we had adhered to the blinkered standards by which charities are judged and rated. If we are going to provide meaningful support rather than empty promises, charities need to be allowed to develop the people who provide services and grow support to extend their mission.
Steven Nardizzi and Al Giordano were the CEO and COO of the Wounded Warrior Project until March 10, 2016, when they were fired by the board of directors. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.