IVN News

Controversy Surrounds Wounded Warriors, Lavish Salaries, and White House

Paid Advertisement

Editor’s note: This article, originally published on April 22, was updated on April 25, 2014. The initial article had Ret. Staff Sgt. Dean Graham’s name as Alex Graham. The article has been corrected.

Last week, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki welcomed wounded veterans to Soldier Ride, one in a series of cycling events that the Wounded Warrior Project organizes every year.

The White House rollout was one of 19 the Florida-based nonprofit plans to hold with amputee veterans, whom it equips with adaptive bicycles specially made to fit each veteran’s specific handicap.

The South Lawn kickoff on Thursday was the fifth for the Wounded Warrior Project and represents its ascension to a place in the national spotlight that other charities can only covet.

Left unmentioned at the media-friendly reception with the president was a lawsuit in the works against a disabled Indiana veteran who claims the Wounded Warrior Project didn’t do much for wounded vets with the more than $150 million in revenue it raised in 2012.

They want to send a message to every other person who wants to speak out against (the Wounded Warrior Project).
Ret. Staff Sgt. Dean Graham
The defendant, Ret. Staff Sgt. Dean Graham — a veteran of combat operations in Iraq with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder — first criticized the charity in a blog post he made last year, with claims the Wounded Warrior Project spent little on wounded vets and paid senior execs lavish salaries. The post appeared on the now-defunct website for Help Indiana Vets, his own tax-exempt charity, which he says he had to shut down in the wake of the lawsuit.

That was a post heard around the world.

Graham’s claims quickly ricocheted around the Internet, with numerous blogs — including Veterans Today, a news website and benefits forum — publishing his article and amplifying a Google search that now pulls up 84,000 results for the phrase “Wounded Warrior Project scam.”

The charity subsequently filed charges against Graham in December that accused the vet of defamation and unfair business competition, alleging that his post confused donors and led to a $75,000 drop-off in contributions.

“I didn’t say anything false about them,” he maintained in an interview for IVN. “They want to send a message to every other person who wants to speak out against [the Wounded Warrior Project].”

Michelle Roberts, a spokesperson for the charity, said that Graham “had been saying things for quite some time. We ignored it until it got to a point where there was a final post… that was so egregiously false and defamatory that we began to get questions. It was creating confusion in the minds of the public.

“At that point we decided we couldn’t sit by and ignore it anymore,” she added.

IVN enlisted the help of three sources with years of experience in the nonprofit sector to conduct an in-depth review of the Wounded Warrior Project’s fundraising and expenditures over the time period in question. Two — including a former controller for the United Nations Foundation and distinguished Columbia University professor — went on the record.

 

A common claim that circulated in posts after Graham published his is that the Wounded Warrior Project spent just 3.5 percent of the whopping $154 million it raised on veteran programs and services in 2012.

Sources for IVN helped vet the tax filings to verify that this simply isn’t the case. The 3.5 percent comes from roughly $5.5 million the charity made in grants to nonprofits, but the bulk of its expenditures—more than $69 million—directly funded in-house programs and services in the course of that fiscal year.

Of the $69 million, the Wounded Warrior Project spent 27 percent on direct-assistance support that included representation for hard-to-get Veterans Affairs benefits, physical rehabilitation services, and combat stress recovery. Another 19 percent funded educational and vocational programs that the charity says helped vets acquire IT skills, enroll in college, and learn to navigate the workforce.

That year, the Wounded Warrior Project allocated the rest of the $69-million in-house budget for the Soldier Ride (8%), caregiver support (6%), backpacks for recovering veterans (3.5%), and in-hospital visits by other vets that it says cultivates a “hospital buddy” system (2%).

The value was less clear with $17.4 million the charity fronted for an alumni association and $1.1 million for another initiative that it said helped vets “communicate effectively.”

Taken together, that brings the total amount spent by the Wounded Warrior Project on programs and services to roughly $75 million. The expenditures amount to roughly 48 percent of more than $154 million in revenue it counted for the 2012 fiscal year.

With $95 million in program-related expenditures, that brings the total amount that the charity spent on services for vets during the 2012 fiscal year to roughly 61 percent — less than 73 percent it said went toward vet assistance but much closer to 58 percent, a number the Tampa Bay Times reported in an independent investigation last summer.

That beats the claim that the Wounded Warrior Project spent only a small amount on veteran programs.

But that doesn’t end the criticism. Some point to the money left over by the end of the fiscal year as evidence that the charity could be doing more for beneficiaries — and that it’s using small donor contributions to put up lavish salaries and bonuses for senior executives.

 

Graham asked why the Wounded Warrior Project wound up with more than $90 million in net assets by the end of the 2012 fiscal year. The charity’s net assets in fact skyrocketed by nearly 200 percent from about $30 million in 2011, benefiting a restricted endowment.

By the same token, the vet said he financed his own charity with more than $27,000 in Veterans Affairs benefits and gave nearly all of it to the 50 Indiana-based veterans he claims he assisted. According to Graham, he provided cash assistance that came to include Wal-Mart and QuickPay gift cards and donations that he said helped struggling vets with rent.

“Everyone donates and thinks [their donations are] going to our wounded veterans, but when you have so much in net assets, it looks like they’re setting up an escrow account,” he told us.

Doug White, who teaches fundraising and board governance at Columbia University, dismisses the idea that charities should spend everything it brings in on beneficiaries.

“That’s a very bad idea,” he told us. “If the nonprofit doesn’t have the substructure to support its programs, then the programs will die.”

He went on to praise the charity’s 109-percent jump in revenue from 2011 to 2012, going so far as to bill it a “beacon of light” in a still-limping post-recession giving climate for nonprofits.

The Columbia University professor found it striking that the charity had so much in net assets on hand by the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

“It’s a great thing on the face of it,” he added.

Yet another accusation is that the nonprofit pays its executives salaries and bonuses that rival corporate sums. Records show that the Wounded Warrior Project paid 10 senior executives more than a combined $2 million in salaries, benefits, and incentive pay in 2012. Less than a fourth of it came out to $400,520 in bonuses for those officers.

CEO Steven Nardizzi walked away with $311,538, a third of it in bonus pay — an amount Charity Navigator says comes out to less than 1 percent of total operating expenses in 2012.

The base pay for the execs didn’t bother Calvin Harris, a certified public accountant and former United Nations Foundation controller, now president of Maryland-based Change Management. His own salary as onetime CFO for a vaccine-development nonprofit was roughly the same as the payout for the officer working in the same role for the Wounded Warrior Project.

What raised a flag for the consultant was the bonus pay, plus a $21-million payout to the charity’s 248-member staff — especially given that it paid more than $1 million to consult with a professional fundraising firm that year.

 

The Wounded Warrior Project justifies the compensation as equivalent to the salaries, benefits, and incentive pay comparable to what others receive for the same roles in the private sector, and all the more necessary to keep talent from shipping off.

But underlying all of that is a question that White calls the “holy grail” for nonprofits, businesses, and any service undertaking whatsoever: What’s the real impact for beneficiaries, and can it be broken down into hard, verifiable numbers for the public?

“When we talk about charities and how effective they are, we have to think really quantitatively,” he told us. “We have to question what we mean by effectiveness.”

When we talk about charities and how effective they are, we have to think really quantitatively. We have to question what we mean by effectiveness.
Doug White, Columbia University professor
The Wounded Warrior Project doesn’t doubt its effectiveness. The charity’s website lays claim to supporting 398 vets and their caregivers, placing 320 wounded veterans in jobs, and bringing out 156 vets to Soldier Rides in 2014.

For a nonprofit that Guidestar reports brought in close to $235 million in revenue in 2013, numbers like those seem curiously low. Still another question is raised by just how some of the services that it funded actually helped veterans recover from post-traumatic stress or rehabilitate from combat-related wounds.

Close to a fourth of the nonprofits that received $5.5 million in grants used theirs for recreational activities like amputee surfing, kayaking, fishing, and horse therapy. This follows lockstep behind $5.7 million for the Soldier Rides that netted so much publicity value at the White House South Lawn in April.

What’s unclear is what role, if any, cognitive therapy plays in activities like these likely to involve veterans with ongoing disabilities and therapy needs — a question made perhaps more urgent with a report by Forbes last year which found that approximately 22 vets commit suicide on average every day.

Asked whether recreational activities can benefit vets with debilitating disorders like PTSD, Carole Lieberman, a clinical faculty member with UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, says yes — but with a caveat.

“Sports and outdoors events—especially when they are enjoyed with other vets—can be very beneficial to [the vets’] mental health,” she said. “However, these cannot take the place of psychotherapy.”

To its credit, the Wounded Warrior Project appears to have spent a considerable amount of that $75 million from 2012 in direct program expenses on psychotherapy and rehabilitation services — roughly $20 million, in fact, according to our analysis.

It also made three grants with questionable impact for vets. This included $300,000 for a parade, $50,000 for a monument, and $25,000 for one nonprofit that forms said used the funds to “lobby and negotiate postal rates” for nonprofits.

Roberts didn’t comment when asked how these expenses helped empower wounded veterans.

That latter lobbying expense is in addition to $1 million the organization reported spending to influence veteran-related legislation on Capitol Hill that fiscal year. The Wounded Warrior Project takes credit for several bills made law, including the Traumatic Servicemembers Group Life Insurance Act, which it says has paid service members more than $817 million in benefits since enactment in 2005.

Roberts told us the legislation was enacted to “bridge the gap” between the time when a vet suffers injury to the time benefits kick in — a hurdle for some who have to navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs’ eligibility criteria.

 

The Wounded Warrior Project certainly has the donor money — and connections — it needs to get a reception on the White House South Lawn every year.

It also doesn’t appear to be the nonprofit that critics — specifically those in the online vet community — say dupes donors into funneling money that never reaches wounded veterans. Charity Navigator gives it three stars out of four on its website. For their parts, our sources found much of what it says it does to be on par with what they’d expect from other large nonprofits.

That said, it was hard for us to get a grasp on the overall impact of the Wounded Warrior Project’s programs. Wounded vets continue to experience epidemic rates of suicide risk and homelessness, according to various reports, and it wasn’t clear whether millions of dollars added up to provide vets with lifesaving assistance.

Asked whether suing a wounded vet like Graham ultimately helped fulfill its mission — or hurt it — Roberts held to her statement that the Wounded Warrior Project needs to protect its reputation with donors. For his part, White said he agreed with their decision, calling it “weird” that one nonprofit like Help Indiana Vets would criticize another.

Even so, some wonder whether $75,000 in alleged losses — compared to $154 million in revenue captured in 2012 that rose to more than $200 million in 2013 — is enough to justify suing a wounded veteran with PTSD in the grand scheme of things.

But Lieberman thinks the question over nonprofit assistance itself is moot, given the enormous challenges that vets returning from combat operations face today. And we think she gives us the last word for this in-depth look at one of the nation’s largest veterans charities.

She says it’s the government that needs to be doing more for vets with ongoing problems, not charities — ironic for a White House that fronts the president and vice president for an appearance on the South Lawn.

“The government is not supporting vets with PTSD and other psychological problems well at all,” she told us, describing long waiting lists at understaffed hospitals like Walter Reed that are unable to keep up with demand for medical attention.

“Nonprofits are doing the best they can, but they form a patchwork quilt that cannot make up for the government’s failure,” she said. “It’s a disgrace.”

IVP

Photo Credit: Wounded Warrior Project

Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.


Learn More About IVN

520 comments
FredCassidy
FredCassidy

About 2 years ago, I signed up for the $19+ per month donation. I really wanted the blanket they offer, but was never sent one. When I called to ask about it, the person who answered the phone wasn't interested to get me my blanket. He only wanted a new donation.  I am disappointed.

DonnaAmato
DonnaAmato

I think people like Steven Nardizzi who take money from something like wounded warriors is a thief who deserves nothing less than jail time.  Unless someone will take him down from his high place, I and many people, like me, want to help our soldiers to heal. They can not receive help from our contributions when the staff of Steven Nardizzi is ineffective to the warriors goal. Clean out the staff and the CEO.  He is not doing his job to the best of his ability of the office given him.  In short thieves like him and his staff need to be fired.  

Frank
Frank

As a veteran myself who never saw combat, I would love to help wounded veterans. Unfortunately, a CEO who is making 300K+ in salary and bonuses just doesn't make the grade for me. They can defend their 80K average salary and hiring entertainers for commercials all they want, but when I want to give to a charity, I'll be looking for one whose officers and others live a little less high on the hot.

Steve
Steve

When you do the math, their entire staff averages over $80,000 a year in salary. Where do i go to apply for a job?!? Seriously, that's hard to fathom. I've worked for a non-profit that serves veterans, and I made a third of that - as a supervisor. Some of the "feel-good" expenditures - Soldier Rides, whatever they are - seem more about the charity enhancing its public image than actually helping vets long-term. All of this being said, I'm grateful as a vet for whatever help we receive, from the VA, non-profits, and volunteers. Thanks.

Boston gal
Boston gal

I ran a clothing drive because i was told the vets need underwear and socks and personal 

toiletries and jackets -i advertised for help for new items of clothing- winter hats, gloves, T-shirts, etc- anyone involved with the veterans cause or that of the disabled should not be taking as a CEO a $300,000 salary or any excessive pay-it disgraces me and my community members-the reason we donate money is we were told all but a small percentage goes to programs-they won't be getting dollars from us again.

Edith Montgomery
Edith Montgomery

The Congress can't pay for our vet's the way they should because they say they have to cut foodstamps and other needy programs to pay for what they will allow to pass Congress ! Think on that !

David Rosa
David Rosa

Fill complaints in BBB.org is good to the Veterans. David Rosa

Carl Paul
Carl Paul

Effing SCUM! U should do it for free u leaches! Ripping off our poor boys who went whole n came back half u RAT SHI^. I aren't even a RAT, u r the excrement!

ReneeLamb1
ReneeLamb1

I would be interested to know who is on the board of directors of Wounded Warriors. Remember back in 2013 they refused to allow a church to raise money for them....they said they wouldn't accept "religious donations". If they have people employed making exorbitant salaries using veterans to do it, that doesn't seem right. The fact that Donald Trump is raising money for them instead of attending the Republic debate...it makes me wonder, what is really going on? Is Wounded Warrior Project really out to do 'EVERYTHING"  they can to help as many vets as possible? I'd like to see the numbers before I'd donate anything to them. 

JohnCooper6
JohnCooper6

@ReneeLamb1 You can Google the WWP Board, and you'll see than none of them receive a salary or bonus.  You can also Google the audited financial Statements and see how CBS 'picked' on expense totals without explaining where the money went. It's easy to look at the cost of fundraising and call it extravagant, but you need to also look at the total dollars that were raised at their events. none of the WWP staff are getting rich working there. In fact, even the CEO could make more working for the public sector.  Do some Googling and review the benefits disbursed and don't listen to liberal media making controversy where none exists. JMO. And by the way, I'm a contributor and have no affiliation withe the WWP project beyond my monthly donation. 

Boston gal
Boston gal

@JohnCooper6 @ReneeLamb1


Really?? over $300k for the CEO is far more than over 75% of the median income earners who work blue collar and white collar jobs-

greed vs care -lower his salary to $100k -thats still more than most of us make

advocate
advocate

@JohnCooper6 @ReneeLamb1 


I personally know some one who is working for the wounded warrior, and yes they do get extravagant salaries and bonuses, multiple bonuses a year.  To date they have helped 1600 vets.  A small number considering the 300 + million they brought in during 2012.  I worked on Long Island for non for profits and made half of what lower personal are making at WWP.  Long Island cost of living far exceeds Jacksonville Fl.  WWP is a legal pyramid scam, they exploit vets to raise money, in which little goes to helping the vets. 

Steve
Steve

The veteran who ended up being sued is not the "liberal media". You're tipping your hand. Leave your lunatic fringe politics out of it. The questions that surround the WWP are legitimate. If all you can say to answer the allegations is blame the "liberal media", it makes me think there might be a lot more to it than there appears.

Combat vet
Combat vet

Question is where is the money going? NY Lawyer founded it! Beware wolves in sheep's clothing! You sued a vet with ptsd? You scum! Combat infantry viet nam here! So sue me too!

Eric fleming
Eric fleming

@JohnCooper6 @ReneeLamb1 Well said, what people are forgetting or just plain, not understanding is, the folks who work at a non-profit are not volunteers. SOme may think it should be that way but how many of you are willing to work 8+ hours a day for free? your bill collectors may not agree. You must make  living. I like how the WWP donates to specific vets programs, stay at home, college etc. Make them better not just feel better. 


Tim Thompson
Tim Thompson

I've given up on charities, seems like they all steal from the cause.

Anita James
Anita James

Just like how the Red Cross squandered half a BILLION dollars to NOT FIX Haiti....

Clara Morici
Clara Morici

IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE SAME GOVERNMENT WHO SEND THE SOLDIERS TO FIGHT STUPID NONSENSE CIVIL WARS IN THE MIDDLE EAST TO TAKE CARE IF THEIR BURIALS WHEN THEY GET KILLED AND ALSO THE HEALTHCARE WHEN THEY RETURN HOME BROKEN.IN PIECES, NOT THE AVERAGE CITIZENS, THEY DIDN'T SEND THESE YOUNG MAN TO HARMS WAY OUT GREED, POWER AND INVASIONS. SO IT THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSABILITY NO TO ASK F I R CHARITY HOW HUMILLIATING ASKING PEOPLE FOR FEW DOLLARS WHAT A SHAME.

Bo Garland
Bo Garland

Bush started the wars now the tea party don't want to pay up. If stupid Trump gets in. We will have 27/wars in 4 years and they won't get paid. I don't care if they don't get paid. They go for the money . If anyone is stupid enough to sign up let them go . pay them when they t in. When they get out forget them.

neglorpf
neglorpf

Right. And in the event that there ends up being a war on our soil, you can just call a CEO.

Grace Ruggerio
Grace Ruggerio

No one in charge of or working for any Charity should be getting a large salary

Boston gal
Boston gal

Totally agree- everyone post your feelings on the Wounded Warrior FB page-

get this out to the public


TJ Lovell
TJ Lovell

"Socialism is the idea that violent force is an appropriate response to peaceful, voluntary exchange." -- Frank Fleming Source: Twitter Oct 13, 205

Steve
Steve

Which has nothing to do with anything discussed in the article. Beat it, whack job.

Louis Janney
Louis Janney

Find away to put profit in it. That's what WWP did. We have applied the business model to veterans. In business when an asset becomes obsolete or cost/benefit says it costs too much to maintain, it is discarded and written off. A new one is then purchased. The old one is sold for scrap.

Andy Kay
Andy Kay

About time someone paid attention

Anne Ward
Anne Ward

So sad that we have to question the groups that support our veterans.

Boston gal
Boston gal

they don't receive basic clothing from the WWP FUNDS -they need underwear, socks, winter hats and gloves, jackets, body wash and shampoo- they do not get these things-but the administrators are getting hundreds of dollars in salaries

Gary S. Tanner
Gary S. Tanner

Stopped my NRA membership years ago due to this.

Gary S. Tanner
Gary S. Tanner

That's the way it is with every organization that gets so big it needs administration! Then the self serving MBA's get rich!

Martin Price
Martin Price

This breaks my heart! Would you really like to help veterans? Join our group "Veterans For Changing The VA". We are going to change the VA, the only thing we need is numbers, we need you. Go to our group and join or send me a friend request and I will add you.

James Magnotta
James Magnotta

Funny how this becomes an issue only when trump wants to support wounded warriors,first time I've heard this.

Steve
Steve

Start watching other news sources besides Fox. You'll be surprised what you might learn.

Jim Givens
Jim Givens

This is why if I won a lottery prize I'd never give a dime to an organized "charity". I would give help to selected individuals or families. After years of being coerced to donate to some scam so the organization to which I belonged could "make its goal" I have such a bad taste in my mouth that the only possible exception might be the Salvation Army.

Boston gal
Boston gal

feel the same- this has changed the way I will donate to any cause- I will buy needed items and deliver them myself

Bernard Newcomer
Bernard Newcomer

I give to the Salvation Army because only 13% is used for fund raising and administration. 87% is used "doing the most good" The head of the Salvation Army salary is $13,000.00 per year.

Duane H. Moody
Duane H. Moody

Yes they do, only post 9/11 vets and it is so little.

Frank Mc Abee
Frank Mc Abee

The american red cross spends less than 10 % of what they take in for recipents.

Larry Garland
Larry Garland

Thank you Hillary for fighting for Child Healthcare. You have succeeded in making a complete circle to make you VERY wealthy. First..Pass legislation to provide tax paid Drug and Healthcare for children. Second...Spend years tirelessly lobbying Congress for Obscene Tax breaks and Government Subsidies for Chemical companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont and Pfizer. Third...Use disinformation to dispute scientists facts that these companies are poisoning us. Fourth..Vote and lobby for those poisons NOT to be labeled on our food. Fifth... Get paid Two Hundred Million dollars for your "Fighting for Families" scheme. Again Thank you Hillary I don't know why people just won't accept that! #BERNIE4US! #HILLARY4HILLARY

MitchKelsey
MitchKelsey

Hillary Clinton has demonstrated time and again that she's a career criminal. Plus, her mouth is like a sewer - nothing but vulgarity, lies, innuendos and half-truths. She's the "Despicable Me" that the movie was modeled after.

Timothy O. Evans
Timothy O. Evans

The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), a favorite charity among prominent celebrities including Donald Trump, spends only 60 cents out of every dollar on actual services for injured and disabled veterans. In 2014, generous Americans of all stripes donated over $300 million the non-profit organization on behalf of returning servicemen and women suffering from battle-related injuries, both physical and psychological. Yet, only $180 million went towards veteran care. Where did the other $120 million go? According to former Army Staff Sergeant Erick Millette, it went toward lavish executive and staff salaries and equally lavish parties, as well as getaways at ritzy hotels and resorts and gourmet meals in five-star restaurants. He accuses WWP of “using our injuries, our darkest days, our hardships, to make money.”

MitchKelsey
MitchKelsey

There's additional documentation of this in (I believe) the Washington Post.