A series of exposÃ©s released this week shed further light on an often-overlooked form of war profiteering: charity organizations that raise millions of dollars under the auspices of serving wounded military veterans, only to inappropriately spend those funds.
Specifically, the Wounded Warrior Project is under the microscope, with a New York Times investigation finding that the well-heeled organization has spent “millions a year on travel, dinners, hotels and conferences that often seemed more lavish than appropriate.”
Such spending is no small matter, notes journalist David Philipps, as the charity “has evolved into a fund-raising giant, taking in more than $372 million in 2015 alone—largely through small donations from people over 65.” In fact, according to Philipps, the group is the largest and most rapidly-expanding organization in the country.
The charity says its mission is to “foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation's history.”
But its current leadership is explicit about modeling itself after the for-profit corporate world. “I look at companies like Starbucks — that’s the model,” Steve Nardizzi, the chief executive of the Wounded Warrior Project, told the Times. “You’re looking at companies that are getting it right, treating their employees right, delivering great services and great products, then are growing the brand to support all of that.”
In an ironic twist, hundreds of thousands of dollars of this organization’s money has gone, in recent years, towards “campaigns to deflect criticism of its spending and to fight legislative efforts to restrict how much nonprofits spend on overhead,” the article notes.
“About 40 percent of the organization’s donations in 2014 were spent on its overhead, or about $124 million, according to the charity-rating group Charity Navigator,” the Times reports. “While that percentage, which includes administrative expenses and marketing costs, is not as much as for some groups, it is far more than for many veterans charities, including the Semper Fi Fund, a wounded-veterans group that spent about 8 percent of donations on overhead.”
The Times is not the first entity to raise questions about the ethics of the prominent organization, whose high-profile branding and publicity have made it widely-known to the public. In fact, the independent organization Charity Watch has consistently given the group relatively poor marks in recent years, with a “D” grade in 2011 and ratings in the “C” range after that.
What’s more, there are signs that the shortcomings of Wounded Warrior project extend to other Veteran charity organizations.
But what’s particularly notable about the latest report is the damning testimony of previous Wounded Warrior employees. “Eighteen former employees — many of them wounded veterans themselves — said they had been fired for seemingly minor missteps or perceived insubordination. At least half a dozen former employees said they were let go after raising questions about ineffective programs or spending.”
The organization’s former workers also spoke recently with CBS News for a two-part investigation. Iraq veteran Erick Millette, who was previously hired as a public speaker for the charity, said that the group functions more as a fundraising tool than a service organization.
"They will tell you it's not. But it is," Millette said. "I began to see how an organization that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year is not helping my brothers and my sisters. Or at least not all of them."
Meanwhile, many argue that, to truly tackle trauma and hardship among veterans and all war survivors, it is necessary to address root causes, including U.S policies of endless war.
“Veterans need organizations that provide real assistance and address the underlying issues affecting us, from war to healthcare to poverty, not another business profiting from our trauma and sacrifices,” Kelly Dougherty, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told AlterNet.
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