Wounded Warrior Project
Jacksonville's Wounded Warrior Project became a marquee name in raising money for injured war vets. But after criticism of its spending practices, it's having to restore donor trust.
In March 2016, the charity’s board fired Nardizzi and his COO. Several months later, it hired retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Linnington as CEO, citing his military experience, including tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and “collaborative team-builder” approach.
During his last two years in the Army, Linnington helped oversee personnel policies and readiness reporting at the Pentagon. He regularly greeted troops returning from war at Andrews Air Force Base.
“In the back of the aircraft were service members with missing limbs, gunshot wounds and blast injuries,” he recalls. “Along the skin of the aircraft were young men and women coming back to be treated for some of what they’d seen and experienced in combat.” Many arrived wearing WWP gear, he points out.
After retiring from the Army, Linnington spent a year leading federal efforts to recover America’s missing in action as director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. He says he made strides in turning around the agency, which had been falling short of its congressionally set goals for identifying MIA soldiers.
By the time Linnington joined the Wounded Warrior Project in 2016, donations were falling rapidly, ending the fiscal year 20% below the same period in 2015.
Linnington has moved aggressively to cut costs. During his first six months on the job, he reduced the charity’s executive staff by half, laid off 85 employees and closed 10 of 25 regional offices.
He also adjusted the charity’s travel and expense policies and shifted resources to sharpen its focus on mental and physical health.
The charity no longer offers vets help with finding tech-sector jobs or college prep courses, areas where they have other provider options, Linnington says.
His biggest challenge, however, has been restoring donor trust, the key to which, he believes, is transparency. “We had to be more efficient and effective, and we had to be more open and honest,” he says.
WWP plans to release its fiscal 2017 results next month. Because the reporting period will include October through December 2016 — the first “giving season” since the spending scandal — it’s expected to show another donation decline.
Meanwhile, Charity Navigator has upgraded WWP to a three-star rating (out of a possible four). It estimates that the charity spends about 74% of its budget on programs and services for veterans, with the rest going to fundraising (21%) and administrative costs (5%). Linnington himself earns $280,000 a year.
By comparison, the Navy SEAL Foundation, based in Virginia Beach, Va., spends 90% of its budget on programming, 4% on fundraising and 6% on overhead. Charity Navigator rates it four out of four stars.
The group considers charities with three stars as good and those with four stars exceptional.
Linnington points to three signs that WWP is turning things around: It’s hiring again and has no shortage of job applicants; about 1,500 new vets are signing up for its services each month; and donors are starting to come back, he says.
“I think it will be a several-year process to get back to where we were in 2015,” he says. “Trust is very hard to regain once you lose it.”
Fundraising costs eat up 21% of Wounded Warrior’s budget. “The only thing that allows us to scale — to meet the needs of 110,000 warriors a year — is the fact that we can generate support from the American people,” says CEO Mike Linnington. “If we don’t do a certain amount of fundraising on TV or in the mail, we don’t have the resources to provide for those we serve.”
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