Photo: Jon M. Fletcher
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.
Wounded Warrior Project
CEO: Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington
Mission: The Wounded Warrior Project is a non-profit that helps post-9/11 injured military veterans resume their lives with mental health counseling, physical wellness programs, social activities and long-term in-home support. It also contributes to smaller veterans charities.
One morning in 1992, John Melia, then a U.S. Marine, was flying in a helicopter on a training mission off the coast of Somalia. The helicopter crashed into the ocean, killing four Marines and wounding 14. Melia suffered burns and a traumatic brain injury.
After being evacuated to the U.S., Melia recuperated at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He eventually retired from the Marines and went to work for non-profits, including the Washington, D.C.-based Paralyzed Veterans of America.
About 15 years ago, Melia was watching news footage of the U.S. military buildup in Iraq when an image of an injured soldier being evacuated by helicopter brought back memories. “I thought, ‘Boy, I bet that guy’s getting ready to go on the same type of journey that I did,’ ” he told industry website NonProfit Pro.
From his home in Virginia, Melia raised $5,000 and filled backpacks with toiletries, a phone card, CD player and change of clothes to give to hospitalized Iraq war vets. After requests for more backpacks poured in, he decided to found a non-profit to help injured veterans, calling the effort the Wounded Warrior Project.
Initially, WWP operated as a division of the New York-based United Spinal Association. In 2005, it became an independent charity. And in 2006, it relocated its headquarters to Jacksonville, drawn in part by a desire to be near the Ponte Vedra Beach-based PGA Tour, a key corporate partner.
Over time, WWP expanded to helping injured war vets readjust to civilian life. In addition to distributing backpacks, it now provides mental health and benefits counseling, outdoor rehabilitative retreats and other programs aimed at filling in gaps in government care.
In 2009, Steven Nardizzi, a lawyer and non-profit executive with no military experience, replaced Melia as CEO and set out ambitious growth plans. Under Nardizzi, WWP aggressively solicited donations via direct mail and TV commercials.
In fiscal year 2010, the charity collected $40 million. The next year, it took in $70 million, followed by $148 million, $225 million and $313 million. By the end of 2015, WWP was raising more than $370 million a year, ranking 27th on Forbes list of the 100 largest U.S. charities.
But the charity also began attracting criticism. Smaller veterans charities accused it of being a trademark- bully after it threatened to sue them if they used the term “wounded warrior.” Military leaders, concerned about recruiting efforts, reportedly bristled at some of the charity’s ads that showed soldiers with disfigured faces and missing limbs. Others accused it of wasting donor money.
In January 2016, exposés by CBS News and the New York Times described lavish spending on employee perks and parties. The most indelible image: A 2014 staff meeting, held at a five-star Colorado resort, where Nardizzi rappelled down the side of a building into a crowd of employees.
Non-profit rating group Charity Navigator put WWP on its watch list based on concerns that the charity spent too much on administration and fundraising costs.
Nardizzi, who made nearly $500,000 a year, defended the spending as part of an effort to foster a fun, entrepreneurial culture. Writing on Facebook, he argued that for non-profits to succeed, “they must be allowed to research, to advertise and, most important, to fail — in the same way that corporations like Apple and Nike do.”