Wounded Warrior Project Fires Top Executives Over Lavish Spending
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The veterans' service organization called Wounded Warrior Project has just fired two top executives, CEO Steven Nardizzi and COO Al Giordano. This follows reports from CBS News and The New York Times that former employees had accused the nonprofit of spending huge amounts of money on things like fancy staff retreats, first-class airfare and overhead rather than spending it on veterans. Dave Philipps has been covering this story for The Times, and he's on the line now from New York.
Thanks for being on the show.
DAVE PHILIPPS: Pleasure to be here.
MCEVERS: So explain some of these allegations against the Wounded Warrior Project that led to these firings.
PHILIPPS: The most egregious one for the people that I talked who worked there that was the annual retreat that they all had called their all hands meeting. They would have it at far-flung places not close to their headquarters where the charity would fly in hundreds of employees to a five-star hotel. They would pay for drinks, they would pay for food, they would pay for outings. And the employees said there was not a whole lot of point to it and they sort of wondered what donors would think if they saw them all there.
MCEVERS: And I read in one of your reports that at one of these annual meetings, in Colorado Springs, the CEO, Steven Nardizzi, actually repelled down the side of the building. Can you tell us about that?
PHILIPPS: Yeah. So this was not just one. Steve Nardizzi made a habit of trying to one-up his entrance from the year before. So he came in on a Segway, and then the next year, he came in on a zip line. In this one, he repelled out of a tower down towards the cheering crowd while there was a spotlight on him. And I think he was trying to rev up his employees, but a lot of them saw it as absurd and a real waste of money.
MCEVERS: And Nardizzi and Giordano, I mean, these two are really credited with building up the organization in the first place, right?
PHILIPPS: That's right. When they took over in 2009, it was a pretty small charity that didn't have a whole lot of reach. And Steve Nardizzi made the decision that he was going to spend aggressively on fundraising and he doubled fundraising that year and really raised it sharply ever since. And I'm sure your listeners have all seen the commercials that run almost everywhere almost all the time. That brought him in hundreds of millions of dollars.
MCEVERS: And what kind of work did the project actually do for veterans?
PHILIPPS: It's absolutely not a fraudulent organization. They do a lot of good work and then they employ a lot of good people that really care about what they do. But also a lot of what they do in terms of programs is kind of light. It's a lot of taking veterans out to baseball games, a lot of taking them on bike rides, and it's not a lot of getting them mental health. And what some of the staff said was that stuff was not as good for marketing. Having a big bike ride through a town is a really high-profile event that you can use to raise money, whereas helping someone with mental health is expensive and no one necessarily sees it.
MCEVERS: You talked to a lot of current and former staff. Was there any, you know, was there ever any concern that this was just sour grapes, that this was personality conflicts, or that this was really widespread?
PHILIPPS: Well, the reason that we did try to talk to dozens and dozens of people is, it's never hard to find somebody who just has an ax to grind, but if you talk to a lot of people and trends emerge then maybe have something. And they raise a great point. What Steve Nardizzi says is that he is spending on his organization because he wants it to be great and he's investing in its people and its infrastructure. And that is a great debate to have, but you should inform the donors about it, and that's what he wasn't doing.
MCEVERS: In the larger world of veterans' service organizations, how big is the Wounded Warrior Project?
PHILIPPS: The Wounded Warrior Project is by far the largest veterans' charity out there. It raises so much money that it can't actually spend all of its own money and so it gives out millions and millions of dollars every year to smaller organizations that don't have the fundraising infrastructure. So the question is if this negative publicity really impacts their ability to save and raise money, what will the trickle-down be to these other smaller groups that get millions of dollars from them?
MCEVERS: That's Dave Philipps, reporter for The New York Times.
Thanks so much.
PHILIPPS: Thank you.
MCEVERS: In a statement, Wounded Warrior Project says it is strengthening limits on employee expenses and air travel and that it's changed leadership to, quote, "help restore trust in the organization." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.