RIPPLE EFFECTS FROM THE WOUNDED WARRIOR PROJECT MEDIA ATTACKS
For the most part, the dust seems to have settled on the Wounded Warrior Project media attacks. Headlines have become less frequent and accusations of a spending scandal (from CBS News and the New York Times) have subsided.
But, like coverage for a bad storm, the damage remains long after the last news story. This weekend's spotlight in the "Military Times" touches on just that issue, featuring families who'd be left with enormous healthcare bills if their support from Wounded Warrior Project dries up. With a donor base so widely convinced of wrongdoing, donations are sure to slow and programs will become vulnerable to cutbacks.
At the very least, the ripple effects are worrisome for the veterans community. But, for the charity sector as a whole, the concern should be even bigger.
It's the latest media injustice against a major nonprofit. Like we've seen so many times in the past, journalists asked all the wrong questions and sensationalized all the wrong data. Reports looked at overhead ratios, executive compensation, and fundraising expenses in a vacuum. They equated high overhead with low impact, and reinforced invisible, systemic constraints that make it nearly impossible to achieve big social progress.
In the immediate aftermath of reports, we issued a Preliminary Media Advisory highlighting major errors in the reporting and a board-led forensic audit at Wounded Warrior Project found no evidence of financial mismanagement. None. But, the facts weren't enough to stop the outrage or even reframe the conversation.
Ours is not a call for decreased transparency or accountability. In fact, it's a plea for the exact opposite -- because superficial media attacks on the wrong gages don't give us any meaningful accountability at all. The media feeds public demand for easy-to-measure numbers, like overhead ratios and salaries, to remain small. That's not a path to the eradication of social problems. It's a path toward further entrenching them. For real social impact, we need to be looking at scale, growth, and impact.
The longer we allow our sector to be the media's punching bag, the more vulnerable each of our causes -- and all those we serve -- remain.
Whether it's Alzheimer's disease, cancer, hunger, or poverty, the progress of any savvy organization trying to achieve rapid scale can be derailed at any time by a news outlet anxious for a headline. If counterproductive ideas about charity persist, important, inspiring work will continue to be badly mischaracterized.
The question is not: will another break-out charity be subject to an undeserved media firestorm? It's: which one will it be?
Because, unless we start standing up for ourselves effectively, it will be one of us.
FIGHTING AN UNPOPULAR FIGHT
This hasn't been a very popular fight for the Charity Defense Council. Senator Charles Grassley questioned our relationship with Wounded Warrior Project. We sent him a detailed overview, requesting a meeting. We got no response. Even one of our leading industry publications threw us under the bus and fed into counterproductive thinking about the sector. Why are our sector's trade papers undermining the one organization trying to get at the truth? Why are they defending corporate media? Why aren't our own trade papers raising the questions we're raising?
Admittedly, there were tricky dynamics. As we disclosed in our advisory, Wounded Warrior Project provided us with seed funding of $150,000 in 2014 and their former CEO Steve Nardizzi is a member of our advisory board. From the very beginning, they were advocates for our message because they knew they were vulnerable to the exact kind of media attack they endured. They were trying to scale rapidly. That means heavy investment in fundraising and that means you have a target on your back. The very efforts we should be celebrating are the ones most vulnerable to media attacks.
From the outside, some questioned why we suddenly issued a detailed report in defense of a major funder. Was this just a quid pro quo transaction? Were we blindly defending Wounded Warrior Project regardless of the facts?
Absolutely not. We're not here to blindly defend any charity. And, when there's real wrongdoing, we'll be the first to condemn it. But, when the wrongdoing is in the media reporting and we can see it plainly and clearly, we're going to speak up about it -- whether it's aimed at a contributor or anyone else. That's the core of our mission.
Isn't that a conflict of interest, some asked? Not when our interests are aligned. Our interest is in transforming the way the public thinks about giving, so that organizations like Wounded Warrior Project can scale, and do it quickly. That's exactly Wounded Warrior Project's interest. To say that a charity advocate is in conflict because it's defending a contributor is like saying that the Human Rights Campaign shouldn't defend a gay victim of a hate crime because the gay man has made a contribution in the past. They exist to defend him!
What happened to Wounded Warrior Project epitomizes the reason the Charity Defense Council exists. Help us prevent it from happening to other great organizations in the future.
We need you to help us educate your friends and donors, and we've created some great tools to help you do that.
YOUR WOUNDED WARRIOR PROJECT TOOLKIT
To wrap things up, here's our Wounded Warrior Project toolkit. Many of you told us you needed more shareable content as you discussed this story with colleagues, donors, and funders. We hope these help.
Please keep the feedback coming. Comments and suggestions are very welcome below. And, as always, thank you for being an inspiring Charity Defender!
Letter to Senator Grassley
Preliminary Media Advisory