When it comes to popular charities, I am of the opinion that the general public largely believes they can do no wrong, but once the public feels they have done something wrong it’s almost as if they can do no right. This is the environment the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) board finds itself in as it attempts to turn the tide of public opinion after recent controversy surrounding their spending practices. Their actions began with a change in leadership, but signs point to more changes on the horizon. With this in mind, I offer the following suggestions for the board to consider.
1. Be clear about spending on advertising, mailing, and promotions
While the outgoing CEO and key defenders of the organization’s spending have often noted that in their mind serious investment in advertising is critical for growth and growth is critical to make long-term impact, the organization’s official communications have taken a different tack. Rather than defending the choice of spending outlets, the organization has instead opted to refute spending claims, insisting that 80% of spending is on programs for veterans and their families. What is left unsaid in communications thus far is that nearly half (45%) of that program spending is on advertising, mailing, and promotions. This fact should be made clear to donors if the board values complete transparency.
If the board believes the past levels of advertising, mailing, and promotions are consistent with donor intentions, then clearly stating this should help their case. If they believe the approach runs counter to donor intentions, all the more reason to make it clear that it has been, but will no longer be, the spending approach of the organization.
2. Discuss how much advertising and promotional items are donated
One feature that may placate donors concerned about spending practices is the amount of such spending that has come from corporate or other donors in the form of advertising, promotional items, etc. It is one thing for donors to believe their donated cash is being used for these purposes; it is an entirely different thing for them to believe that these things are being donated by others and donated cash is actually being employed elsewhere. As far as I can tell, these expenditures have so far been simply lumped together, leaving the impression that all spending represents donor cash. A close look at the financials, however, reveals that many of the advertising expenditures represent donated advertising, something that the organization would be wise to explain.
3. Define and enforce a systematic process for approving expenditures
Let's presume that the organization has established processes for approving spending, and sufficient controls are (or will be) in place. Given the current public skepticism, though, it will be worth the organization’s time to make these processes public and further strengthen them. While the anecdotes of excess spending on plane tickets, alcohol, and the like have made for big headlines, other spending choices suggest that the concerns go beyond flashy headlines and may cast doubt on the level of controls in place to ensure that spending and grants have a direct connection to the organization’s stated mission. Efforts to shore up such controls that are communicated to the general public would go a long way to restoring faith that donor dollars are being directed where donors expect them to be.
4. Identify and clearly follow spending priorities
Related to the previous point, the organization’s size presents a double-edged sword. WWP engages in a wide variety of programs. The current perception among critics, however, is that many of those programs entail fun events, distributing promotional items, boosting public awareness, etc., while job placement, counseling, and physical support for veterans may now just seem like a small part of programming efforts (whether this perception is fair or not). To vault the more hands-on efforts to help wounded veterans to the front of public opinion, the board should clearly define which programs are its top priority and ensure that spending is consistent with these priorities. On more than one occasion, I have had students researching WWP for class projects note they found it odd that the organization’s listing of core values (captured by the acronym FILIS) places fun first and service last. While this ordering may only reflect the desire for a cute acronym, its runs the risk of communicating much more. The public needs assurance that fun takes a back seat to service.