As a supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project, I’ve been watching carefully since January when (now former) senior executives, unbelievably, refused to answer accusations of wild spending and mismanagement. After firing CEO Steven Nardizzi and COO Al Giordano last Thursday, I expected a statement from the Board, and was eager to hear from Board Chairman and acting CEO Anthony Odierno today on CBS This Morning.
I’m sure there were many other WWP supporters who joined me this morning in rooting for Odierno to take the right, decisive steps to restore our trust. Unfortunately, he didn’t covey that message, at least not yet.
Odierno’s response was not only vague and tepid, but--incredibly—he seemed to deny the accuracy of recent media reports, and also seemed to take issue with the findings of Charity Navigator, our most trusted source of information on how charities spend the money they take in. This response will not get the Wounded Warrior Project back on track with supporters.
We need to hold WWP accountable in the same way we do any other brand that wants our trust—and our money. The Board needs to ensure that everything they say and do going forward incorporates three key elements: Transparency, authenticity, and collaboration. This is the holy trinity of trust for brands who want to build and sustain strong, active communities. Brands that need to restore trust need to work even harder in these areas.
To restore our faith in the Wounded Warrior Project and also our belief that the millions and millions in donations they are sitting on will be spent on programs that actually benefit veterans, here are five things the Board should do right now:
Openly acknowledge mistakes and vow to be specific whenever answering charges. The Board must pivot from this morning’s vague statement that an investigation found less bad behavior than recent reports from respected sources suggest. We’ve all seen the pictures from the lavish “all hands” parties. Indeed, they weren’t even really refuted. To restore trust, the first step is to acknowledge that specific mistakes were made. Suggesting that things aren’t as bad as reported without offering any specific evidence to the contrary will do little to restore trust—and indeed will probably delay the start of the recovery of their ailing reputation. It seems incredible that the WWP Board suggests that in 2014, 94% of the $24.3 million spent on events and conference was "associated with program services delivered to wounded warriors and their families" when this is so dramatically out of line with the findings of Charity Navigator. If this is true, far more documentation that is available for scrutiny must be provided.
Appoint a verifiable, independent commission to audit and review operations. The weakness of Odierno’s response this morning was in part rooted in his vague reference to a review of WWP spending without providing any details on who did the review, what they investigated, or what they found. An organization under siege does not need to create the appearance of chickens guarding the hen house. To win back trust, they’re going to have to provide details, starting with who is leading the investigation, what they are looking into, and when they will report back to us. Since WWP has gone so far off track, we need independent experts, not connected to the organization, with a strong track record of independent auditing and forensic accounting, and helping charitable organizations establish accountability. And we need a report at the end with specific findings and recommendations.
Design, announce, and implement a Best-Practices Policy for spending and financial management going forward. Again through consultation with independent experts who have sterling records handling charitable donations, commit to the creation of a fundraising vs. project spending formula that sets the standard for integrity and efficiency in the financial and programming effectiveness of charities. We don’t want assurances that you are back on track. We want the assurances of experts who have helped WWP aim for more efficient allocation of the funds they take in—which should include evaluating programs after they have been funded to determine whether their results line up with well-documented needs of veterans.
Include Employees in the Organizational Review and Policy-Making Framework. Employees are almost always an asset when an organization needs to take a long, sober look at how effective it is at achieving its mission and how new policies and procedures can help get it back on the right track. Employees see how money is spent and how programs perform on the ground. The Board should convene a group of employees to help establish new, more efficient and collaborative operations at every level of the organization. Making employees a part of decision-making will send a message of accountability and authenticity as the organization re-dedicates itself to veterans.
Commit to Openness and Collaboration with Donors on a Regular Basis. In our information economy, every brand these days needs a strategy to collaborate openly and often with their community. The irony however in this age of social networking is that one of the most effective ways to build and retain trust and engagement is to hold an old-fashioned Annual Meeting. Perhaps it would be virtual, or regional—but a vehicle that could show donors, employees, watchdogs, and veterans the reality of reforms and the results of ongoing programs—in a setting where leadership could be grilled about goals and performance—would be a huge asset here. Questions from the audience would be the most authentic way for the new leadership to re-establish trust-and would of course be an ongoing source of compelling content.
With a strong commitment to transparently rooting out problems, setting new goals and openly sharing progress, the Board may be able to restore trust. But to be successful, they need to build a community based on more authentic and open collaboration with employees and donors. I’m hopeful they can restore our trust because, as our largest charity for veterans, they have done enormous good—and can do even better in the future if they take this course correction seriously
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Amy Wolfcale is the CEO of Falcon + Wolf, a partner at Thought Leadership Strategies, and a Professor in the New York University Graduate School of Professional Studies, School of Strategic Communication, Marketing, and Media Management. She is also a writer and an actual (as opposed to demographically identifying) soccer mom. And she loves elephants.