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WWP co-founders tell their side of the story.

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Founders and former executives of Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) are speaking out in the months since a media firestorm erupted around the fast-growing charity. But one important group isn't talking publicly nearly as much: the six-member board of directors.

Barely a week after being let go as chief executives of WWP, cofounders Steve Nardizzi and A1 Giordano launched a blog to tell their story and correct consumer media reports. Co-founder John Melia has called on WWP's board chairman, Anthony Odierno, to resign and also issued a 10-point plan to restore donor confidence in the organization.

The board appointed retired Maj. Gen. Charlie Fletcher as interim chief operating officer, effective April 11, while a search is conducted to find a permanent CEO. Fletcher serves on the organization's Advisory Council and will report to the Office of the CEO, created after the board's audit of spending and other practices.

The blog, www.TheWoundedTruth.com, aims to correct what Nardizzi and Giordano said is inaccurate information presented about WWP in consumer media reports. 'After weeks of forced silence by the board of Wounded Warrior Project, we are free to start telling our side of the story," they wrote in a post.

The two were fired March 10 by the WWP board after consumer media reports alleged wasteful spending. The board notified Nardizzi that there would be a leadership change during a planned meeting in New York City. "The decision had already been made," he said.

The blog isn't just about clearing their names, Nardizzi said. "What's getting lost is any discussion about impact. We rarely talk about impact yet WWP is still providing services to 100,000 warriors and their family members," he said.

"It's important that someone come out and start telling that story again, what really happened, what work is getting done there," Nardizzi said during a telephone interview.

During the time the board was conducting its investigation he said he was told "not to do any media." Asked whether he plans to file any type of wrongful termination lawsuit, Nardizzi only would say that he's incredibly supportive of the organization and would continue to make statements supporting it.

The board's audit confirmed what they had been saying, he said, that some consumer media reports misrepresented $24 million in program spending. Yet the board took action to let the two go. "I get the pressure that media can bear. The board believed that if they made a change, they would move on," he said. "The facts that got buried once again because the story was not that Wounded Warrior came out and reaffirmed these facts were untrue. The story became two senior executives are no long there. That in turn created questions, is there something more there, more wrong rather than affirmation of true facts. That's potentially going to do more damage long-term than the original stories," Nardizzi said.

Nardizzi and Melia were among those who got Wounded Warrior Project started some 15 years ago. Melia founded the organization with his brother and father and then with the help of Nardizzi, it became a program of Eastern Paralyzed Veterans of Association (EPVA). That organization then rebranded in 2005 as United Spinal Association, focusing not just on veterans but serious spinal cord injuries.

WWP, which focused on providing comfort and support for wounded soldiers returning from the Middle East, decided to move in another direction. It spun out of United Spinal with the help of a $1-million grant, which Melia said was essentially the proceeds of their first direct mail project with the Jackson Heights, N.Y-based organization.

Nardizzi and Giordano joined WWP after it split from EPVA, said Melia. He left the organization in about 2009 after what he described as an effort on the part of several senior leaders and some board members to push him out.

Melia explained that he'd made decisions that weren't popular with some people, who thought he exercised too much control. He favored growing at a moderate pace and brought on experienced staff for a Washington, D.C.-based policy office. "They were threatened by those folks," Melia said. "I know because the the majority of them are gone."

Nardizzi disputes that version of WWP's history, saying that Melia was not pushed out. "There's always tension in a leadership transition, certainly with board and staff members," he said, adding that Melia's departure had nothing to do with differences in fundraising strategy but rather concern regarding founder's syndrome. "If time has colored that view, that's a shame. I hope that eight years from now, WWP is still growing, that people are not still talking about Steve Nardizzi," he said.

Despite the negative media attention, he said an overwhelming majority of donors are sticking by the organization. "Wounded Warrior Project's success is a testament that donors will stay with you if you scale and grow quickly, if you set lofty goals, if you make meaningful impact," Nardizzi said.

Melia doesn't see it that way. He described Wounded Warrior Project as the Tiger Woods of the nonprofit world. "Everybody loved them. Tiger could do no wrong. Now it's a tragedy. Now they're universally despised and donors are bailing left and right," he said.

Melia's 10-point plan aimed to let board members and senior management know what donors were feeling "because they were clearly out of touch."

The current board has allowed its membership to dwindle from 14 to six members, overseeing a $300-million budget, according to Melia. Two members are past their six-year term and two others have been on the board less than two years, he said. "You have a responsibility to fiduciary oversight ... that alone should be enough to resign," Melia said.

Melia said they averaged between 12 and 14 board members and were always looking for new board members when he was with the organization. Three or four years ago, he said WWP changed its by-laws to reduce the number of board members.

Melia said he had scheduled a meeting with the board of directors for April 4 that was canceled by the board. "For a board that has publicly touted its intention to increase transparency, this seems to be both ridiculous and counterintuitive," he said.

The board is "hiding behind" lawyers and public relations firms, Melia said. "There are thousands of parties interested in wounded warriors who want them to be transparent. They were excited by the fact that there was going to be a meeting. Their suspicion of the organization runs very high right now. I thought they'd be happy that the public would like to know that. I see that as an excuse to cancel the meeting," he said.

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In the weeks after that, Melia changed his attitude about potentially returning to the organization. "I don't believe the board is making any real effort to try to change things drastically," he said. "It's the same six guys who oversaw the issue, signed all the 990s the last four, five years, who are responsible for fixing the problem they created. The last two-and-a-half months, other than hiring Fletcher as COO, they've done nothing to instill any confidence of donors or founders or anyone else," Melia said.

"They don't want to make the sweeping changes they need to regain the donor trust and they're going to pay the price" in drastically lower fundraising revenue next year, he said.

A request by The Nonprofit Times to interview the board's chairman, Odiemo, was declined. The board of directors for its part is not speaking except via statements through a communications firm it hired after the initial media reports. In response to Melia's call for Odiemo's resignation, the board in a statement said in part: "At a time when every employee at WWP is working so hard to pull together and focus on the important work done by the organization, the Melias are attacking the organization to promote their personal agenda."

Melia conceded that he and his brother Jim have a personal agenda one he described as, "to help wounded veterans to get the maximum services from the Wounded Warrior Project, to restore the trust and donors and constituency and donors and supporters, and to help to right the ship."

The board's statement continued that the meeting with the Melias, at their request, was on the condition "that it was confidential and not publicized, which is customary in such conversations." Within 12 hours of confirming a meeting, there were multiple news reports that Melia was meeting with the board in New York on April 4. "It is crucial to the proper functioning of the board and the WWP that we can rely on those with whom we are dealing. The Melias' conduct in this instance, and others, is not in keeping with how we wish to do business and unfortunately the board had to make the decision to cancel the meeting."

Vernetta Walker, chief governance officer for BoardSource in Washington, D.C., called the WWP situation a teachable moment. For one, governance is not a spectator sport, she said in a blog post shortly after the executives were dismissed.

"The work that nonprofits do and what's at stake is too important for the board to sit on the sidelines. When I look at WWP, firing the CEO and COO after the fact is, like a Hail Mary--an act done in desperation with only a small chance of success," Walker said.

"If the board didn't know what was going on, firing leadership does not absolve their lack of oversight and governance. If the board did know and feel staff actions were appropriate and justified, both before and after allegations went public--then stand up and help us understand why WWP, as opposed to other veterans organizations, is deserving of continued public trust and support."
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Author:Hrywna, Mark
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:May 1, 2016
Words:1629
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