The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wounded Warrior Project is under fire for its spending — unlike these highly rated alternatives

A Wounded Warrior Project flag flutters as wounded U.S. service members gather at the starting line of a 25-mile ride in Germany in August 2012. (Staff Sgt. Brooks Fletcher/U.S. Army)

At the outset of the Iraq War, a small veterans charity was established by a handful of friends in Roanoke, Va., to provide comfort items such as socks to deployed U.S. service members. Since then, Wounded Warrior Project has mushroomed into a ubiquitous juggernaut, reporting more than $342 million in revenue on its 2014 tax return while regularly airing commercials on national television.

The charity’s sheer size, along with its powerful list of supporters — the National Football League, Bank of America and Under Armour are listed among its corporate sponsors — have made it a constant presence in conversations about how to care for America’s wounded and disabled veterans. But the group is not without detractors: It has faced a growing stream of criticism over the past few years for the way it spends its money — about one-third of its functional expenses go toward advertising, according to tax returns — and accusations that its leaders have lost sight of their true mission.

The debate has exploded back into the forefront in the past week as investigative stories by CBS News and the New York Times raised questions anew about the organization.

The CBS News story was published in three parts Tuesday through Thursday, raising questions about lavish parties and the amount of money spent to fundraise for future endeavors. The New York Times’ story, published Wednesday, raised many of the same issues while also detailing how the original executive of the organization, John Melia, may have left in 2009 due to philosophical differences about where Wounded Warrior Project was heading.

Wounded Warrior Project hit back at the initial report Wednesday evening, posting online a letter to CBS News demanding a retraction. In particular, the organization expressed outrage that CBS suggested that it spent only 60 percent of its resources on the services it delivers, citing the charity analysis site Charity Navigator. By Wounded Warrior Project’s own accounting, the number is 80.6 percent, the response said.

The letter from Wounded Warrior Project did not explain the discrepancy between the two figures. But either way, both figures are lower than numerous other military veterans organizations rated by Charity Navigator: Among them:

* The Fisher House Foundation spent 91 percent of its money on services. It brought in about $55 million in revenue in 2014.

* The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund spent 92.7 percent of its money on its services. It brought in about $21.5 million in revenue in 2014.

* The Special Operations Warrior Foundation spent 88.8 percent of its money on services. It brought in $14.4 million in revenue in 2014.

* The Disabled American Veterans organization spent 96.5 percent of its money on services. It brought in $8.1 million in revenue in 2014.

Other veterans charities, such as the Gary Sinise Foundation, also are well regarded but haven’t been rated because they have not been operating long enough. Charity Navigator says it rates organizations after they have seven years of tax returns available for review.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, another high-profile veterans nonprofit, spends 78.2 percent of its money on services, according to Charity Navigator. It brought in $6 million in 2014, according to the site.