Wounded Warrior Project and the Local Discussion No One is Having
By Lana Duffy
Some were shocked by the recent articles on the spending and culture at Wounded Warrior Project. CBS, The New York Times, and several others released investigative pieces back-to-back in a seemingly coordinated effort to uncover the cracks in the huge organization’s financial foundations, and the evidence uncovered seemed damning.
The only people I’ve talked to who were not shocked? Veterans, especially those who have used WWP’s services. Some were still angry or annoyed at the waste exposed, but none seemed overly surprised.
For two and a half months, I’ve been reading reviews coming in daily on www.pathfinder.vet. More than a few of those reviews say something about this behemoth of a VSO, and the trends are evident regardless if the writer is a veteran or family member: the national HQ of WWP is only a marketing machine. It sends a ball-cap no one wears and a paracord keychain that ends up in a landfill. Their signage is everywhere, from stadiums to airports, and no one is silly enough to think that type of advertising comes cheap.
But there is another trend, a quieter and less wasteful trend, which is just as marked: locally, the individual offices get consistently high ratings. The people in the offices are friendly and want to help, the programs are beneficial to those who can use them, and the benefits advocates get the job done. If you are eligible for and use the programs offered, you are supported by the full power of this VSO giant and that support can do amazing things for some of our combat-wounded brethren and their families – I know this personally.
This help and support from the local level was not mentioned in The Times or The Hill or The Post’s recent articles. Not even the potential downhill impact of the financial misappropriations to the local level is covered excessively, nor assessments conducted of what could have been done directly for veterans with the millions spent in conferences and travel, nor an analysis of how much the giant billboards bring in for donations. We become fixated on the national office and in so doing lose sight of the organization’s real-world impact which happens much further down the organizational chart, and that’s a dangerous road to travel. Where would we be without these local offices?
Taking a step further back to look at the overall veteran landscape, it becomes clear that WWP isn’t the only VSO colored, nor the only one subsequently damaged, by the broad perspective. Pathfinder’s data shows that regardless of resource, different chapters of any national organization take on the local personalities, and this means the overall experience of a veteran in NYC may differ greatly from one in Boston, and the impact of a service in eastern Oklahoma worse than in western. The veterans aren’t dealing with the 400k+ paid executives, they are interacting with the quality, or lack of quality, personnel close to their home. Or they are trying to seek out a resource close to their home and realizing that the organization doesn’t support their area because they spent that money for a new office on conferences.
But if this ground-level impact and experience is what is critical to the success or failure of the integration of the participants, why isn’t anyone looking at the local perspective instead of, or at least in addition to, the overall finances?
So there is something that isn’t discussed here: impact. And this is because it’s subjective, and subjective is hard. So the impact isn’t measured as an aggregate except sometimes internally and on platforms such as www.pathfinder.vet.
What we need to be assessing are the local chapters and resources, the people and the services closest to the community, in order to draw concrete pictures and give the landscape the information it needs to adjust and serve the population better. We aren’t getting that from this national perspective, and as critical as it is to understand misappropriation of donor funds, the local focus is quite possibly the most important factor in the fight to effect tangible change. What do we care about more?
Great things are happening at the local level, for WWP and many other organizations, which deserve our attention. Those great things are damaged when we only look from the national perspective. Money isn’t the only thing that rolls downhill; so does reputation. When we don’t get the full picture, these local offices lose support so the programs suffer and thus so does the community they support. And until we focus on impact, we are shortchanging our own potential to correct the problems where they actually occur: at the level of the veteran. And conversely, local chapters that are underperforming need just as much attention, because that is where you are interacting directly with the people served and whether you really have the opportunity to make them either a success story or a sad statistic.
It’s so easy to judge, and so easy to get outraged. But we as a community have a chance to be heard. The donors need to know where the money goes, and we who are served deserve to know as well. But we have a greater need to know impact, where the help is, and where the great things are, and if it’s nearby. We all know the great things aren’t in a package with a ballcap and a keychain, they are in the phone calls and the offices downtown.
If you have information about the impact of your local office of any organization you would like to share, please do so on www.pathfinder.vet. The community is listening.