Some of us just can’t get enough of the Wounded Warrior Project scandal, and that includes me. In the same way that people get hooked on a scintillating TV series or book, I’ve been captivated by the onslaught of articles taking aim at WWP. These stories are a constant reminder that the public is watching what nonprofits do, how they act, and whether they are deserving of the public trust.
Personally, I’m interested in lessons learned because real case studies are powerful teaching tools for governance. I’m eager to see what we will learn from Senator Charles E. Grassley’s inquiry to WWP, especially as it relates to the 80.6 percent of donations purportedly spent on programs and services. But the truth of the matter is that I already know what lesson I’ll be sharing with nonprofit boards, and it’s not about overhead.
My teachable moment based on WWP is simple: Governance is not a spectator sport!
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 CFO after the fact, is like a Hail Mary play. It’s an act done in desperation with only a small chance of success.
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud a board that steps up and does what it feels must be done to correct a situation, but the problem here is that the damage has been done. WWP’s reputation is tainted, and responding to a crisis instead of proactively taking steps to prevent it is not effective leadership. Further, it can take years to recover, if at all.
Whether it’s a $30,000 organization or a $300 million organization, the board has to ensure policies and practices are in place to protect it. I have no personal knowledge of what policies WWP may have had in place; however, allegations of out of control spending and alleged retaliation against employees who voiced concerns raises questions about the existence of a whistleblower policy, an ethics policy, and travel and spending guidelines.
More importantly, from my point of view, and an issue that has not been the topic of conversation is that the board needs to be the moral compass for the organization. By doing so, it ensures that the actions of the staff are in line with the mission, vision, and core values of the organization and necessarily take into account the needs and expectations of the community and constituents they serve.
Public support and trust must be earned, and, like it or not, nonprofits must continuously prove that they are worthy by delivering on the mission in a legal, moral, and ethical way, even when they think no one is watching.
If the WWP board didn’t know what was going on, firing the 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 the 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.