In its 15-year history, Wounded Warrior Project has the distinction of being one of the fastest-growing charities in history and one of the most rapidly shrinking.
After reaching a high-water mark of almost $373 million in donations for the 2015 fiscal year, the Jacksonville-based charity saw contributions plunge in 2016 and fall again in the 2017 fiscal year when it received $211 million in donations, equating to a drop of 43 percent over two years, according to an Internal Revenue Service report released this month by the nonprofit.
Like other charities, Wounded Warrior Project's Form 990 reports filed with the IRS are backward-looking because they contain data for the previous fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Doug White, a nonprofit expert who is writing a book about Wounded Warrior, said that while other nationally known charities have taken financial hits, the two-year swing for Wounded Warrior is the worst he's seen.
"I don't know of any organization that fell so far, so quickly," White said.
But Wounded Warrior Project says it's experiencing a financial turnaround in the current fiscal year. The organization projects a $25 million increase in donations, enabling more money for services that assist those injured in military service after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
And the organization said that even with the financial upheaval, it found ways to reach more veterans and family members than ever before.
"Our focus is on impact over revenue," Wounded Warrior Project spokesman Rob Louis said.
Louis said that in the 2017 fiscal year, Wounded Warrior worked with 132,000 veterans and family members, an increase of almost 15 percent.
When Wounded Warrior marked 15 years as a charity this month, CEO Mike Linnington, a retired Army lieutenant general, said the mission remains helping veterans with post-traumatic stress, creating connections with other veterans, and making a transition to civilian life after combat.
"More than 44 veterans and family members register with Wounded Warrior Project every day — proof the need is indeed great and growing," Linnington said.
Linnington has said it will take several years to return the organization to where it was before national media reports in early 2016 questioned "lavish spending" by the non-profit.
Wounded Warrior's board pushed back on the accusations and argued the findings were not accurate. But the board also said in March 2016 that it needed new executive leadership to strengthen some policies and procedures and "restore trust in the organization." The board ousted CEO Steven Nardizzi and Chief Operating Officer Al Giordano, two founding members who guided Wounded Warrior in becoming one of the nation's largest, fastest-growing charities.
White, who has criticized the board's reaction to the media reports, said Wounded Warrior Project remains a charity worthy of support.
He said he's not convinced the organization can regain its former growth, however. He said he hasn't seen evidence that Wounded Warrior will ramp up advertising through direct mail and television on a scale that would bring in enough donations to fulfill the organization's ambitious goal of assisting a generation of veterans as they get older.
"That was a big deal to look 30 to 40 to 50 years into the future," he said. "
Founded in 2003, Wounded Warrior began by delivering care packages in hospitals to men and women returning from the battlefield. As donations soared, Wounded Warrior Project was able to put $262 million into programs in the 2015 fiscal year.
In the 2017 fiscal year, Wounded Warrior spent $166 million on programs. Louis said for the current fiscal year, the organization expects to spend more than $200 million.
In addition to those everyday services, the charity created a separate Long Term Support Trust in 2013 to ensure support services would be available for those with severe wounds so they would not be institutionalized after the loss of their caregivers. The trust had about $100 million in it on September 2017, with almost all of the contributions occurring before Wounded Warrior's financial downturn.
Wounded Warrior put almost $55 million into the long-term trust in the 2015 fiscal year, but that fell to about $311,000 in 2016 when the organization coped with falling donations.
Louis said the trust stopped enrolling new members and has enough money to carry out the long-term care for those are are covered by the trust.
He said overall, Wounded Warrior Project is in strong shape. For the six months that ended March 31 compared to the same six-month period the prior year, donations were up by 11 percent and the organization expects that will continue for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
"We continue to remain in a strong financial position to ensure that we will be able to serve wounded warriors for a long, long time," he said.
©2018 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.