What happens when a nonprofit that was started to help veterans becomes the neighborhood bully?
For a charity supposedly devoted to helping veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project spends an enormous amount of time suing or threatening to sue small nonprofits—spending resources on litigation that could otherwise be spent on the vets they profess to serve.
At issue is the Wounded Warrior Project’s brand: The charity has become particularly litigious over the use of the phrase “wounded warrior” or logos that involve silhouetted soldiers. At least seven such charities have discussed their legal problems with The Daily Beast.
The Wounded Warrior Project has become, in the words of those it’s targeted for legal action, a “bully,” more concerned about its image and increasing the size of the organization than actually providing services to wounded warriors.
“They do try to bully smaller organizations like ourselves... They get really territorial about fundraising,” said the president of one charity with the name “wounded warrior” in their title.
He asked to remain anonymous out of fear that the Wounded Warrior Project would launch legal action against his group if he spoke out. His group hasn’t been sued, but he said individuals from the WWP had pressured him to change their name. “They’re so huge. We don’t have the staying power if they come after us—you just can’t fight them.”
The Wounded Warrior Project’s latest target is the Keystone Wounded Warriors, a small, all-volunteer charity based in Pennsylvania.
How small? Keystone Wounded Warriors had a total annual revenue of just over $200,000 as recently as 2013. That’s less than the $375,000 that Wounded Warrior Project Executive Director Steven Nardizzi was personally paid in 2013.
The Keystone group was forced to spend more than two years and some $72,000 in legal fees to defend itself from the legal actions of the Wounded Warrior Project, which brings in annual revenues of close to $235 million, according to the outfit’s most recent tax forms.
“That’s money that we could have used to pick up some homes in foreclosure, remodel them, and give them back to warriors. We spent that money on defending ourselves instead,” said Keystone Wounded Warriors Executive Director Paul Spurgin, a Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran.
“The lawsuit was just the coup de grâce,” he added. “They want us gone.” At issue is their similar logo and names—Wounded Warrior Project complained that it will “suffer irreparable damage to its business, goodwill, reputation and profits.”
The Wounded Warrior Project did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But in an interview with local Virginia news channel WTKR, Nardizzi said that most organizations simply change their names when asked.
The Wounded Warrior Project has a history of legal attacks against those it perceives to be infringing on their brand. However, the term “wounded warrior” is a generic term in the military community for an injured service member. The Army has a Wounded Warrior Program. A band at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is called the MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band.
And “the Marine Corps’ own battalion… their unit for service members who have been wounded is called the Wounded Warrior Regiment,” pointed out Ann Barnwell, a spokeswoman for Hope for the Warriors, a veterans charity that was threatened for five years between 2007 and 2012 by the Wounded Warriors Project over its logo.
At the time, both organizations had logos featuring the silhouettes of servicemembers. Hope for the Warriors eventually did change their emblem. They say that was not in response to legal threats, but rather the modernize their image.
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Wounded Warrior Project is a gigantic organization that has yielded a plethora of complaints from the veterans community. Many vets have been critical that, despite hundreds of millions in revenue, the Wounded Warrior Project does not effectively spend its money to help veterans. The group has received mixed results from charity watchdogs: Charity Watch gave Wounded Warrior a C+ in 2013, up from a D two years prior. Charity Navigator gave it three out of four stars.
“Have you seen their 990 [tax form]? We often get confused with them—they’re not looked upon very highly by [the veterans community],” said David Brog, executive director of the Air Warrior Courage Foundation, which has not been threatened with litigation by the Wounded Warrior Project.
Many of the charities that Wounded Warrior Project threatens are more highly rated. Three of the charities interviewed for this story, for example, received four stars from Charity Navigator. The others were either not large enough or had not been around long enough to be rated by the charity watchdog.
A substantial cadre of veterans feel that the Wounded Warrior Project is more concerned about organizational growth than getting at the roots of problems vets face. They cite statistics that of the 56,000 veterans that WWP supposedly serves, more than a third haven’t engaged with the group in the past year. The lawsuits and threats of legal action against small nonprofits seeking to do good for veterans reinforce that perception.
Keystone Wounded Warriors Executive Director Paul Spurgin is dumbfounded as to why the massive Wounded Warrior Project would spend the resources to sue them. Spurgin is a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. (Wounded Warriors Project head Steve Nardizzi, on the other hand, has never served.)
The Keystone Wounded Warriors co-founder said he spent two years negotiating with the Wounded Warrior Project to come to a sensible conclusion to their disagreements over the name and logo. Then the Wounded Warrior Project filed a lawsuit—forcing the much smaller Keystone Wounded Warriors to offer a settlement agreement.
“It’s the big guy beating up on the little guy... We won't make the same as we did last year. What’s it really about? If they keep blowing up [in fundraising] 50 percent every year, and we're going to go backwards this year, what is the point?” Spurgin said. “The money that we get in donations to help warriors—is that going to make or break them? … [They’re] whining about a small number of legitimate nonprofits. I'm at a loss: We all should be working together.”
Retired Colonel John Folsom formed “Wounded Warriors” in 2003 while he was stationed in Landstuhl, Germany, and is a 30-year veteran of the Marine Corps. He has argued that his group, which receives four stars on Charity Navigator, was granted nonprofit status before WWP was.
Their organization has spent, in Folsom’s estimation, over $300,000 in legal fees to defend itself from the Wounded Warrior Project over a protracted, five-year process. Folsom’s organization eventually lost the lawsuit and were forced to change its name to “Wounded Warrior Family Support,” on the grounds that it was benefitting from the Wounded Warrior Project’s national advertising. The smaller group had to pay $1.7 million to WWP.
“It was very derogatory… [the Wounded Warrior Project’s lawyers] argued that John’s program was a scheme, that it was fraudulent, that he had benefitted from the wonderful advertisements of the Wounded Warrior Projects, to scam the public,” said Woody Bradford, a former “Wounded Warriors” board member who represented the group in court.
Folsom didn’t even want to talk about the lawsuit, saying that he would lose his temper if he spoke about it on the record.
“We survived. We’re here. We were never going to be a big player with huge advertising… our focus was to have a presence locally,” Bradford said. “They had the power and they used it. It was was brutal. We adopted the idea that each of us should be able to render services to [vets]. We were a grassroots, on-the-ground kind of [organization].”
The Wounded Warrior Ski Patrol is yet another group that has caught the wrong end of WWP’s litigious behavior. The group, which supports the recovery of vets by taking them on snow sports activities, was served with a letter demanding it cease and desist using the name “wounded warrior.” Fortunately for the Ski Patrol group, a patent attorney on the organization’s board was able to push back and argue that the WWP had no legal ownership over that term.
Wounded Warrior USA, a small Colorado charity with a $15,000 operating budget, had a Wounded Warrior Project lawyer reach out to them to demand they change the free clipart they were using as a label on coffee packages they were using for fundraising. “They got really nasty with us,” said Wounded Warrior USA founder Dave Bryant.
“They’ve tried to go after every organization with ‘wounded warrior’ and bully them,” said the head of one veterans charity, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want his group to be targeted. “We’re not going to spend a dime or a moment confronting the bully in the neighborhood. We’re going to focus on the actual wounded warriors.”