The Wounded Warrior scandal wounds us all

When the Wounded Warrior scandal broke last month many Americans were shocked that one of the most successful and respected nonprofits in the country has been squandering donations on obscene luxuries and public relations. Unfortunately, the Wounded Warrior Foundation won’t suffer the repercussions alone.

 

The Wounded Warrior scandal in a nutshell.

The Wounded Warrior scandal in a nutshell.

 

The Wounded Warrior Project embraced an important mission that also happened to have spectacular donor appeal: helping transition in injured veterans back into civilian life and ensuring that they have access to services they deserve. So when CEO Steve Nardizzi complained that spending lavishly on “the brand” was necessary because it will help more veterans in the long run, one has to be skeptical. If anything, his strongly branded organization was taking money that donors would’ve otherwise given to similar but less famous nonprofits serving the same constituents. According to Great Nonprofits virtually all of them spend less on overhead than the Wounded Warrior Project’s 40%. So the public outrage was not, as Nardizzi’s comments suggest, a gut reaction based on a misunderstanding, but rather a very logical assessment of the Wounded Warrior scandal.

Forty percent of the Wounded Warrior Project’s immense income came to $124 million a year. Yes, an organization of that size carries heavy personnel costs, but putting employees up in 5-star hotels and flying them to conferences in business class shouldn’t be part of them. The fact that the Wounded Warrior scandal broke because past employees spoke out over their guilt of having expensed ridiculous and wasteful purchases with the money that not-too-rich donors were taking out of their piggy banks highlights the clash between perception and reality. It’s not illegal to make someone believe that they’re buying a person a prosthetic leg when they’re really buying a heck of a pyrotechnic show for a conference. It’s sneaky to place those tear-jerker ads but as long as the Wounded Warrior Project diligently reported their expenditures on their Form 990 – which they did – they stayed within the letter of the law.

So where’s the foul? The crux of the Wounded Warrior scandal is that people feel that they’ve been lied to and cheated. They feel that the organization toyed with their emotions and good intentions and then spent their donations selfishly and irresponsibly. Even if we pretend that Nardizzi’s statement about being able to do greater good by building the brand wasn’t an outright lie, one wonders why he’s hired a PR firm specializing in crisis management if he doesn’t see, on some level, that the Wounded Warrior Project peddled much less than the truth.

 

wounded warrior

1% of people doing nothing sketchy hire crisis management firms.

 

This cynical breaking of trust harms not just the Wounded Warrior Project itself but every nonprofit, and indeed every person in our society. Polls have already shown that more and more individuals are questioning nonprofits as an institution. Lists of nonprofit CEO salaries, some more accurate than others, are frenetically circulating online. Of course this threatens the ability of legitimate nonprofits, especially small ones, to continue to survive, but it also means that we have little trust in any institution anymore. Poll after poll confirms that people are unprecedentedly suspicious of big business, their government, and even religious leadership.

The public sector could’ve been a space for participation, solidarity, and action where democracy can weather these challenging times and perhaps take stronger root. It could’ve been a place where people can truly consider and act on what’s right, having no responsibility to do what’s most profitable, most politically expedient, or most in tune with religious texts. It could’ve been the nursery where we begin to create authentic solutions for our increasingly fractured and unequal society. Instead, thanks in great part to the Wounded Warrior scandal, it’s becoming just another sector we can mistrust and lose hope in.

Baby on Board: What to Expect as a First-Time Nonprofit Board Member

While every board has its own rules, roles, and conventions, a person with no previous nonprofit leadership experience has a pretty steep learning curve. So what happens once you commit to becoming a first-time nonprofit board member?

 

first-time nonprofit board member

Spoiler: The nonprofit takes over your life.

 

The most common reason people give for joining a nonprofit board of directors is the desire to give back. Younger people, or those seeking to transition from a for-profit career into a nonprofit one, might also pursue these positions in hopes of learning new skills or beefing up their resumé. Websites such as Bridgespan and VolunteerMatch make the job easier, listing both local and national openings and facilitating first contact.

Committing to board service is not for the wishy-washy. On paper, attending four quarterly or twelve annual board meetings might not sound like much, but a first-time nonprofit board member doesn’t just get to show up and sip coffee for half an hour. “Attending” a board meeting means coming prepared to provide meaningful oversight and leadership to your organization, so you need to keep in touch with other members and the executive director year-round.

If you have experience in a relevant field such as marketing or fundraising, expect to chair or at least contribute to that particular board committee. But whereas in the for-profit world the way forward is through decisive and quick decision-making, it doesn’t always work like that for nonprofits. You will have to listen to and give consideration to other voices – not only those of other board members but those of staff, volunteers, and constituents, too. Major changes are usually made through consensus at the end of long period of deliberation.

If you are part of a more specialized committee, such as a committee organizing an annual gala, your tasks require not just enthusiasm for the cause but a healthy dose of creativity and derring-do. How, for example, does an organization on a shoe-string budget throw a memorable cocktail hour for 300 guests and end the evening with over $30,000 raised? By mobilizing its board members, of course! Perhaps one member’s connections brought in a high-profile speaker whose star power allowed the organization to charge a high price for tickets, another used her graphic design talent to create one-of-a-kind invitations and signage, another convinced her company to donate the event space, and another personally negotiated a fabulous deal with the caterer. Most importantly, all board members arrived at the event determined to be enthusiastic, knowledgeable, approachable ambassadors, inspiring trust in the organization.

 

schmooze

You snooze, you lose. You schmooze, you win!

 

In addition to a significant time commitment, a first-time nonprofit board member should expect to make donations of money – a fair amount of money, typically in the range of $3,000 to $10,000 annually. Some board members feel that their passion and expertise should be sufficient, but the reality is that if even a nonprofit’s board doesn’t consider the organization worthy of a donation, then chances are that others won’t, either. Private and corporate foundations are increasingly insistent that organizations they fund adopt and adhere to so-called “give or get” policies, which obligate their board to personally donate (“give”) or raise from acquaintances (“get”) a certain amount. Nationally, the vast majority of nonprofit boards make monetary donations and over half have some sort of giving policy in place, but unfortunately only about a quarter of boards donate at 100%.

Donating at less than 100% means that there is a giving policy but some members either did not pledge or failed to live up to their pledges. Please don’t let this happen to you, dear first-time nonprofit board member! Nonprofits can and do make exemptions, sometimes allowing in-kind gifts, sometimes drastically reducing giving requirements if someone who sits on their board represents the constituents the organization serves. It is after all unreasonable to expect, for example, a homeless mother to be able to set aside $5,000 for charitable giving. Her more modest pledge is still a valid pledge, as long as the rest of the board agrees to it. If your circumstances prevent you from giving at the level of your fellow board members, it’s your responsibility to discuss this with them up front and work out other terms. Even if you suspect that you are less financially successful than the rest, you should still consider pledging the full amount and making up the remainder through fundraising. And if you really, really are just plain allergic to the idea of board giving, consider joining a board without a “give or get” policy instead.

 

raid your piggy bank

But c’mon, positive social change is one of the best things you’ll ever have the opportunity to invest in.

 

And if you find out along the way that you’re not cut out for it? There’s no shame in having tried it and not found a good fit. All nonprofit boards are different, in their structure, obligations, and mix of personalities. Moreover, lives get busy and priorities change. If you wish to leave a nonprofit board, it’s best to notify the board chair and the organization’s executive director as soon as possible. Be honest about why you’re leaving and offer to finish off your outstanding projects. Everyone will appreciate that you are providing useful feedback and aren’t leaving them in a lurch.

However, if you come prepared for your stint as a first-time nonprofit board member with realistic expectations and plenty of passion for serving the less fortunate, chances are that you, like many others who take on the role, will find the experience one of the most deeply rewarding and enriching of your life. Congratulations and best of luck from the Wild Fundraising team!

The creepy history of museums

The Kansas City Museum is one of many in the country embracing Halloween this year, but who knew that the origin of these nonprofits is actually quite macabre?

 

kansas city museum

Maybe only people who realize that the history of pretty much anything is quite macabre.

 

In Kansas City costumed candy-lovers of all ages can trick or treat to their hearts’ content down a section of Gladstone Avenue near the Kansas City Museum. Most of the houses in the vicinity went all out with spooky decorations. Right across the street from the museum, a full cast of Dorothy, scarecrow, lion, and ax-wielding tin man mingle among the many kids waiting in line in front of the mansion. 6,000 of them are expected to attend the event tonight.

Crowds are nothing new for museums. They are easily the nonprofits with the most impressive impact numbers, collectively hosting about 850 million unique visits a year in this country alone. One of the many reason’s they’re attractive to philanthropists is their reputation for packaging dry adult subjects like Renaissance art or biodiversity into fun, bite-size educational morsels that young visitors are happy to devour. Yet early museums weren’t accessible to large numbers of guests, nor did they deign to cater to children. In fact, the main thing ancient and early modern museums had in common with the Kansas City Museum on Halloween night is that they were designed to scare, disgust, and make uncomfortable the people passing through.

The first museum was probably the one established by Princess Ennigaldi of the Neo-Babylonian Empire around 530 BCE, but it took until the Middle Ages for them to really catch on in the Middle East and in Europe. They were collections of various “curiosities” maintained and curated by wealthy individuals for the benefit of their wealthy friends. Aptly called “cabinets of curiosities,” a particularly creepy collection might become renowned far and wide, a “must-see” for visiting nobility and their dignitaries.

 

museum of ole worm

Anybody who was anybody in the 17th century would’ve hoped for an invitation to this Danish cabinet of curiosity, ran by a physician whose real name was Ole Worm.

 

The “cabinets” – a humble term that actually used to denote a large room – usually contained ancient vases, swords, scrolls, and other antiquities. There were also the requisite rare gems and shells. The main attractions, though, were the items that made guests question their place and purpose in God’s creation. Relics of saints were always a good bet, especially severed body parts or bloody garb that the poor soul was martyred in. Some curiosity cabinets featured exotic animals stuffed or floating in jars of alcohol. Wooly mammoth tusks were show-stoppers, but the real elite could boast phoenix feathers, unicorn horns, and the femurs of giants. In the early seventeenth century a spectacular English museum maintained by John Tradescant the Younger treated enthralled visitors to a stuffed dodo, a mermaid’s hand, a dragon’s egg, the ceremonial cloak of Wahunsunacawh (known to the English as Chief Powhatan), a piece of the True Cross, and a vial of the blood that had rained down on the Isle of Wight.

The medical curiosities of the day encompassed so-called “monstrous births” as well as the results of terrible accidents. The vast majority of museums used drawings, casts, or sculptures but some had the real deal. Their visitors were treated to the corpses of conjoined twins and victims of elephantiasis; disturbingly large tumors; and famous murderers’ skulls for days, complete with the phrenelogist’s assessment of each.

 

leipzig monstrous birth

This “monstrous birth” occurred in 18th century Leipzig and was so well-preserved that it can still be viewed in a German museum today.

 

For all their macabre subject matter, early museums were still considered the pinnacle of polite society. They were valuable because they could fill people with awe that transcended and disrupted the everyday. By making viewers uncomfortable the curators sought to spark reflection and new understanding, making translucent the barrier between the wealthy visitors and the ancient, the exotic, the dangerous, the murdered, and the malformed for just a few hours.