Steven Nardizzi thought he was prepared. But really, how could he have been?
A lifelong passion for serving veterans had led Nardizzi and a number of colleagues to start a small support organization called the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). The goal was to offer encouragement and care to a generation of soldiers coming back from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group had purchased backpacks and filled them with items to comfort the wounded.
Then in 2003, WWP members made their first trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and everything changed.
“We were going from room to room,” Nardizzi recalls. “I looked at these young people—many of them burned badly or having suffered terrible wounds or loss of limbs—and they kept saying thanks, but asking about when they could go back to be with their units still overseas. Many of them didn’t have a sense of what was coming next.”
Nardizzi, who had worked for several years with veterans from America’s previous wars, saw a different soldier coming home from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and knew that the needs of these veterans differed greatly from those who had served in the first Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea or even World War II. He was convinced that much more needed to be done, and he wanted to be part of it.
Nardizzi never got a chance to serve his country—at least, not in uniform—and that bothered him.
“My father and uncle, both of whom served in World War II, knew that I regretted not having served in the military,” Nardizzi says from his CEO chair at Wounded Warrior Project headquarters in Jacksonville, Fla. “So as I was going into law school, they encouraged me to find another way to give back. At the time I never dreamed it would lead to all this. But I’m proud and humbled that it did.”
The 11-year-old Wounded Warrior Project exists to raise awareness and public aid to support service members returning to America broken or burned and emotionally scarred from the horrors of war. For decades, battle experience has left too many veterans on the margins of society. Now one of the country’s largest nonprofits providing for veterans, the WWP strives for its programs and services to create “the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history,” according to the charity’s vision statement.
In the mid-1990s, while attending law school at night, Nardizzi started spending his days working for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (EPVA), representing former service members in their claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs. He intended to work at the association for only three years until graduating, but as EPVA grew, he was promoted to associate executive director in the organization.
Nardizzi was still working at the EPVA on Sept. 11, 2001. As America began its protracted involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he became one of a core group of 27 founders—veterans and friends of veterans—to create the WWP to address the unique situations of post-9/11 service members. “We knew the needs of a 20-year-old, newly injured service member were completely different from those of the older veterans,” Nardizzi says. “We needed to create new programs to meet their individual circumstances.”
The group started small in 2003. Its first act was to deliver those backpacks designed to make the hospital stays of the newest veterans more comfortable. The backpacks were a hit, and soon word of WWP’s worthy cause spread. In its first fiscal year, 2003–2004, WWP had a budget of just $160,000, and yet the charity was able to generate $1 million in fundraising. But the climb to become one of the country’s largest and most significant veterans groups hasn’t been easy.
“Like most business startups, we’d shake down family and friends for small donations before we had any corporate donors,” Nardizzi recalls. “In the beginning, [co-founders] John Melia, Al Giordano and I would travel long distances to spread the word about the WWP mission or to collect funds.”
As WWP developed, its programs extended to offering physical and mental health services, economic empowerment, and social engagement.
But only a few years later, in 2008, WWP found itself facing an uncertain future. The global recession had shaken the economy, and corporate donations sank. At the same time, the U.S. military was still heavily involved in two foreign conflicts, which led to more injured service members than WWP had projected or budgeted for.
WWP executives met to discuss the seemingly overwhelming problems they faced. Nardizzi, by then CEO, remembers the meeting clearly.
“Our growth had plateaued due to the recession, and the organization had not been able to raise enough funds to adequately serve our registered alumni,” he says. “With a projected outcome of hundreds of thousands of veterans who would need care, we were not moving quickly enough. We were in danger of losing this generation.”
Though WWP had raised $18.5 million in 2008 and served 5,000 warriors, the group faced a goal-setting crisis: Should it scale down in order to survive or ramp up efforts to meet the increasing veteran demand despite the unstable economy?
During the defining executive meeting, Nardizzi knew that WWP still had great potential. “In a time when every other organization was scaling down their fundraising and charitable giving had plummeted, we made a conscious decision to defy the current trends,” Nardizzi says.
He and his colleagues realized they needed to run the charity as a business. In that 2008 meeting, while facing bleak market conditions, WWP restructured its plan to increase from serving 5,000 to more than 100,000 Wounded Warriors by 2017. Such a bold decision could have curtailed WWP’s great promise, but with careful business management, evaluating every existing program and investing more deeply in fundraising, the organization flourished with accelerated growth.
WWP has now raised more than $400 million and is on pace to close 2014 with more than 50,000 troops served. Along the way, the number of programs has grown more than 50 percent a year, including advanced initiatives aimed at the long-term issues affecting young vets for the rest of their lives.
“We have continuously decided to reaffirm our decision from 2008, and that is to not do what everyone else is doing, but to do what is required to achieve our mission,” Nardizzi says. “We take the business approach. When charities operate that way, you can see this level of success. Great intentions to help people do not equal success unless you implement business models.”
WWP also creates strategic communications and marketing campaigns that keep donor interest high despite public fatigue over America’s Middle East involvement. To reaffirm its mission, WWP is currently in the middle of a $30 million initiative to help 250 of the most severely injured veterans lead an active, healthy lifestyle despite their conditions or disabilities.
By carrying through with the bold strategies set during the recession, Nardizzi contends that the goal of serving 100,000 veterans by 2017 is well within reach.
He believes that WWP and other worthy causes function via what he calls “a virtuous cycle”—paying sacrifice and success forward.
“If you run innovative programs that meet a need and truly help people, then you have great successes to share with the public,” Nardizzi says. “By showing the public the impact you are making, they will extend more resources toward you. That cycle has helped us grow and serve this deserving and inspiring generation of warriors.”
The Power of a Backpack
The Wounded Warrior Project has many success stories, but few as compelling as one of its first.
On March 6, 2003, Marine Ian Lennon suffered severe burns during a truck refueling in Kuwait when a spark ignited and changed his life forever. Back in the U.S., Lennon recovered as an inpatient for five months, followed by eight months of outpatient care. The experience in Kuwait was traumatic, and Lennon didn’t recognize himself in the mirror anymore. He refused to go out in public or to have visitors.
Then WWP, still a new organization, stepped in.
Lennon was contacted by WWP’s John Roberts, also a former Marine living with burn injuries. Roberts visited Lennon’s hospital room in New York with a care backpack and an invitation to a Yankees game. At first Lennon refused, but Roberts’ persistence finally paid off. That night, to Lennon’s shock, he was honored on the Yankee Stadium infield before the game.
WWP’s outreach helped Lennon in the healing process. Soon he was moving ahead with his life as an empowered survivor. In a full-circle moment, he eventually came onboard as an outreach coordinator, working for WWP in San Antonio.