Recently the international news reported the story of a terrible tragedy that took place over several years in Liberia. A non-profit organization called More Than Me (MTM) failed the children under their care. According to a video by ProPublica and story by Time Magazine, young girls who should have been learning care – free were instead raped by the lead administrator of a charity co-founded by an American woman.
Wasn’t it only a few months ago that we were reading about a sex scandal at Oxfam? In Haiti, Oxfam was accused of covering up an investigation involving the hiring of sex workers for staff orgies. This resulted in the Haitian government withdrawing Oxfam Great Britain’s right to operate in their country. And if these scandals are not about sexual exploitation then they are about fiscal irresponsibility or simply fraud. Over a three-year period, the former CEO of National Relief Charities, which focused on improving the quality of life for Native Americans embezzled $4 million dollars from the organization.
Were these scandals about power? Poverty? Failed board governance? Inadequate policies? Employees who aren’t supervised or held accountable? People with (hopefully) good intentions who are totally unprepared for what they are doing? Was it about appallingly outrageous hubris? Achieving (quasi) celebrity status on social media? Yes—it is about all these issues and more.
In education development, some people approach their work with trying hard to do no harm, while others go for (quasi) celebrity status. Too many NGOs have grandiose and self-serving claims about impact. But where are the data? Donors deserve rigorous qualitative and quantitative data, conducted by external organizations who are not invested in the NGO. How is it possible that without impact data NGOs such as MTM can win million-dollar prizes or the CEO be included as one of Time Magazine’s People of the Year during the Ebola crisis? In 2015 the Washington-based nonprofit GlobalGiving, which connects donors to charities, removed MTM from its platform. ProPublica reports that GlobalGiving cited that MTM needed to “grow and support a leadership team that has a broad and diverse set of skills” and “continue to educate and develop the Board of Directors on matters of governance, objectivity and accountability.”
In the last twenty years in places like Africa too many expats believe, with good (but naïve) intentions that they are going to “save the world” and so they start an NGO. Too often they are the new version of 18th and 19th century missionaries; however their language is different. They talk about making an impact, being entrepreneurial, or ‘rescuing girls in poverty.’ Or, as Greg Mortenson, who wrote Three cups of Tea and founded an NGO told Tom Brokaw in a 60 Minutes interview: “I always have operated from my heart. I’m not really a head person. And I really didn’t factor in the very important things of accountability, transparency…” That is hubris! Readers beware!—too often these organizations are a modern day version of the traveling ‘Medicine Doctors’ I wrote about in an earlier blog.
This time, work is indeed being done, and some of it is very good work. But, professionalism, integrity, transparency, and accountability are too often missing.
I’ve come across an amazing number of ‘social entrepreneurs’ who have an exciting idea, an enormous amount of passion and persistence, and want ‘to make the world a better place.’ I grow weary of hearing the story of the African (or Asian, or South American) epiphany. Some (usually) young White American has had an amazing encounter, usually with poor children involved, and they decide to dedicate the rest of their lives to ‘ensuring opportunity’ for these children. They put out their tin cup and it’s okay if you give small donations, but they really want the big ones—“for the children”. Like the founder of MTM, they go for the international prizes worth six and seven figures. With, at least in the beginning, (and I truly believe this) the best of intentions, they troll social media platforms for the cause. During college or right after, they travelled to (name of low/middle income country here), met children or people who –if they only had access to (choose one: better schools, books, peace, etc.) their lives would lift them out of poverty. So, they start an NGO in that country, create a ‘board’ back in the US and start raising money. The board is usually comprised of their friends who are also early in their careers and passionate about this ‘exciting idea.’
So, what can we learn from the (too) many tragic stories about NGOs—who have failed their clients and their donors, particularly from those working with children?
Here are a few ideas to consider:
- NGOs need to have boards that are comprised of people who live in-country, or at least spend most of their time living in the country. For a nonprofit organization working in one country there could be a US-based board but it should be advisory in capacity and most likely their primary purpose would be friend and fundraising; while the governing board would be in-country and comprised predominately of local citizens.
- If an organization is multinational, then the governing board needs to be representative of those nations and there should be local advisory boards with mechanisms for them to regularly communicate or liaise with the governing board.
- NGOs and their donors should require audited financial statements. We wouldn’t support a US based nonprofit that didn’t show evidence of fiscal responsibility. So, why do we not do due diligence on international NGOs?
- When possible, NGOs need to be locally registered. In the US, nonprofits are required to register with the Internal Revenue Service and pay appropriate registration fees—why should it be different if an NGO is operating in another nation? I’m in Rwanda at the moment and Edify, the multinational NGO I am working with, is registered in Rwanda with the Rwandan Governance Board.
- For education-related NGOs, boards need to ensure there are child protection policies in place and all employees are following those policies. There should be a sign off by each employee that they have read the policy.
- NGO boards need to ensure that background checks are conducted (Edify Rwanda does background checks. They ensure all employees get proof of no criminal record from the Prosecutor General’s Office.)
- Policies and/or protocols with donors need to be followed. For example, a staff member should accompany a donor on all school visits. This is good practice for clients as well as for the donor.
- Board members need to be in touch with what is happening on the ground. They have to pay attention to not only their fiscal responsibilities but they need to ask about staff training, and the existence of child protection and similar risk management procedures.
- Finally, if there are any accusations of impropriety, whether fiscal, sexual, etc. then those allegations can’t be ignored. Staff should be trained in what steps to be taken if the CEO, or any staff member is accused of wrongdoing.
An article in the Guardian in 2011 describes how NGOs can learn from their failures: “NGOs battle for media attention, devoting considerable effort and energy into getting that crucial eyeball contact. Usually that means making the message as stark and sensationalist as possible, with the implicit message that the NGO knows exactly how to sort out the problem.” Anyone agreeing to serve on a nonprofit board needs to understand the responsibilities of doing so. And if there are problems, them learning and reflecting on shortcomings is crucial.
Front Page Africa October 17, 2018
The scandal at MTM is another wake up call for non-profit leaders and governing boards. Strong governance structures and policies are crucial. Let’s look for humility rather than hubris and celebrity; instead, “trust but verify”– and show me the impact data!