When a nonprofit falls apart

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IT STARTED OUT AS GOOD WORK. IT USUALLY DOES.

Shortly after college, I had a friend spend some time working in a girls’ school in Liberia. I didn’t know a whole lot about what she was doing there but as I started to become intrigued. She was there to volunteer with an organization that hoped to use education to end the serious problem of violence and abuse against young women. Education was and is one of the best defenses against it.

As I got deeper and deeper into the world of nonprofits, this was an organization I kept tabs on. They grew drastically in popularity in a short amount of time. They did a legitimately good job at capturing public enthusiasm through media, and I tried to take notes. Their founder became a sought after speaker, becoming especially prominent during the 2014 ebola crisis.

I had a pretty positive impression of the group, but simply never got around to supporting them financially or anything. Now, I’m really glad I didn’t and I feel sorry for those who did.

THINGS FELL APART TERRIBLY.

Last month, ProPublica simultaneously released a mini documentary and a lengthy feature article on the organization. It was some robust reporting; the article took me close to an hour to absorb. What it revealed was alarming. I mean that sincerely, and not in the clickbait sort of way.

One of the organization’s cofounders, a local man, had raped and assaulted several of the girls. He was arrested, but upsettingly, the organization’s leadership attempted to slowly obscure the issue as an “internal issue,” rather than taking swift and decisive action. To make matters worse, he died a couple years ago and the cause was found to be HIV/AIDS.

This organization, which was founded to protect girls from sexual violence, was actually putting them right on the path of harm.

Everything about this story was upsetting. I was angry. First, on behalf of the girls. There’s no excuse for that. Then on behalf of anyone who supported the organization- I can’t imagine giving my time and money towards trying to solve a problem and only to have it contribute towards that problem. This includes all the countless volunteers and unwitting employees sincerely attempting to do good.

But how did things get to this point? Even though the organization’s leadership handled this poorly, I doubt most of them ever intended to have things go this wrong. I still believe most of them were working for the right reasons.

But that’s a clear example of why good intentions aren’t enough. You need accountability, discernment, and transparency.

This story is a terrible one- but there are still lessons to be learned. Here are a few that stand out to me:

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THOSE YOU SERVE MUST ALWAYS COME FIRST

This event makes me wonder how much the Liberian girls were truly the top priority. If they were, I imagine the response to the first report of abuse would have been much swifter and stronger.

When an organization prioritizes saving its image over helping those who it seeks to help, it only ends up harming both.

Don’t get me wrong, image and reputation is extremely important for a nonprofit. I’ll always remember a mentor of mine telling me that a nonprofit’s most valuable asset is its reputation. That said, it shouldn’t be the nonprofit’s biggest priority. It’s always being in the best interest of those being served.

By simply obscuring an issue this serious as an “internal issue,” the organization sends the message that protecting the reputation of its leaders is much more important than the girls involved.

In the years between the time the organization discovered the abuse, they could’ve come out firmly about dismissing and prosecuting the attacker. They could’ve been deliberate at providing restorative care to the victims. They could’ve outlined the steps they would take to ensure nothing similar would happen again.

DO GOOD, BUT BE WISE ABOUT WHO YOU PARTNER WITH

Of course there are numerous wrongs with the way the organization handled the issue, but the ultimate wrong was the fact that it happened in the first place.

That highlights the importance of being wise and selective about who you partner with.

Doing good is a team effort and it’s something you can’t go at alone. That said, you’ve still got to be really careful about who you team up with.

This is true whether you’re a nonprofit figuring out who you should hire, an employee working for one, a foundation figuring out who you should partner with, or a donor figuring out which team to invest your resources in.

Your partners matter. Are they humble? Are they above reproach? Do they listen? Is there anything that doesn’t sit right with you?

Listen to uneasy feelings. Do thorough background checks, especially when kids or vulnerable populations are involved.

A portion of the article revealed messy relationships between some of the educators and the organization’s director. There was a lot of blame. Perhaps it would’ve been easy for an observer to dismiss it as a personal vendetta, but it also raises some red flags.

Every team, even the good ones, have conflict. But there is a world of difference between healthy conflict and drama. Stay way away from the drama.

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WHAT YOU DO IN SECRET WILL BE BROUGHT INTO THE LIGHT

Here’s a great mindset for just about everyone to work with: everything will be made known.

That pertains really well to the world of nonprofits and doing good. This is just one example of a time a charity was caught betraying the trust of donors. It’s why trust is so fragile in the industry.

If you act like everything you do is seen- and in a spiritual way, I believe that’s true- then you’ll want to conduct everything you do in a way that’s pure.

Set up accountability measures. Anybody doing any work of importance should have somebody who holds them to a high standard. Nonprofits have boards and auditors. Politicians have ethics committees and the press. Who do you have?

There’s nothing good about what happened to the girls in Liberia. These lessons aren’t worth what happened, but if they can prevent anything similar from happening anywhere else, they need to be taken seriously.

It’s important to be hopeful, but not naive. Bold and aspirational, but not reckless.

I still believe that there are a lot of people doing good, and many more who want to do good. But we need to be very careful about that gap in between wanting to do good and actually doing good. Within it, there’s a lot of harm done. Accountability, discernment, and looking out for the vulnerable must be priorities.

Philippe Lazaroblog, blog18