A World of Good is a monthly column appearing in Word Vietnam magazing comenting on the state of affairs in the NGO / NPO communities locally and internationally


When NGOs Go Bad




Heavens, looks like those who should know better are up to it again. By that I mean the continuing fallout from charities that aren’t quite walking their talk.


Voluntourism is on the rise and with it increasing reports of fake orphanages and fake animal sanctuaries springing up to cater to ill-informed travellers’ desire to ‘do good’.


But when well-intentioned NGOs go bad, they go really bad.


The Cambodian anti-trafficking charity—much loved by celebs— Somaly Mam Foundation imploded spectacularly last year, when investigations revealed its namesake founder wasn’t actually a trafficking survivor and that she had ordered a number of the female youth in her ‘shelters’ to exaggerate or outright lie about their sexual exploitation. The foundation issued a one-page apology scrupulously avoiding the name of the disgraced founder, stating it has “officially ceased all operations, ended all grant funding, and permanently closed [its] doors.”


Elsewhere, Save the Children (US) staff have signed an internal petition demanding that the ‘global legacy’ gong awarded to former British prime minister Tony Blair by their organization be revoked. Blair was apparently acknowledged for his contributions to fighting poverty and climate change; however, those who didn’t join in raising a celebratory glass argue the only thing Blair has fought is illegal wars, calling the award 'morally reprehensible'.


The American Red Cross has come under intense scrutiny amid allegations it lied about how many people it fed during disaster relief on the east coast of the US after Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. Officials ordered empty emergency vehicles driven around to ‘look busy’ and then parked them as not-too-subtle backdrops during press conferences. The Livestrong Foundation used to be known by another name, didn’t it?


It’s the staff I feel for: the women and men working (or volunteering) for a cause they believe in, only to be duped by the founder or other head honchos. A young woman confessed her doubt to me about a city orphanage run by Buddhist monks she and her brother had volunteered at. She was confused, and possibly rightly so, by the shabby state of the kids’ beds, food and clothing. She was unsure what exactly donations were being collected for at the pagoda. Crikey, fake monks?


The Lesson in This


Rogue NGOs are, thankfully, the exception not the norm, but when they fail it’s big news because of the awfulness of the deceit. It just makes it that much more unnecessarily difficult for the legit ones.


Is this a sign of the increasing lengths nonprofits have to go to in order to drum up cash in an increasingly self-regarding society? There is a razor-thin line between good intentions and fraud. Let’s be open about the donations we receive and how we spend that funding. Crisis management within an NGO that has gone wrong must make a commitment to integrity, lessons learnt and actually implementing that information publicly. Let’s focus on, big or small, our raison d’être.


If everyone else is hopping on the ol’ celebrity charity bandwagon, maybe it’s time for you to get off and find a nonprofit that has a more compelling (and documented) story to tell about why it’s doing what it’s doing and how.

Photo: Somaly Mam and some of her 'survivors' / Somaly Mam Foundation


This article originally appeared in Word Vietnam magazine and has been adapted. To view the magazine’s online version click here.