Somaly Mam’s recent resignation as founder of the Somaly Mam Foundation has raised a lot of questions and ignited strong critiques about the way social good organizations represent themselves. An anti-sex trafficking activist who allegedly fabricated her story, as well as those of the young women at her shelter, to bring more awareness and donations to her cause, her situation points to a major concern: Powerful stories clearly influence donations—which means the more harrowing the story an organization tells, the more profitable it becomes.
And Mam’s story wouldn’t be the first to be embellished. From Zoe’s Ark to Three Cups of Tea, there are a number of other examples in the social good industry that reveal that sometimes, those inspiring stories are just that—exaggerated and embellished to appeal to the public’s hearts and wallets. Not to mention, these scandals often shed light on other internal issues, such as program mismanagement or lack of monitoring and evaluation.
For those of us who want to make social good part of our career, this can be really discouraging. We want to feel like our work matters and makes an impact. That’s why so many students and professionals are abroad this summer, working with organizations around the world. They truly want to drive lasting change—and not just chase the stories that the industry sells us.
So in the midst of these current events, how can you truly know your organization’s operations and impact? And what do you do if your gut is telling you something is amiss?
A lot of volunteers won’t speak out because they feel uncomfortable questioning leadership or get caught up in the cult of personality (i.e., that inspirational leaders can do no wrong). In the Mam case, for example, staff, press, and the local community suspected fabrication since at least 2012, but the story didn’t break in international media until this past May. Whether it was because of Mam’s fame or the public’s disbelief that they could be deceived, it took years for the story to be exposed.
And that’s why I urge you to start thinking critically about the organizations you partner and volunteer with. By asking the right questions, you can stay well informed, hold organizations accountable, and enable them to run more effectively.
Whether you’re just starting out for the summer or are committed to an organization for the long haul, here are the tough questions to ask in the social good industry—and some red flags to look out for.
1. What are the financials? Is the organization a small grassroots operation with little money or a big charity with reputation and lots of money?
It’s important that you become familiar with donors, grants, and awards the organization may have received, so you can catch possible red flags—like if a small organization is spending more than its budget, or a large organization runs out of money too quickly.
2. Can you access the annual report and budget and see how money is being spent?
If you observe daily expenditures that are different from what’s in the budget, you should dig deeper to find out why.
3. How is the organization governed? Is there a board and leadership team, or is it just the founder of the organization? What are the governance practices?
It’s important that whether there’s a single leader or a large board of directors, there are policies in place to hold leadership accountable.
4. How does the organization identify communities or individuals to work with? How have they worked to build trust and relationships in the field?
Be careful of organizations that choose sites randomly (ignoring critical challenges like language and cultural barriers) to do a “charity dump.” There should be strategic relationships established in the field prior to starting any work.
5. What services are offered to those communities or individuals? Do they truly meet the needs of the community?
For example, if a community asks for a well, but instead receives hundreds of eyeglasses, something might be amiss—or the organization is simply not listening.
6. Is the organization willing to admit to mistakes and failures? How does it adopt lessons from those failures?
If the organization continues making the same mistakes again and again, you’ve found a red flag.
7. Does the organization have a strategy for identifying areas of improvement and actually making those changes?
Ideally, the organization should strive to follow up on its talk and aim to create programs to continually improve.
8. Are there ways to document successes besides self-reported “success stories?” Are there any metrics or data that can prove the organization actually achieves results?
Stories can be powerful, and testimonies are important, but there should also be some data and statistics as the driving force behind them.
9. How is the organization’s impact measured? Who is responsible for determining impact and evaluating results?
If there are no set standards in place, impact can’t be measured reliably.
10. Are there follow-up programs and plans in place to ensure the work is sustainable? Or transitions built in for short-term projects?
Otherwise, programs may crumble (e.g., playgrounds falling apart or new libraries getting used as chicken coops) the minute you leave.
11. Does the founder’s story outshine the actual work of the organization?
If the public face of the organization isn’t balanced with the work on the ground, it may be an “empty shell” organization—one that’s only concerned about good PR and not its impact.
12. How is the organization’s work communicated to the public? To donors?
The work and results should be transparent and honest, no matter what those results are.
13. What is the long-term strategy of the organization? Is there a five- or 10-year plan?
Even if the organization is operating month-to-month or year-to-year, it should have a strong vision for the future.
14. Is there collaboration and consensus when the organization makes decisions about its priorities and mission? Who gets consulted when decisions are being made?
If all decisions are made by a sole founder or leader, you’ve found another red flag.
15. Are personal narratives of others used with permission, accuracy, and respect? Is there a way to prove the stories are true?
If the stories made public are different than the originals, consider carefully if it is being simplified for marketing purposes or misrepresented for less-than-honest reasons.
16. Is the organization growing rapidly? Can the current organizational structure handle the growth?
Be wary of organizations that seem to be growing too quickly or marketing instant change.
17. What are the gray areas and complexities of completing the organization’s work?
Be aware that not everything is seamless in organizations, so the team should be able to acknowledge and address the challenges they face in their work.
18. Does the organizational operate ethically? How might culture, fundraising, and organizational gain impact its ethics?
Sometimes, organizations try to operate in places that aren’t governed strictly—or at all. I’ve seen organizations negotiate unethical acts (e.g., paying bribes or providing assistance for leaders’ families) to continue to do their work. This can be challenging to navigate. Ask about the context of the situation, and determine for yourself when circumstance requires it, and when it is a breach of ethics.
19. Is there a forum for staff, community members, or volunteers to air grievances or concerns about the organization?
The best organizations have someone who serves as an ombudsperson, or have systems in place whereby feedback and concerns can collected and later discussed by leadership.
20. Does the organization’s public face measure up to what is going on behind the scenes?
This is something that you will have to determine on the ground, after you’ve started working with the program. If you see a very different organization behind the scenes than what’s presented, its OK to call it out.
These questions may seem a bit heavy, but they’re key to powerful impact on the ground. Because, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, social impact never happens instantly, and it’s rarely easy (even though many organizations try to make it seem that way with “make a donation to save a life” type campaigns). The reality is that making an impact is complex, and that even with the best intentions, organizations must navigate tremendous challenges. The most important thing is that they overcome those challenges in an honest and ethical way.
We need to recognize and speak out when something is amiss. By having the courage to ask and follow up on the tough questions, we can help organizations be accountable and transparent and do their work more efficiently—so that scandals like Mam’s don’t overshadow all the organizations that are doing honest work and making a tremendous impact.