Off-Topic: A defense of the not-for-profit sector and critique of the Washington Post’s “investigation”

For my day job (when I’m not writing and researching about the continuing threat of landmines on the Continent) I work as a finance manager for a not-for-profit company in Washington, DC.  My entire professional career has been in this field working for a variety of organizations.  I have worked for a professional association, a university, and three international development organizations of differing sizes and missions.  In addition to the work I have done for these organizations directly, I have conducted audits of dozens of organizations in the United States and around the world (the only continent I have not been to is Antarctica).  When I was thinking about launching Landmines in Africa, the alternative was “Free 2 Associate,” a blog that would have discussed the nonprofit sector, international development and the increasing challenges faced by the sector.  I am good at what I do and am pretty pissed off at the Washington Post for its article in yesterday’s paper, “Inside the hidden world of thefts, scams and phantom purchases at the nation’s nonprofits” (Washington Post).  Had I written this yesterday, I would have used words like “shoddy,” “irresponsible” and “ignorant” and felt justified in doing so.  I still feel that way, but will settle (as my blood pressure has) for “sensationalist and lazy garbage.”

I have two problems with the story, the first (and what drove me to a sputtering, expletive-ridden rant) is the tone.  Starting with “the hidden world of thefts, scams and phantom purchases” in the title to unsupported claims of “financial skullduggery,” the article suggests that nonprofits are crime-plagued scams to bilk the government and the suckers who give them money.  The article quotes a lawyer’s accusations that nonprofits are “allowing people to steal” money and states that the “the nonprofit sector has repeatedly run into accountability problems” on the basis of only two, albeit high profile, cases.  The article claims that nonprofits actively try to hide any thefts and abuse the public’s trust in doing so.  The Washington Post would have you believe that you cannot trust any nonprofit with your money because fraud and theft is so pervasive in the industry.  To further fan the flames of discontent, the Post published the annual salaries of three people – the president, a vice president and the person accused of the fraud – it implicates in the American Legacy Foundation case (the only one it presents in any kind of detail), leading readers to assume that the employees of the Foundation, specifically the president and vice president, had a financial motive to keep the story quiet.  The Post also repeatedly noted where no charges were filed against accused thieves.

The second problem with the story is factual.  The Post accuses the nonprofit sector of insufficient scrutiny of its financial operations and are unusually susceptible to theft and fraud.  As part of the financial operations of several organizations, I can assure you, dear readers, that this is completely false.  Yes, nonprofits are subject to theft and fraud, but all industries are.  The Post even says, “Little comparative data are available about the prevalence of fraud across business sectors,” but quotes one study which listed nonprofits as “second only to the financial services industry” in cases of “major embezzlements.”  There are over 2 million nonprofit organizations in the United States with millions of employees around the world with at least $4.5 trillion in assets.  Nonprofits are susceptible to theft and fraud simply because we are so numerous, we have such a large stake in the domestic and global economies, and we employ so many people.  Fraud is a crime of opportunity and unfortunately, the amount of business nonprofits do and the number of people we employ means that there are opportunities for fraudulent behavior.  There are even some funny stories like the time I was asked to pay a bribe for a service and when I balked, the person asking for the bribe offered to give me a receipt for the bribe so I could include it in my expense report.

The Post does identify one of the key sources of scrutiny for nonprofits, their employees, but misses the third, the board of directors.  In the American Legacy Foundation case, an employee identified the fraud and reported it.  When he or she did not see a satisfactory response, the employee reported it again to someone else.  Every case of fraud that I know of was discovered not by an auditor or an accountant, but by an employee who was angered by the fact that a co-worker was stealing.  Look at the quotes from the Post article, “We are horrified it happened on our watch,” “It’s sadder when it happens to a nonprofit,” “There are kids out there we could have touched that we didn’t, because this money was taken from our coffers,” “We do view ourselves as holding a public trust.” Most people who work at nonprofits know that they are being entrusted with someone else’s money and hold themselves and their co-workers to a very high standard.  The organizations I have worked for helped landmine victims, searched for cures to malaria, sought to educate under-privileged students and protected fragile ecosystems.  We do work that no one does and without us the world would be a worse-off place; we honestly believe this stuff and when someone steals from a nonprofit, they are stealing not from an organization, but from the people we try to help.  As the President of the American Legacy Foundation said, the stolen money was money “that did not go to save lives.”  I say with confidence, people in nonprofits do not stand for theft or fraud.  If the Post were to investigate further, I’m sure they would find that most instances of fraud were reported by employees who detected the problem and took action.

Why don’t more people go to jail for fraud?  How many bankers went to jail after the market collapses of 2008?  Nonprofits report theft to authorities and it’s up to the authorities to pursue the case.  We do what we can, we fire people.  As for getting the money back, that requires lawyers and unfortunately, most nonprofits do not have the resources to hire lawyers to pursue civil trials.  I’ve seen the anger at thieves when they were found in our midst and know that people wanted to use every lawyer in the phone book to get the money back, but the cost of litigation would exceed the amount stolen.  Blame the high cost of legal fees on the absence of court cases, not will on the part of the organizations.

Lastly, the Post’s article suggested that the “public” has a right to know about these cases.  Well, they do, but not directly.  Nonprofit organizations are governed by boards of directors who are tasked with acting on the public’s behalf.  Often board members are recruited for their ability to bring in funds or make connections for the organization, but their first responsibility is to ensure that the organization adheres to its mission and acts in the public interest.  There are organizations, like Board Source which are devoted to educating board members about their responsibilities and while more organization should take advantage of these resources, to say that nonprofits are held accountable is simply false.  Most board members I know take their responsibilities very seriously and as key donors to organizations, they have a lot at stake when someone steals from their organization so they are motivated to act.  When fraud is detected, the board should be notified so that the organization can take appropriate action.  What the Post did not ask, despite mentioning the American Legacy Foundation’s high-profile board members was when they were informed of the detected fraud.  The board provides direction in times of crisis, like a fraud investigation and whether or not to publicly disclose fraud is the role of the board, not a lawyer in Chicago with a beef against nonprofits.

After 15 years in the business, I do have some recommendations for organizations to minimize and monitor for fraud.  First, change your auditor frequently.  Most nonprofits are audited annually and a clean audit is a point of pride, but an audit is also the opportunity to ask hard questions.  A new auditor will ask questions that an old auditor might not; from experience, I know a new auditor keeps the finance team on its toes.  Second, minimize cash transactions.  When organizations have large piles of cash lying around (and I’ve carried upwards of $10,000 at times), the temptation is high, as is the risk of outright theft by a third party.  Third, tell your board everything.  If you have done your job, your board is both your biggest cheerleader and your harshest critique because they believe in what you are doing and want to see you succeed.  They will help make the hard choices.  If you don’t trust your board enough to tell them about potential fraud, you recruited badly.  Fourth, listen to your employees and keep them informed.  Many of the people who work for a nonprofit for that particular nonprofit because they believe in the mission of the organization.  They would be horrified to learn of any thefts and would be more willing to report it if they knew both that the organization is watching and that reports are taken seriously and fairly.  A culture of suspicion is not helpful, but a culture of accountability is.  Last, don’t believe everything you read in the paper.

 

Michael P. Moore

October 28, 2013

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The Month in Mines, September 2013

Some months, we’ll see many landmine incidents and reports from a handful of countries (e.g., Somalia, Angola and the Sudans) and then there are months like September where we saw one or two incidents or reports from many countries.  Months like September, with stories from 10 countries, are a reminder that landmines are a continent-wide problem and not limited to just a handful of countries that make the news repeatedly.  As always, we see good news and bad in the stories from the continent.  Of global note, Zambia hosted the Fourth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions which we won’t cover below, but if you are so inclined, you should visit the dedicated website for the Meeting here: http://www.clusterconvention.org/meetings/msp/4msp/

 

Western Sahara (Morocco)

A Saharawi man was injured by a landmine some 350 km south of the city of Dahkla.  He was transferred to a civilian hospital in Dahkla after being discharged from a Moroccan military hospital despite being in “serious condition.”  The landmine was just one of the millions that Morocco uses to divide the Western Sahara territory (All Africa).

 

Somalia

Somalia National Army and AMISOM forces foiled a planned landmine attack in Beledweyne city early in the month.  A suspected Al Shabaab member sought to plant the landmine on a main road, but was caught in the act (All Voices).

In Mogadishu, an immigration department official was killed by a landmine that detonated when he drove past it (All Africa).

Also at the start of the month, Al Shabaab claimed an attack on Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s convoy as it drove to through the Lower Shabelle region of the country.  The government denied the attack, but person’s in the vicinity reported hearing a landmine explosion (All Africa).

Other landmine attacks targeted AMISOM troops traveling in a convoy in Mogadishu (All Africa) and government forces in Afgoye Town in Lower Shabelle (Shabelle Media).  Casualties in Mogadishu were unknown but the AMISOM troops opened fire immediately after the blast, endangering civilians.  In Afgoye, as many as six soldiers were taken to hospitals for treatment.

The constant barrage of landmine and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks has spurred the US Africa Command to provide explosive ordnance training to AMISOM forces.  US Navy ordnance specialists spent three weeks training soldiers from Burundi in reconnaissance, demining and disposal procedures for explosive devices in advance of the Burundians deployment to Somalia as part of the AMISOM contingent (UXO Info).

 

Egypt

Following the military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula has become increasingly restive.  Long a home to Islamists supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s ouster seems to have given new life to elements fighting against the current regime.  Egypt’s state television aired a report claiming that Hamas, the Islamist group in charge of Palestine’s Gaza Strip and itself an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, provided 400 landmines and training in bomb-making to militant Islamists in the Sinai.  Hamas has denied the charge (Jerusalem Post).   Landmines, whether from Hamas or from Egypt’s own stockpile of landmines, are being planted along the roads in Sinai and one blast injured at least nine people including soldiers, police and civilians.  After the blast, the Egyptian soldiers chased attackers (All Africa; Bloomberg).

 

Zambia

Zambia’s hosting of the Fourth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Lusaka led to some articles in the local newspapers about landmine and cluster munitions survivors.  One story, profiling some of the African survivor advocates in attendance at the meeting was very positive, demonstrating the resilience and strength possessed by some survivors (All Africa).  Another story was much less so, describing the lives of two survivors, one a former soldier in the Zambian army and the other government civil servant, whose injuries had dramatically changed their lives for the worse.  The former soldier has had to rely on support from his local church to receive a prosthetic limb and the civil servant is unable to pay his children’s school fees despite working as a carpenter.  Both men complained about a lack of support from the Zambian government.  Their experiences are confirmed by Yona Phiri, the executive director of the Zambia Foundation for Landmine Survivors, whose organization has only been able to support 16 survivors from across the country thanks to funds from the Norwegian government.  Despite an allocation for survivor assistance in the Zambian government’s budget, “the funds are not being utilized” and Mr. Phiri called on the Cluster Munitions Coalition, the civil society organization mobilized around a ban on cluster munitions, to urge the Zambian government to support landmine and cluster munitions survivors (All Africa).

 

Angola

Every month, and I do mean *every month*, there is a story about capacity building for Angola’s deminers and armed forces.  This month, 59 officers received training on the supervision and quality control of demining programs.  The participants represented 16 different provinces of the country (All Africa).  One question I would have about these trainings is how well they mesh with similar trainings hosted by international mine action operators and whether the skill sets of Angolan government deminers are the same as those of the internationals.  They should be and I would hope that at some level, probably the national mine action center, lessons are shared and standards harmonized.

 

Niger

As Mali faces the prospects of demining in the northern regions after the ouster of the Islamist militias there, neighboring Niger offers a model for how mine action can be a tool for peacebuilding.  In the wake of its own Tuareg uprisings in the 1990s and 2000s, Niger launched a humanitarian demining program that government soldiers and former rebels together to form demining brigades.  Encouraged by the efforts of Geneva Call which had reached out to the rebels about the humanitarian impact of landmines, the Nigerien government was able to create the National Commission for the Collection and Control of Illicit Weapons (CNCCAI) which disarmed the rebels and provided jobs in the form of demining and mine risk education to former rebels.  Geneva Call served as a mediator and broker for the CNCCAI.  The rebels brought their knowledge of the mine-affected regions and the government brought the resources.  To date, some 744 kilometers of roads and over a million square meters of land have been cleared of mines (All Africa).

 

Libya

In Misrata, the heart of the revolution that overthrew the Gaddhafi regime, one can find the “Martyrs’ Museum,” dedicated to the fighting that took place in the city in 2011.  The Museum displays arms and weapons used by the regime against the people of Misrata and receives 1,500 visitors each week.  However, many of the items on display posed an enormous risk to the museum’s visitors and host.  Live ammunition, rockets, missiles and a 400 kilogram bomb were among the 363 items identified as dangerous by a team from Mines Advisory Group.  Fortunately no one was injured, but the presence of these items in a museum is a reminder to all not to tamper with explosive items, no matter how inert they may seem (All Africa).

 

Sudan

Since South Sudan’s emergence in July 2011 as the world’s newest nation, a civil war has been brewing in Sudan’s now southernmost states of Blue Nile and South Khordofan (and possibly the states of Darfur).  The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N), a rebel group fighting against Khartoum, was once part of the movement that now rules South Sudan, but the partition between the Sudan’s isolated the SPLM-N.  Khartoum insists that South Sudan continues to support the SPLM-N whilst engaging in regular bombing raids against populated areas in Blue Nile and South Khordofan.  Under this backdrop, the SPLM-N has been trying to raise its profile internationally and has signed Geneva Call’s Deed of Commitment, committing itself to a ban on the use of anti-personnel landmines and to assist in the clearance of mines in areas under its control.  According to the SPLM-N, what few anti-personnel landmines it has were captured from Sudanese forces.  The reports about the SPLM-N don’t ask the question, but where would Sudan’s army have gotten anti-personnel landmines from since Sudan supposedly destroyed its stockpiles in 2007 and 2008?  To meet its obligations under the Deed of Commitment, the SPLM-N will create an organization to clear landmines and provide survivor assistance.  Geneva Call and the SPLM-N will continue to work together to develop and implement a child protection program and the SPLM-N will work with the International Committee of the Red Cross to arrange for the release of prisoners of war.  These steps are helping to legitimate the SPLM-N and build confidence in the organization for possible future peace negotiations with international mediation (Radio Dabanga; Radio Dabanga).

Outside of Blue Nile and South Khordofan landmines continue to threaten the lives of Sudanese people.  The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has cleared thousands of landmines from Sudan, but mine-contaminated areas remain in Kassala, Gedaref, Blue Nile, the three Darfur states and Blue Nile and South Khordofan.  The fighting in Blue Nile and South Khordofan led to higher numbers of landmine casualties in 2011 compared to the years since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.  Despite the thousands of survivors living in Sudan, only two thousand have received support from survivor assistance programs (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

 

Mozambique

As Mozambique makes its final push to clear all anti-personnel landmines within its territory, the donor community has stepped up to provide assistance.  The Government of Sweden provided a  Mini Minewolf landmine clearance vehicle along with a year’s worth of spare parts and training for the MineWolf operator.  Mozambique’s National Demining Institute plans to deploy the MineWolf to Sofala Province, the most heavily-mined in the country (Defence Web).  The Norwegian government provides funding for mine clearance in Mozambique and a representative from the embassy, Clarisse Barbosa Fernandes, visited the Norwegian People’s Aid field site where she met a female demining team of nine Mozambican women from Tete Province (Norwegian People’s Aid).  In the coming months, after the interior of the country is cleared, mine clearance assets and personnel will transfer to the border with Zimbabwe to finish the mine clearance work by the end of 2014.

 

Algeria

The government of Algeria is working to clear all of the landmines planted during the French colonial period and the conflicts of the 1960s and 1990s.  In August, over 4,000 mines were cleared mine the national army for a total of almost 700,000 cleared to date (Algerie Soir).

 

Michael P. Moore

October 24, 2013


Uncle Sam’s Hooptie Giveaway

Do you need a new ride? Of course you do.  How about this little baby?  It’s a 2007 model, but barely left the garage.  Certainly never been to an active combat zone.  We’ve got a mess of them and they are yours for the ultra-low price of nothing.  Nada. Zilch. No dollars down, no dollars later.  In a government shutdown special, Landmines in Africa brings you Uncle Sam’s Hooptie Giveaway.

And just what is your US government giving away? 20-ton, $600,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.  Free of charge to law enforcement agencies.  With the winding down of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has a surplus of MRAP vehicles that it needs to dispose of and rather than sell them or scrap them, the Defense Logistics Agency has been offering them to local law enforcement agencies.  These are vehicles that can withstand machine-gun fire, improvised explosive devices and anti-tank landmines.  So who’s taking them?  Perhaps the big cities, like New York or Los Angeles? Cities with high rates of violent crime like Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans or Oakland?  Maybe the nation’s capitol Washington, DC with its high profile and many soft targets?  No, no and no.  Try Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Baker County, Oregon; Watertown, New York; Madison, Indiana; Wenatchee, Washington; Dallas, Texas; and my favorite: the Ohio State University.  I am not making this up.  See for yourself:

Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Here

 

Baker County, Oregon

Watertown, New York (which will paint theirs black, like the Batmobile)

Madison, Indiana

Wenatchee, Washington

Dallas, Texas

Ohio State University

 

It’s worth pointing out that almost every one of these articles includes a like this one (from the Dallas report): “Why in holy hell does Dallas County need an armored military vehicle built to withstand a minor apocalypse?”

The response from the police is invariably one of the following:

  • It was free;
  • It will be used to serve warrants on people who might not be receptive to a warrant.

 

That said, the boys of Madison, Indiana had expected a Humvee and not an MRAP so I don’t think these law enforcement agencies are deliberately seeking out MRAPs.  This is just what they can get as part of the government’s giveaway for counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities; referred to the “1033 Program” for the National Defense Authorization Acts that authorized transfer of excess military hardware to law enforcement.

In addition to crime-fighting, MRAPs might be useful in disaster situations since they can maneuver in water up to three-feet deep.  However, MRAPs can’t cross many rural bridges due to their weight and they will break low-hanging powerlines.  Despite their all-wheel drive, their massive weight makes them difficult to use on dirt or mud roads and early models (such as those that are being offered to the county sheriffs of America) are likely to roll over due to high centers of gravity.

So let’s be honest.  These vehicles will be used for show and not in any actual crime-fighting activities.  Probably Ohio State will allow the coach and quarterback to ride on the back during the victory parade should they win another football championship.  Otherwise, I would expect to see them lined up at the county fairs alongside Monster Trucks and vintage cars.

 

Michael P. Moore

October 1, 2013