Lessons from Somaly Mam's case

    Somaly Mam, co-founder of her namesake foundation, has stepped down following accusations of fabricating her story as a sex slave in Cambodia to garner donations. Photo by: Asa Mathat / Fortune Live Media / CC BY-ND

    After last night’s resignation of its founder, the Somaly Mam Foundation faces some tough choices if it is to avoid a fallout that could cloud its considerable achievements combatting human slavery and threaten existing partnerships and future funding.

    Mam, a recipient of several international humanitarian awards including the CNN Hero award in 2006 and the U.S. State Department's anti-trafficking hero award, is accused of fabricating parts of her story as a former sex slave in Cambodia, and exaggerating the stories of other young women, to gain donations and support.

    Last year, a former employee of her foundation made such accusations, and they were the focus of a Newsweek cover story this month which asked the question: How much should it matter if a do-gooder isn’t fully honest with the public?

    This debate isn’t new for the international development and humanitarian community, which has seen a greater focus lately on ethics as the competition for funding grows and donors take pains to choose partners. It’s a trend that has raised the stakes for aid groups and increased their focus on branding, as Devex’s Michael Igoe recently pointed out.

    The case of Somaly Mam, one of the most successful global development figures on social media, illustrates the pressure NGOs and their leaders face as they navigate an increasingly complex world — and an increasingly plugged-in populace.

    The past few years have seen a series of real or perceived ethics violations within the global development community. Comic Relief found itself in the spotlight — with some donors threatening to pull out funding — after it was revealed that the U.K. NGO invested millions in alcohol and tobacco firms despite its support in health projects. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria hired an ethics officer as part of its efforts to regain public trust after a media report questioned — somewhat misleadingly — the donor’s accountability. After Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, was stripped of his Tour de France titles because of doping, the charity he founded under his name changed its title to Livestrong Foundation.

    “NGOs face the same challenges in terms of public relations as corporations,” Laura Tyson, vice president at FleishmanHillard Hong Kong, the global communications firm, told Devex. “Just as consumers can lose trust in a product or brand, so too can supporters lose trust in an NGO.”

    To rebuild their reputation, organizations should demonstrate that they take the issue seriously and are willing to take on board the lessons learnt and instigate the changes necessary to prevent anything similar happening in the future, said Tyson, who specializes in reputation and crisis management and formerly served as Save the Children’s head of news. They should be as open and transparent as possible to enhance trust and confidence in the leadership team, as well as work to bring the focus back to the core objectives of the organization.

    After all, an organization’s story is at the core of its brand — and telling the story right is often crucial to success.

    “Storytelling is a powerful communication tool for NGOs, they bring issues to life,” Tyson said. “They will often need to be modified, to protect the identity of the individual for example, but ensuring the essence of the story is authentic is vital to the credibility of the NGO and indeed the sector as a whole.”

    As it happens, for Somaly Mam and her peers, the end does not justify the means.

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    About the authors

    • Lean 2

      Lean Alfred Santos

      Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.
    • Rolf rosenkranz 400x400

      Rolf Rosenkranz

      Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.