Mercy Corps' 'significant failings' are an opportunity for the aid sector, staff say

The Mercy Corps action center in Portland, Oregon in the U.S. Photo by: Maribel Lucatero / CC BY-NC-ND

SEATTLE — There were only a few packs of sidewalk chalk left at the store, so Shanti Sattler bought them all. The next day, the senior program officer brought them to her place of work: Mercy Corps global headquarters in downtown Portland.

There, in the courtyard outside the front doors, she and her colleagues scratched bright pink and blue messages into the concrete: “Tania, we believe you.” “We stand with Tania.” “We thank you for your courage.”

It was the beginning of a healing process for employees of the nonprofit, and a meaningful act for the woman whose allegations of sexual abuse against her father — Mercy Corps co-founder Ellsworth Culver — were ignored for more than two decades.

A 10-month Oregonian investigation published earlier this month revealed that Tania Culver Humphrey tried in 1992 and again in 2018 to advise Mercy Corps executives that her father had sexually abused her throughout her childhood and teen years. Twice she was rebuffed, while Ellsworth Culver held a Mercy Corps leadership position until his death in 2005.

“We just want to make sure that that message is out there that the situation that happened does not represent what we do every day in the field.”

— Karla Peña, director, Mercy Corps Puerto Rico

“We were just all overwhelmed with so many feelings … and just a profound disappointment that this organization that we are so proud to work for and so proud to represent, let her [Humphrey] down so deeply, both in the 90s and 2018,” Sattler told Devex of the reaction to the news.

The sidewalk chalk messages — and similar demonstrations by Mercy Corps employees around the world — was the beginning of a spontaneous, staff-led response that “embodies the personality of Mercy Corps,” Mary Wheat, a safeguarding adviser based in Portland, told Devex.

Within an aid sector confronting rampant sexual abuse and exploitation, Mercy Corps is now working to formally review its failure, create an ongoing, survivor-centered response for Humphrey, and reassure its partners and supporters that this incident does not represent the 40-year-old agency.  

‘The same strict rules’

Mercy Corps recognizes there were “significant failings in our response to Ms. Humphrey in 2018,” said Lynn Hector, Mercy Corps media and communications manager. The organization has committed to an external review that will examine who had access to what information and when, as part of its scope in determining what went wrong in the handling of Humphrey’s outreach to the agency in 2018.

Amid staff pressure for accountability, the past three weeks saw the resignation of two of the global humanitarian organization’s senior leaders, including longtime CEO Neal Keny-Guyer and senior legal counsel Barnes Ellis.

Robert Newell, a Portland lawyer and one of the Mercy Corps board members involved in the 1992 sexual abuse inquiry, resigned ahead of the release of the Oregonian investigation. Beth deHamel, Mercy Corps’ chief financial officer, has stepped in to serve as interim CEO while the organization searches for a new leader.

Last week, Mercy Corps’ board of directors appointed a board sub-committee, which will include two employees, to oversee the process of the promised external review. Criteria for members of the sub-committee included not having close ties to any members of the current or former executive team, no personal relationships with former board members who conducted the initial investigation, and no prior knowledge of the related events in the ‘90s or 2018.

The board has chosen Vestry Laight, a firm that helps public and private organizations respond to and resolve sexual misconduct issues, to begin the investigation immediately, Hector said. The evidence that emerges from the review will be shared publicly and will inform the next phase, which “may include and is not limited to further investigation of the events that occurred in the early 1990s and Ellsworth Culver’s time at the agency,” she added.

Mercy Corps’ safeguarding policies, which currently state that the agency has “zero tolerance for sexual misconduct or exploitation of any kind,” will also undergo external review to identify and correct policy weaknesses. It will be especially important to revisit the report mechanisms for sexual exploitation and abuse, said Karla Peña, Mercy Corps Puerto Rico director.

“At the field level, there is a lot of work that we do in this direction,” Peña told Devex in regard to the group’s safeguarding policy. “I think that at the leadership level, it should be the same amount of work into it. And the same strict rules to it.”

Safeguarding adviser Wheat, a former police detective, would like to see the agency evaluate its investigative case management system to ensure it includes clear objectivity when handling complaints.

“We have incidents obviously globally because of what we do, and those incidents are responded to quickly and investigated thoroughly,” Wheat said.

The failure by top officials to investigate Humphrey’s allegations “does not, I don't think, reflect what is happening on a day-to-day basis within Mercy Corps when it comes to our response,” Wheat said. “But that doesn't mean the system didn't fail, because it did. And so now we have to go back and change that system so that this can't ever happen again, and that no one has the power to just take a complaint like that and not have it investigated in the way that it should be.”

‘Share our experiences, share our learnings, and share our pain’

The shock of learning about Humphrey’s experience has resulted in stronger communication between leadership and staff, several employees told Devex.

Visiting board members recently slowed down to talk with staff rather than rushing off to meetings. A few days ago, deHamel made a loop around the Portland office, stopping to visit and listen to different departments. Executives have been using internal messaging systems to proactively ask for people's ideas and advice, and the agency has also set up a new email for staff who would like to be in direct communication with the board.

Mercy Corps leadership has “been doing a good job of trusting us for the last two weeks,” Wheat said. “We had a loud voice, but they also let us have that voice… where it's not about what position you hold in the organization. It's really about what you want to do and what you feel strongly about.”

Part of that trust involved leaders letting staff take the lead when Humphrey visited the Portland headquarters on Oct. 11 in what Wheat described as “one of the most heartwarming things I've ever experienced.” Humphrey was able to see and touch the chalk messages Mercy Corps employees had written for her, and with her OK, staff members streamed outside to meet her.

“It can't change what happened by any means, but it was a very special moment,” Wheat said.

Sattler said she is working to collect staff ideas to continue to engage with Humphrey, while ensuring the organization is using a survivor-first method and empowering her to make decisions about engagement moving forward.

In Puerto Rico, Peña — whose team created its own message to share with Humphrey and other survivors of sexual abuse — wants to ensure that the strong communication within the organization reaches local stakeholders and partners.

“We just want to make sure that that message is out there that the situation that happened does not represent what we do every day in the field,” Peña said, who has overseen the organization’s response to Hurricane Maria.

After several candid conversations, Peña has been surprised at how many of Mercy Corps’ local partners are “supporting us at the field level and are saying ‘we know you guys, we know the work that you do, we know that this situation does not represent you.’”

“They want to learn as well: What are the actions that are being taken, and moving forward, what is going to be different?” she added.

Though staff remain devastated by the lack of justice for Humphrey, there is a sense of cautious optimism in the Portland office this week, Sattler said, ushered in by the understanding that the organization can use this as an opportunity to be better.

This is a “journey that nobody is holding us back from talking about externally,” Sattler said. “I really hope that as an agency we can continue to find ways to share our experiences, share our learnings, and share our pain, and share the opportunity with our peer agencies so that that can also be a part of the improvement for this sector.”

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.