The wrong way to be a global-south non-profit: Part 3, untruth will never set you free
By: David A. Smith
[I've constructed this multi-part post from three principal sources: the Guardian (21 Jan 11, Calibri), Newsweek (3 Apr 11, Georgia), and the New York Times (24 Mar 11, Arial). I sought and failed to obtain a copy of the Global Philanthropy Group (GPG) report mentioned below, which is not a public document – and that in itself a red flag for both Ms. Ciccone's charity and for the GPG itself. We will return to this in Part 3. – Ed.]
Of the mistakes and oversights made by Raising Malawi, the charity that Madonna (Louise Ciccone) founded and to which she has given so much of her and other people’s money, the ones we’ve chronicled so far in this post are endemic to any non-profit – indeed, potentially to any business at all. The next set is much more particular to global development:
I. Acting unilaterally and hastily
Non-profits have a tendency to arrive in their chosen country like Team America, World Police:
They rise in, assuming that no one on the ground can help them, and intending to build their monument, present it to the grateful citizenry, and then ride into the sunset.
They’d be grateful if they knew enough
So prevalent is this approach that even today, a year-plus after its earthquake, Haiti is nicknamed the Republic of NGO’s.
The tendency to act unilaterally, suddenly changing course without consulting one’s putative partners, can leave the locals angry:
The building was due to be completed in December this year. However, the earth-moving machines that had been landscaping the area have disappeared. Villagers feel betrayed and accuse Madonna of breaking her promise. Maxwell Matewere, Malawi’s leading children’s rights activist, said Madonna should not “dump” the project.
Earning his authenticity: Matewere
They will have made plans, or changed plans, in reliance on the charity’s promises:
“We’d like to know why she has changed,” said Peter Mutharika, the education minister. “Yes, we do appreciate that it is her project; she devised it and she knows best how to implement it.
But still, as government, we’d be interested to know why there is this change.” Mutharika, tipped to be the next president when his brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, ends his final term in 2014, added: “I honestly don’t know the number of schools she is going to construct, where she will build and for how long. So until we talk to her, we can’t comment much.”
Waiting in the wings: Peter Mutharika
He said the government will also review the memorandum of understanding it signed with Madonna to “see what it says before we can embrace her new approach”.
The MoU would be an interesting document, but a fast search suggests it is not in the public domain – did I mention the lack of transparency?
Mr. Neilson, [whom] Madonna recruited last November amid signs of upheaval at her charity, said he told her that building an expensive school in Malawi was an ineffective form of philanthropy, and suggested instead using resources to finance education programs though existing and proven nongovernmental organizations.
Perhaps the first bit of sound advice Ms. Ciccone has yet received.
J. Cluelessness about the ecosystem they’re entering
Not only did Raising Malawi charge into a new environment without reconnoitering the terrain, the charge elbowed aside the locals:
The news has come as a bombshell to villagers who surrendered their ancestral land to make way for the school. The Malawian government said it had not been consulted and will now summon the 52-year-old singer to explain herself.
As far as I know, despite the summoning, neither Ms. Ciccone nor her recently-engaged defender Mr. Neilson has felt the need to journey to Malawi.
I was here for the press, I don’t need to come back
The villagers are thus left with no school and in some cases none of their original land:
Chinkhota became a building site – but without a building. Construction of the academy was delayed over a dispute between the Raising Malawi charity and villagers who claimed they were not adequately compensated for land.
While the news reports are sketchy on this point, it appears that Ms. Ciccone’s charity benefited from some form of informal eminent domain, and lacking proper procedures, it would be easy for villagers to be shortchanged, or to feel shortchanged.
K. Management that was unqualified, nepotistic, and conflicted
Mr. Neilson, whom we have seen in previous posts as philanthropic advisor to Hollywood, was hired by Ms. Ciccone’s charity to provide her with a report, and while the report itself is shrouded in mystery, there’s no question its purpose: it exculpated Ms. Ciccone and her religious connection, the Kabbalah Centre, while blackening two people who could not speak back.
The second target of Neilson’s report is Philippe Van Den Bossche, the executive director of Raising Malawi, who was forced out in October. Van Den Bossche is often depicted in news reports merely as the boyfriend of Madonna’s ex-trainer.
Do I look like merely a boyfriend to you?
In fact, he started dating the trainer only after he assumed his Malawi position. He got the job through the center, where he was the development director before Madonna hired him to run her charitable activities.
‘Development director’ means ‘fundraiser.’
Most significantly, according to multiple sources, every dollar he spent was approved by the center. (Oponyo and Van Den Bossche are bound by strict confidentiality agreements that prevent them from defending themselves publicly.)
There is something unseemly about leaking a report slamming a former employee who is contractually barred from responding.
In an e-mail, Mr. van den Bossche said he, too, was prohibited from commenting; Madonna has a history of confidentiality agreements with employees.
This report smacks of smear tactics.
Don’t smear my lipstick, smear my employees
The report faulted Mr. van den Bossche for his roles both in overseeing the planning of the building and in creating the educational curriculum. “Philippe’s level of mismanagement and lack of oversight was extreme in both aspects of the project,” it said, “and the lack of success of the players on the ground is in large part a result of his inability to effectively manage project plans, people and finances.”
Strong criticism, of a kind seldom if ever seen in published reports, and all the more remarkable for its selectivity (an excerpt) and generality (no particular mistakes cited).
The report was similarly critical of Ms. Oponyo. “Her charisma masks a lack of substantive knowledge of the practical application of educational development,” it said, “and her weak management skills are a major contributor to the current financial and programmatic chaos.”
We have already seen a total lack of financial control at the corporate level, the commingling of funds between a controversial religious cult and a supposedly independent charity, and a litany of missteps that are virtually a compendium of how not to do it.
Like A Prayer (1989)
Nelson Boord, the center’s CFO until 2009, has written that its six nonprofit and three for-profit entities collectively earn annual revenues of $60 million, own a $200 million real-estate portfolio, and manage a $60 million investment fund. Where does all this money come from? Boord says the center warehouses a $10 million inventory of Berg-blessed items, including $72 candles, $63 astrology sets, and $12.99 Divine Sex CDs. For $24.95 you can also buy the Rav’s book Immortality, which explores “the origins of death and the spiritual tools necessary for its final disappearance from the world.”
There have also been several civil suits filed recently alleging that the Kabbalah Centre had exploited the trust of wealthy followers in order to pillage their bank accounts.
Day-to-day operations are controlled by [Mr. Philip Berg's] wife, Karen, 68, and their two sons, Michael, 37, and Yehuda, 38, all of whom share the title of codirector.
The Kabbalah Centre sounds a sweet money machine, one driven in no small part by the visibility of its most famous adherent, a certain entertainer:
For Ms. Ciccone and for the Kabbalah Centre, good press is a must, and it arrived conveniently in the form of Ms. Ciccone’s interest in helping Malawi’s poor:
In 2005 the center was hit with a torrent of bad press about marketing such items as Kabbalah miracle water and a $35 set of Kabbalah shot glasses. Soon afterward, Michael Berg and Madonna cofounded Raising Malawi. Early the next year, Michael Berg flew to Malawi aboard a private jet provided by the Kabbalist wife of an L.A. billionaire. Joining them were Madonna’s then-husband, Guy Ritchie, and actors James Van Der Beek and Heather McComb. Berg also imported a camera crew to Malawi, which shot the faces of malnourished children under a banner that read “Welcome Kabbalah.”
Now that the school is irretrievably dead, and $3.8 million or more of donors’ money has gone missing, there are emerging disturbing suggestions of pre-emptive damage control:
There are indications the center had made the decision to pull the plug on the school long before it was announced: the last check was sent to Malawi in July of last year, just three months after the bricklaying ceremony, and it was for a mere $8,659. There was no apparent plan to cover the costs of operating the school.
Writing this post has made me angry.
So much money has been wasted, so many hopes raised and dashed, and so much damage done to anti-poverty causes. The Malawians have been used as visual props. For the record, here is all Raising Malawi has had to say (5 Apr 11):
In recent days a number of wild and totally false rumors about Madonna’s philanthropy — spread by bloggers and tabloids — have begun appearing on the internet. As we have said previously, Raising Malawi is currently undergoing a series of positive changes in an effort to serve more children. Neither Madonna nor Raising Malawi is being investigated by the FBI or the IRS. It is unfortunate that people have chosen to say things about Raising Malawi and Madonna that are not true. Madonna remains committed and focused on what matters helping the children of Malawi.
Observe that all Ms. Ciccone’s publicist denies is FBI or IRS investigation, leaving unchallenged the damning evidence of millions lost, plans abandoned, reputations deliberately blackened, and people’s hopes raised and then disappointed.
Raising Malawi will not disband and will instead use its money in different ways to help the poor in a country where Madonna has sought to become a major philanthropic presence, foundation officials said.
Poorer but wiser?
Neilson said the new community-based approach by Raising Malawi “will provide the opportunity for many more girls to receive a quality education”.
Neilson says Raising Malawi will now focus on financing “proven interventions.”
Currently, Raising Malawi’s web site appears to be counting its partners’ impacts as its own.
“My original vision is now on a much bigger scale,” Madonna said in a statement after the school’s collapse. “I want to reach thousands, not hundreds, of girls. I want to do more and I want to do it better.”
It would be worthwhile if this time she is sincere, committed, and smarter.