On May 21, 2014, Newsweek funneled years of speculation and doubt into a single piece that, once and for all, brought the legendary Somaly Mam into the spotlight for a type of fraud that has become the Achilles heal of the non-profit world. Following the narratives of Greg Mortenson, Lance Armstrong, and countless others, Somaly Mam’s story has begun to unravel. Former classmates remember her graduating high school, a time when she claims to have been a sex slave. Anonymous employees state that behind closed doors she can be cruel and tyrannical, a far cry from the saintly woman who has sat down with leaders ranging from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to the Pope. It has even come to light that the girls who have served as the face of her organization were coached to share heart wrenching but fabricated stories to attract more donor dollars.
What isn’t being brought into question is the work of her organization, the Somaly Mam Foundation. That might be a battle for another time, but it’s evident that she has created some good. She has brought attention to a horrible problem (sex trafficking), created a safer space for women in her native country, and continues to fight for women’s rights to healthcare, safety, and equal opportunity. Her organization might not be perfect, but it does exist, and (arguably) it does do good work.
So what do we do now?
When critics discovered that Greg Mortenson, Author of “Three Cups of Tea” and Founder of the Central Asia Institute, had mishandled donor money, embellished an already unlikely story, and mislead thousands of school children through the educational non-profit Pennies for Peace, Mortenson was brought to trial both in the headlines and in court. His story was discredited; his work declared a farce, and three years later the organization that had to separate itself from him for any hopes of survival is still on its knees. However, he still built more schools than I probably ever will.
Just as professional athletes take steroids, it seems as if embellishing or even fabricating stories has become the stimulant of choice for non-profit leaders looking to gain a competitive edge. There is a push to show that you’ve been challenged, and overcome more than anyone else; that you are a shining example of humanity. The pressure to live up to this ideal is, ironically, incentivizing falsehoods. As non-profits scramble for donor dollars, often up against similar yet competing organizations, there is a tendency to exaggerate numbers, share what you hope to be doing next as if you were doing it now, and overall stretch the truth. Since a touching personal narrative is more likely to attract big donors, non-profits seem to be willing to make one up with the belief that it is a victimless crime with an undeniably beneficial outcome.
Reading about Somaly Mam I very quickly became angry, frustrated that a women who is a role model for so many could be, in part, a work of fiction. The bigger problem, however, is that I know on some level where she is coming from and what she is facing. In interviews I have found myself saying the number that I wish was true, rather than the one that is. In conversations I catch myself using the easy (and partially true) explanation rather than the real one. In short, I empathize with the idea that to achieve more impact, those in the non-profit sector sometimes exaggerate without taking into consideration the moral ramifications of doing so.
I don’t mean to lie. As a writer I look for the most compelling way to tell my story, and that of Campamento Esperanza Y Alegria, to raise awareness and galvanize action. To this end, for years I said that I helped found the camp, which is technically, true…in its current incarnation. The camp had existed in a more informal state for three years prior to my family and me getting on board. Over time my discomfort with that claim of founder’s status grew to the point at which I was angry with myself after interviews. I knew that while what I was saying was the simple and easy-to-publish explanation, it wasn’t accounting for the many Dominicans that put in years of work to lay the foundation for what I was just a piece in helping to build.
I have changed my phrasing now to be “I help to organize” and try to use every opportunity to turn the spotlight on the Dominicans who do the real work, but still catch myself every now and then slipping into my old habit. Becoming aware was the first step; speaking with intention and precision is the next.
It’s harder than you’d think to keep numbers straight. For years we said that it cost $500 for a kid to go to camp, only correcting ourselves two years ago with a revised $350. I routinely round the number of campers up to 100 over our two one-week sessions, while in actuality the number fluctuates between 80 and 90.
I don’t edit stories or embellish numbers in bad faith, or because I want more attention. As I’d like to believe is true of Somaly Mam, I am so focused on the desired outcome of my work that sometimes the details get lost in the process. Sometimes I am so worked up and enthusiastic that I exaggerate without realizing it until much later. I don’t mean to lie, but I can’t honestly say that I always tell the perfect and unequivocal truth.
To be fair, I also don’t coach girls to tell false stories to sell seats to my (non-existent) fundraising galas. There is a clear and definitive line I refuse to cross, a line that Greg Mortenson and Somaly Mam seem not to have noticed.
But what does it mean when those who are held up as purveyors of all things good in this world are also liars? How did you explain to your kids that their favorite baseball player was on steroids? How do you tell your friends that their non-profit idols have gained an unfair advantage through some creative story telling?
Most of all, does it matter? Should Somaly Mam lose everything she’s built because of what she’s done, or do the ends justify the means?
I wish that I had answers. I also wish that telling the truth all of the time was easy. Politicians make up marathon times, celebrities lie about weight loss methods, and we all add a few inches to our height. Turns out, we all embellish and exaggerate on a daily basis, swearing to ourselves that we won’t cross that line.
Update 5/28/14: “Prominent anti-sex-trafficking activist Somaly Mam has announced her resignation from the Somaly Mam Foundation just days after a Newsweek cover story exposed extensive fabrications in her backstory.” (http://www.newsweek.com/sex-trafficking-activist-somaly-mam-steps-down-following-newsweek-cover-story-252603)