Nonprofits: When is Organizational Transparency a Detriment?

How necessary is transparency?

The National Council for Nonprofits states that “charitable nonprofits embrace the values of accountability and transparency as a matter of ethical leadership, as well as legal compliance.”

But what happens when transparency endangers the lives of those who fund and staff a nonprofit? What if the founder uses a different name other than her/his legal name? Are they violating the trust of donors who contribute to their organization?

These questions are emerging as more nonprofits are formed to help refugees, immigrants and historically marginalized demographics. Should the founder of a nonprofit that builds homes for refugees in Iraq risk his life by using his legal name? It is a perfectly reasonable question – the socio-political contexts in Iraq and Syria are complex, with different factions holding ethnical standards across the spectrum. Think about the nihilistic violence of ISIS and its targeting of foreign aid workers. What may be a moral necessity in Pennsylvania could be a mortal mistake in Aleppo.

Do donors really care about transparency if it risks the lives of those who are working to serve a greater purpose?

Recently, two peacekeepers went missing, presumed to be kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nonprofit work is not always risk-free. The price for transparency in their case may very well have cost them their lives.

AT&T Star Steps Up for Syrian Refugees

(Milana Vayntrub speaking at VidCon 2012. Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

Following a recent trip to Greece, Milana Vayntrub – the actress who plays the buoyant shop clerk in AT&T commercials – has found a new cause: the Syrian refugee crisis.

The actress was once a refugee herself, fleeing Russia as a child in the 1980s. In an essay for the website Popsugar, she writes:

My family fled the Soviet Union because of hostile circumstances for Jews in the late ’80s. I was too young to remember details of the yearlong journey, but my parents have told me stories about the poverty and constant uncertainty they faced before we were lucky enough to settle in Los Angeles.

With this experience in mind, Vayntrub was struck by the plight of Syrian refugees in Greece, who often risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean on rafts. According to the European Union’s border control agency – Frontex – 131,724 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2016. The vast majority of these refugees have arrived in Greece, a nation still in the throes of a debt crisis and bruising austerity imposed by EU fiat. The prime minister of Germany Angela Merkel has recently underscored the additional assistance that the Hellenic Republic needs to cope with the ongoing crisis.

In her essay, Vayntrub describes the scenes in Greece that compelled her to not only ditch her vacation and help in the moment, but to also create a new nonprofit as well:

I’d never seen anything like it. As we rushed to the shore, people stepped off the rafts, some in tears, some celebrating. They passed their children off the boat to volunteers before jumping into the water themselves. Some people collapsed as they got off the boat because their legs had gone numb from spending an hour with 50 people on a raft only meant to carry a dozen. On the shore, volunteer doctors checked the babies’ temperatures and dried them off. I tried to contain my shock and concern, focusing on greeting people with a smile and a warm hug.

Moved by the experience, Vayntrub founded #CantDoNothing, a nonprofit campaign to raise awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis and to raise money for affiliated organizations working to ameliorate migrants’ tenuous and dire situation.

“I learned a lot in Greece,” writes Vayntrub, “One of the biggest lessons was that everyone has something powerful and important to contribute — something that can make the world a little (or a lot) better.”

Read the whole essay here and visit #CantDoNothing to learn how you can help.

Syrian Refugees: Europe Struggles to Cope

(A Hungarian police officer stands in front of Syrian refugees made to disembark a train en route to Germany)

Tensions are mounting in Europe, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have sought stability and security after fleeing their home country, which is embroiled in an ongoing civil war fought amongst a dizzying array of factions.

On Monday, French authorities cleared a highly publicized refugee camp in Calais – a town situated on the English Channel in the north of France.

The camp in Calais – pejoratively known as “the jungle” and housing an estimated 4,000 migrants from across the Middle East and Africa – was torn down following a court order that denied an appeal filed by nonprofit organizations that sought to stay the order. While many of the residences inside the camp were destroyed, the order prevented the demolition of religious centers, schools, and medical facilities set up in the area.

One photo taken of the eviction shows a camp resident holding a sign that reads “we are not terrorists so don’t destroy our homes” as he flees a water canon deployed by French authorities against migrants protesting the camp’s demolition.

The government’s decision to destroy the camp essentially kicks the can down the road, as European governments continue to drag their feet on a united and comprehensive plan to deal with the refugee influx.

Many migrants – especially young refugees – have already moved to a camp located in Dunkirk, which nonprofits say has even worse conditions and poses a serious sanitation emergency with about one toilet for every 100 refugees. Mathieu Balthazard – an aid worker with Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the non-governmental organizations working to help refugees – remarked on the makeshift community in Dunkirk:

It is truly exceptional to see a camp like this. I have seen a camp in Ethiopia which had mud like this, but here it is worse: there is less organization. It is becoming more and more shocking every day.

While many refugees have been accepted by EU member countries, there are a number of signs that individual governments are at the breaking point. Sweden – famed for its strong humanitarian position and open border policy for refugees – has enacted identity checks on trains and border crossings and has announced plans to stop accepting new refugees. Austria has introduced border controls. Italy and Greece – cash-strapped EU member states that have borne the brunt of the crisis – received more than 110,000 refugees in the first two months of 2016 alone.

Outside of logistical issues posed by what some analysts are calling the greatest displacement of people since WWII, the influx of Syrian refugees has stoked racial tension, with far-right nationalist politics on the ascent across Europe. In Germany, there have been more than 200 arson attacks on refugee centers, raising eyebrows in a country that – in acknowledgement of its role in the Holocaust – has long boasted a strong track record on tolerance and the respect of human rights.

While governments struggle to muster a unified response to the crisis, there are many organizations and individuals stepping up to ensure that migrants stuck in this tortuous limbo receive bare necessities including food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Charity Navigator has a list of vetted, highly credible organizations working to ease the plight of Syrian migrants. A number of US organizations are stepping up as well, accepting donations to help provide basic needs assistance and educational opportunities for children caught up in the crisis.

In Refugee Crisis, States Hinder Nonprofits

Nonprofits are now mixed up in the dispute over Syrian refugees. As leaders representing well over half of the 50 U.S. states have announced their opposition to accepting Syrians displaced in their country’s intractable conflict, organizations have begun receiving official requests to desist from settling Syrians. These letters amount to state interference with nonprofits’ operations.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the rhetoric in the United States concerning the asylum of stateless refugees has reached a fever pitch, with political leaders and pundits voicing concerns that some refugees could be affiliated with ISIS – the terrorist organization responsible for the carnage in France. Donald Trump – the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential race – has referred to the acceptance of refugees as a “Trojan Horse” for terrorist cells entering the United States.

The process through which Syrians can gain entry into the United States takes between 18 months and three years, and involves intensive screening from multiple government agencies.

The protest of state governors is largely toothless, as elected officials possess little power to actually bar refugees approved by the federal government from entering the United States. They can, however, make the situation more difficult, redirecting funding from state-level refugee agencies. They can also bully nonprofit organizations working to help the settlement for approved refugees as painless as possible.

Greg Abbott – Governor of Texas and vocal opponent of accepting Syrian refugees – sent letters to nonprofits in his state that work with refugees asking that they refrain from working with Syrians. While the letters contained no actual legal power to stop nonprofits’ work, several groups capitulated to the demands.

Syria’s refugee crisis is a big test for nonprofits, as articulated by Rick Cohen in The Nonprofit Quarterly.

Cohen:

If the U.S. slams the door on desperate Syrian refugees, the nonprofit sector that claims to represent openness, inclusion, and democracy will find its credibility seriously damaged should it fail to do whatever it can to confront the politicians using fear and hatred as a tool for political advancement.

Whether or not nonprofits stand up to state pressure, the current situation by itself taints the United States’ self-avowed openness to accepting deserving immigrants into the nation’s storied cultural melting pot. Passionate nonprofit professionals committed to the social good need to stand up in the face of fear and anti-democratic bullying and pursue their missions with clear eyes and a sense of human decency.

Kickstarter and UNHCR Team Up to Help Refugees

In recent weeks, Shaping the Story has looked at the ongoing refugee crisis stemming from the conflict in Syria. Relief agencies are struggling to cope, having raised only a fraction of the funding necessary for the massive scope of operations required to deal with the situation.

A new partnership is looking to buck the trend, raising money from U.S. citizens to help support the millions impacted by the intractable Middle East conflict.

After being contacted by the White House, crowdfunding website Kickstarter has teamed up with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to raise money on behalf of Syrian refugees. The Guardian will contribute video reporting on the crisis to be featured on the campaign page.

The alliance correlates with the Kickstarter’s new socially oriented direction. Recently reincorporated as a Public Benefit Corporation, Kickstarter possesses a charter requiring it to invest in nonprofits and expend resources on social good causes. The partnership will surely satisfy a portion of the company’s obligations.

It remains unclear if Kickstarter will profit from the campaign, or if all resources raised will go to relief efforts.

As governments in Europe struggle to produce a unified response and raise the requisite funding, this development is a welcome addition to humanitarian relief efforts. The world is witnessing the single greatest displacement of people since World War II. Many countries receiving massive influxes of refugees – from Turkey to Greece, Italy to Lebanon – are so cash-strapped that they cannot provide meaningful unilateral assistance.  The situation is exacerbated by xenophobic tension in host countries, evident in the hostile reception of refugees in countries such as Hungry.

Desperate people are also subjected to risky, potentially lethal migrant routes. Mediterranean raft travel has grown in frequency, as refugees try to land in European Union nations. This has resulted in a number of tragedies, including drownings. This horrific reality was documented in the widely circulated image of a drowned Syrian boy discovered on the coast of Turkey.

While a truly impactful approach will require the collaboration and robust efforts of world governments, the Kickstarter-UNHCR partnership will at least get the ball rolling. Visit the campaign page to learn more about how you can help make a difference.

Refugee Relief Efforts Face Bankruptcy

(Photo: Arbat Transit Camp for Syrian Refugees in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan)

As part of our ongoing coverage of the global refugee crisis, today we look at how UN agencies are quickly running out of cash and consequently edging closer to bankruptcy.

In an interview with The Guardian, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres relayed a dim situation marked by increased need and declining budgets:

If you look at those displaced by conflict per day, in 2010 it was 11,000; last year there were 42,000. This means a dramatic increase in need, from shelter to water and sanitation, food, medical assistance, education. The budgets cannot be compared with the growth in need. Our income in 2015 will be around 10% less than in 2014. The global humanitarian community is not broken – as a whole they are more effective than ever before. But we are financially broke.

As world governments struggle to cope with the glut in refugees fleeing war torn countries including Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, it is unclear how aid agencies will be able to raise the necessary funds to keep aid programs afloat. The Syria Regional Response Plan – the overarching program to assist Syrians displaced by their nation’s intractable civil war – is barely 23 percent funded. Funding across the board is inadequate: relief efforts in Yemen are only 20 percent funded, programs to help internally displaced populations in Iraq are only 30 percent funded, and aid for Nepal earthquake victims is currently only 33 percent of the overall projected amount necessary.

Budget shortfalls take a large toll on refugees’ living standards, with UN agencies and aid providers cutting food rations and medical services. Refugees from Darfur received the distressing news that their food rations may end toward the end of the year. The World Food Program – the UN’s food agency – will suspend aid to 1.7 million Syrians because of funding shortages. Considering that displaced peoples possess virtually no means to generate income or sustenance, these realities pose tall and difficult challenges.

Unlike other arms of the UN, humanitarian efforts do not receive regular contributions from world governments. In other words, relief agencies – including the UNHCR and Unicef – depend on additional voluntary gifts from governments, as well as philanthropic contributions from individual global citizens.

Underfunded programs impact ongoing crises in a number of ways. Refugees that make the risky and potentially fatal trip by boat to Greece’s archipelago have told frontline UNHCR workers that they were compelled to flee camps in Jordan because of a dearth of food rations, declining living conditions, and the fraught and tense situation with native residents resulting from these worsening social conditions. This means that underfunded aid programs contribute to the mass migration fanning out through the Middle East and Europe.

Additionally, analysts are concerned that harrowing camp conditions could be a large boon for extremist organizations. Reports from refugee camps inside Turkey indicate that ISIS recruiters operate with relative impunity, attracting disaffected and hungry refugees lured by the promise of steady pay and food.

The amount of funding needed to fully support relief programs will unlikely come from private and voluntary gifts The total necessary is simply too high. Guterres and others are openly calling for reform that would require governments to contribute more mandatory funding for relief efforts. The commissioner remarked that to not “spend more on humanitarian aid is a bad strategy, not to say a suicidal one.” As programs begin unraveling due to the stress of higher demand sapping fewer resources, relief programs may indeed make situations even worse than they currently are.

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