Chronicle of Philanthropy: Somaly Mam Foundation Must Do More Than Rebrand, Experts Say

June 19, 2014

By Megan O’Neil
June 18, 2014

A name change may help the Somaly Mam Foundation recover from allegations that its founder lied about her story as a human-trafficking victim, but the organization must take additional steps to survive, crisis-management experts say.

Somaly Mam, who rose to international prominence for efforts to combat the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children in Cambodia, resigned from her namesake foundation in May. Last week, the Somaly Mam Foundation, which has offices in Phnom Penh and New York City, said in a statement on its website that it would rename and rebrand itself.

“In the coming weeks we will present an expanded vision that builds on our core strengths of survivor empowerment, education and skills training, and advocacy, bringing the organization into greater alignment with our goal of eradicating trafficking and sexual exploitation in Cambodia,” said Gina Reiss-Wilchins, the group’s executive director.

After requesting information, The Chronicle was referred to the statement.

The foundation has said it commissioned a third-party investigation into Ms. Mam’s personal narrative, which the activist detailed in public appearances and in a book published in 2008 titled The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine.

All of these are appropriate steps to take as the foundation seeks to weather a public-relations “nightmare,” according to Melissa Schwartz, vice president of strategy and external affairs at The Bromwich Group, a crisis-management consulting firm.

At some organizations, the mission, strategy, and objectives are so closely tied with the founders that there is no separating them, Ms. Schwartz said in an email.

“The organization must be very careful about how they proceed,” Ms. Schwartz said. “There are many loyal supporters of Mam and of the work she had done over the years, regardless of the details of her personal history. Staff will risk alienating those donors if they dishonor those efforts.”

If the Somaly Mam Foundation is otherwise a solid operation, it stands to survive the current turmoil, said Rick Kelly, director of the crisis-management practice at the consulting firm Triad Strategies.

“A lot of it will depend upon on how healthy the culture of the organization was to begin with,” Mr. Kelly said. “If you have people who are motivated and committed, and if you have good leadership, then it could become a rallying point for staff members to say, ‘We can do this. Let’s get this turned around.’ ”

Still, any successful rehabilitation will take more than a fresh branding effort, Mr. Kelly says. It starts with an investigation, and drilling down to the facts. Root problems must be dealt with.

“Your brand is the perception of what you are,” Mr. Kelly says. “You can’t communicate your way out of something you behaved yourself into.”

Livestrong Lessons

The Somaly Mam Foundation is hardly the first nonprofit to see its founder knocked from his or her pedestal. After Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea landed on best-seller lists and helped bring in millions of dollars for his Central Asia Institute, the mountaineer who became a champion of education for girls was plagued by charges of lies and financial mismanagement.

In 2013, the Livestrong Foundation found itself having to dig its way out of a public-relations bog after its founder, the superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong, admitted to extensive doping. The group’s staff began by trying to clarify the organization’s mission and rebuild relationships with donors, its chief executive said at the time.

The Somaly Mam Foundation had been included in the program agenda of the Council on Foundation’s annual conference this month, but the organization pulled out shortly before the event.

According to the group’s 2012 financial statements, the most recent available, the foundation generated $2.8 million in revenue and had net assets of $1.3 million. The foundation’s 2013 financial statements will be available in November.

What is likely to be most important to the survival of the Somaly Mam Foundation, experts say, is whether the group can reassure its sponsors that their money is being used effectively to help tackle a serious problem.

“I think if you have an honest conversation with your primary stakeholders and you can agree on a way forward that supports the basic mission, you have a good chance of re-establishing credibility and also continuing to get support,” said Peter B. Hirsch, director of reputation risk at Ogilvy Public Relations. “Thankfully, they are a lot of generous people in the world who want to do something.”

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