Mercy Corps’ response to details of abuse by co-founder Ellsworth Culver: investigation findings and commitments to action
In October 2019, Mercy Corps and its Board requested that investigative firm Vestry Laight conduct an independent, external review into what steps were taken when reports of abuse by Mercy Corps’ late co-founder Ellsworth Culver were brought to the organization’s attention in 2018.
Also in late 2019, Mercy Corps engaged law firm Nichols Liu to conduct a separate review evaluating the organization’s sexual exploitation and abuse policies and their applicability to these circumstances. Both reviews were published by Mercy Corps on January 29, 2020.
In response to the Vestry Laight and Nichols Liu reports, Mercy Corps’ Board of Directors and Executive team announced commitments to action to restructure and strengthen legal, ethics and safeguarding functions, update policies and strengthen Board governance.
The commitments to action can be found here. We have fulfilled all 23 commitments to action, with a final report detailing the efforts made to address and close each commitment published in August 2023. The report can be found here in English, Spanish, French and Arabic. Mercy Corps’ annual Global Safeguarding Reports are also available on our website for FY 2022, FY 2021, FY 2020, and FY 2019 parts 1 and 2.
One of the commitments to action was to undertake a second phase independent, external investigation to determine the extent of the abuse perpetrated by Ellsworth Culver and any other abusers who might be identified, and to review the response of the Mercy Corps Board in 1992 and 1993 when the organization was first made aware of the abuse. That independent investigation was published in full by Mercy Corps on May 19, 2021. Please know that the report contains deeply disturbing details that may be traumatic and triggering, especially for survivors of abuse. A statement by the Mercy Corps Board of Directors in response to the Freeh Group report was also published on May 19, 2021. The report does not relate to any current Mercy Corps team members, Board Directors, or programming.
Phase 1 Investigation findings
The scope of the review conducted by Vestry Laight was: determine the facts of what steps were taken by Mercy Corps in regard to the allegations in 2018; identify any internal control failing; and make recommendations for process and governance reforms if appropriate.
Vestry Laight’s report included the following key findings and recommendations:
- Mercy Corps made errors of judgment in 2018, including a failure to engage with a survivor of abuse in accordance with our core values.
- There was no evidence that any Mercy Corps employee or Board Director engaged in intentional wrongdoing or an effort to cover up Ellsworth Culver’s conduct, the survivor’s abuse, or Mercy Corps’ 1990s investigation of abuse.
- Mercy Corps should: conduct further phases of investigation, including into Ellsworth Culver’s activities during his time at the organization; restructure the legal and ethics functions, ensuring adequate resources for safeguarding; and strengthen board governance, including providing oversight of safeguarding and culture.
Nichols Liu’s evaluation of the Mercy Corps’ current policies and procedures on sexual exploitation and abuse contains the following key findings and recommendations:
- Mercy Corps’ policies addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and misconduct promote leading-edge principles that align with guidelines published by the United Nations, USAID, FCDO and other major donors. Mercy Corps’ policies exceed the requirements of the organization’s largest donor - the US Agency for International Development - by taking a survivor-centered approach.
- Mercy Corps team members responsible for communications with a survivor in 2018 did not consider these policies applicable to their response. Regardless of whether safeguarding policies expressly covered this request, Mercy Corps should have drawn upon the values underlying those policies in their response. Mercy Corps could further strengthen and define its internal protocols to improve application of the policies to certain, specific situations.
- The investigation conducted in the 1990s by the Mercy Corps Board into abuse allegations by Ms. Culver Humphrey against her father Ellsworth Culver fell short of modern standards and Mercy Corps’ current policies.
Phase 2 Investigation findings
Following the Phase 1 review by Vestry Laight, Mercy Corps commissioned a second external, independent investigation by Freeh Group International Solutions (Freeh Group), which has since been acquired by AlixPartners LLP, to determine the extent of the abuse perpetrated by Ellsworth Culver and any other abusers who might be identified, and to review the response of the Mercy Corps Board in 1992 and 1993 when the organization was first made aware of the abuse. Please know that the report contains deeply disturbing details that may be traumatic and triggering, especially for survivors of abuse. The Freeh Group’s investigative report (also available in French, Spanish, and Arabic) was published on May 19, 2021 and detailed a number of findings, including:
- The nature and extent of the disclosure relayed by the survivor in the 1990s to certain Mercy Corps leaders was serious in nature, but did not prompt those leaders to have an experienced sexual assault investigator conduct a thorough investigation using a survivor-centered approach.
- The members of the 1993 Mercy Corps Special Committee demonstrated a serious lack of independence, failed to take a survivor-centered approach and had clear conflicts of interest. There was no evidence that the full Board of Directors was consulted on the committee composition or updated on the nature and extent of allegations.
- No new survivors came forward during the Freeh Group investigation. The survivor informed the investigative team of incidents of severe sexual and physical abuse, prior to and during Ellsworth Culver’s tenure at Mercy Corps. Based on the survivor’s statements, the investigative team turned over information to law enforcement regarding six additional victims and eight additional alleged abusers, seven of whom were previously affiliated with Mercy Corps in some capacity.
A statement by the Mercy Corps Board of Directors in response to the Freeh Report was published on May 19, 2021 (also available in French, Spanish, and Arabic). The report does not relate to any current Mercy Corps team members, Board Directors, or programming. We recognize the actions taken by Mercy Corps in the 1990s and 2018 deepened a survivor’s suffering, and for that we are profoundly sorry. We apologize unreservedly to her and other unidentified survivors in the Freeh Group report, and we know this report will in no way bring justice or lessen their pain. We are reckoning with the abhorrent actions detailed in the Freeh Group report. The predation and exploitation of the most vulnerable, and Mercy Corps’ past failures in this case, could not be more opposed to our mission and the values that guide our work.
Fulfilling our commitments to action
Coinciding with the release of the Vestry Laight and Nichols Liu reports in early 2020, Mercy Corps’ Board of Directors and Executive Team announced a number of commitments to action to restructure and strengthen the organization’s legal, ethics and safeguarding functions, update policies and strengthen Board governance. As of August 2023, we’ve fulfilled all 23 commitments to action, though we know that the work to improve our safeguarding systems, governance and accountability mechanisms is never truly finished and will require ongoing commitment, resources, and effort. Here is a summary of the fulfilled commitments to action:
- Conduct further phases of investigation into how this case was handled by Mercy Corps in the 1990s and to determine the extent of sexual abuse committed by Ellsworth Culver in connection with his role at Mercy Corps. Freeh Group’s report of its independent investigation was published in full by Mercy Corps on May 19, 2021.
- Develop an inclusive process to examine and reassess how we reflect the role of Ellsworth Culver and others in our organization’s history. Mercy Corps took significant actions to address this commitment and we are committed to ensuring Culver’s abuse during his time and connected with his role at Mercy Corps, as well as failings by past leaders, is not erased from our history, and continues to be an integral part of our account of Mercy Corps’ history, both internally and externally.
- Restructure the legal, ethics and safeguarding functions. We hired Steve Linick as our first Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, independent of both the legal and human resource departments, reporting to the CEO and the Board of Directors and overseeing a stand-alone ethics and compliance department. Intake and investigations of safeguarding allegations as well as the Global Safeguarding Prevention Team are overseen by the Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer.
- Continue to strengthen Mercy Corps’ approach to safeguarding, including a significant investment to strengthen our capacity and systems that support prevention and the intake, case management and investigative oversight for alleged ethics violations, including safeguarding. We continue to invest significant additional resources into global safeguarding, with active safeguarding support in all countries where Mercy Corps operates. We have developed additional Safeguarding and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) training completed by senior management and Board Directors, in addition to mandatory agency-wide PSEA training for all employees. We have updated safeguarding policies and between March and June 2022, internationally recognized PSEA and safeguarding experts, Global Child Protection Services (GCPS), conducted a comprehensive external review of Mercy Corps’ safeguarding policies. The policies were reviewed against donor expectations, sector standards and best practice, and benchmarked against peer organizations. In June 2023, recommendations from that review were incorporated into revisions to our Child Safeguarding, and Anti-Human Trafficking and Exploitation Policies. Additional recommendations have been incorporated into our Safeguarding Core Standards Policy. We rolled out a new Community Accountability Reporting Mechanism (CARM) policy to ensure community members can provide feedback and voice complaints in a safe, confidential and accessible way, with CARM focal points in place in all countries where Mercy Corps operates. Mercy Corps countries report 92% of CARM standards are being met. We released our fourth annual Global Safeguarding Report in November 2022.
- Review Board governance and committee structures to ensure best safeguarding practices with external expert advisers. With the implementation of Board term limits, Mercy Corps has welcomed fourteen new Board Directors since January 2020. Most recently, four Directors departed at the end of June 2022, and three new Directors joined in September 2022. Mercy Corps’ Board has also completed a comprehensive governance review and introduced a number of changes following that review, created a new board committee focused on safeguarding and committed to new Board diversity goals.
- Conduct a review of Mercy Corps culture. In January 2022, Mercy Corps launched the All Voices Global Team Survey, the organization’s first-ever all team member engagement survey, completed by 78% of the Mercy Corps global team. A pulse check survey completed in January 2023 evaluated progress addressing team member feedback, and a similar survey will be conducted every two years to create a regular and consistent avenue for team member feedback.
For additional details, please see:
- Frequently Asked Questions: FAQ: How has Mercy Corps responded to details of abuse by co-founder Ellsworth Culver?
- Response Timeline: Timeline of actions in Mercy Corps’ response to details of abuse by co-founder Ellsworth Culver
Mercy Corps encourages a culture of openness where team members, partners, program participants, and community members can safely raise their concerns, ask questions—including those of a legal and ethical nature—and report unethical behavior. Operating ethically and with integrity is the highest priority for Mercy Corps and all team members are required to report unethical behavior or violations of any Mercy Corps’ policy. To ensure we deliver on our commitment to ethical behavior, we have multiple methods available to report concerns or seek advice.
Our Integrity Hotline offers three options to confidentially report ethics violations or seek advice in a secure manner. The Integrity Hotline web portal is available in four languages, 24 hours a day. On the web portal, you may submit your report anonymously. The web portal is administered by an independent third party to ensure confidentiality and proper handling of reported misconduct. You may also submit a report by calling our Integrity Hotline local phone lines, which are administered by a third party contractor and provide live assistance in over 50 languages. Finally, you can email concerns in any language directly to the Ethics and Compliance Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re a Mercy Corps team member, you can report your concerns to your supervisor, a trusted leader, Human Resources, a safeguarding or integrity focal point, safeguarding champion or an Ethics and Assurance Manager in your country. They will ensure that your complaints are confidentially reported to the Ethics and Compliance Department. Additionally, you may submit a report through CARM (Community Accountability Reporting Mechanism).
You may find our ethics policies and supplemental guidance here.