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.

Mercy Corps also engaged law firm Nichols Liu to conduct a separate report evaluating the organization’s sexual exploitation and abuse policies and their applicability to these circumstances. Both reviews were published by Mercy Corps on February 5, 2020.

Read a statement by Mercy Corps’ Board on the findings and recommendations of both reports (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic).

In response to the reports, Mercy Corps’ Board of Directors and Executive team announced commitments to action (more details below). Our full list of commitments to action can be found here (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic), and our latest progress report on the delivery of our commitments to action can be found here.

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 includes 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 member 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.

You can read Vestry Laight’s report here (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic).

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, DFID 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.

You can read Nichols Liu’s full report here (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic).

Commitments to action

Coinciding with the report release, Mercy Corps’ Board of Directors and Executive Team announced Mercy Corps would:

  • 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. Mercy Corps has initiated the second phase of investigation. After an open and thorough selection process, Mercy Corps selected  Freeh Group International Solutions (FGIS) to conduct the investigation. We also contacted the appropriate law enforcement agencies and we will be transparent with them as appropriate as we proceed. We are committed to supporting any survivors who may wish to come forward.
  • Develop an inclusive process to examine and reassess how we reflect the role of Ellsworth Culver and others in our organization’s history.
  • 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. Intake and investigations of safeguarding allegations are reported to 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 the intake, case management and investigative oversight for alleged ethics violations, including safeguarding. We continue to strengthen our approach to safeguarding with new positions added to the safeguarding team, safeguarding managers added to a number of our largest country programs, and a new global safeguarding taskforce. We expect dedicated safeguarding support to be in place in all Mercy Corps countries by July 2021.
  • Adopt and incorporate into our policies a clear and robust definition of safeguarding, drawing on best global practice and in alignment with Mercy Corps’ major donors. Clarify within Mercy Corps’ policies their applicability to former team members and activities in the distant past.
  • Provide clear, effective and regular communication to employees of Mercy Corps policies regarding sexual exploitation. Mercy Corps will also ensure that anyone approaching the organization with allegations regarding sexual exploitation and abuse is treated in accordance with the values inherent in these policies, even if the policies do not apply to the organization’s engagement with them.
  • Review Board governance and committee structures to ensure best safeguarding practices with external expert advisers.

The full list of our commitments to action can be found here (also available in French, Spanish and Arabic). We will be transparent with Mercy Corps team members, donors and the wider community as we deliver against these commitments. To that end, click here for our January 2021 progress report on the delivery of our commitments to action, and click here for our previous progress report from July 2020.

We have learned from what happened in 2018. We will turn these lessons into corrective action, and be accountable to providing survivors with the support they need and deserve in accordance with our values and our mission.

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

Reporting misconduct

Mercy Corps takes seriously its responsibility to ensure team members, operations and programs do no harm to those we work with or put vulnerable populations at risk of abuse or exploitation.

We provide multiple avenues by which team members, partners, program participants, and community members can report concerns, including anonymously, and we encourage anyone with concerns or evidence of misconduct to come forward and make a report through our Integrity Hotline. Anyone can make a report by email to Reports can be made anonymously online at or by phone/text at (800) 461-9330 (for international dialing see for the number available in your country).

Our policies on Ethics Complaints and Whistleblowing, Child Safeguarding, Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Beneficiaries and Community Members, Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace and Anti-Trafficking are available here.