FAQ: How has Mercy Corps responded to details of abuse by co-founder Ellsworth Culver?

Last updated July 30, 2021

In October 2019, the Mercy Corps Board of Directors hired investigative firm Vestry Laight to 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. The Board also initiated a separate external evaluation of current safeguarding policies and procedures at Mercy Corps, conducted by legal firm Nichols Liu. In February 2020, Mercy Corps published these reports and accompanying commitments to action. You can see the reports and commitments to action on our website here.

In May 2021, fulfilling one of the commitments to action, Mercy Corps published in full an external, independent 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. You can see the report on our website here. Please know that the report contains deeply disturbing details that may be traumatic and triggering, especially for survivors of abuse. The report does not relate to any current Mercy Corps team members, Board Directors, or programming.

Mercy Corps is committed to taking responsibility for our failings in this case, providing transparency to our community, and taking action to ensure when issues do arise, we put survivors first and provide them with the support they need.

We have been listening to the feedback, comments and questions submitted by our supporters. Below are answers to the most frequently asked questions. We will update this page as new information is made available.

Q: What were the 2019 external reviews and what did they find?

A: In October 2019 the Mercy Corps Board of Directors requested 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.

Vestry Laight’s report includes the following key findings and recommendations:

  • Mercy Corps made errors of judgement in 2018, including our 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.

Mercy Corps also engaged law firm Nichols Liu to conduct a separate, external evaluation of the organization’s current policies and procedures on sexual exploitation and abuse. Nichols Liu’s report includes the following key findings and recommendations:

  • Mercy Corps’ policies addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and misconduct promote leading-edge principles that incorporate and require compliance 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 did not consider these policies applicable to the communications with Ms. Culver Humphrey in 2018. Regardless of whether safeguarding policies expressly covered this request, Mercy Corps at least 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 and to ensure that all interactions with survivors are survivor sensitive.
  • 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 today’s standards and Mercy Corps’ current policies.

Mercy Corps also engaged Freeh Group International Solutions to conduct an external, independent 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. The report was published on May 19, 2021 and is published on our website here. Please know that the report contains deeply disturbing details that may be traumatic and triggering, especially for survivors of abuse. The report does not relate to any current Mercy Corps team members, Board Directors, or programming.

Q: What did the Freeh Group investigation into the extent of Culver’s abuse find?

A: The Freeh Group report details 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 incidences 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.

Q: Were other survivors or victims identified over the course of the Freeh Group investigation?

A: 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, including six additional victims. Due to the nature and age of the abuse incidents described and the time lapse since the incidents of abuse, the identities of the additional survivors and victims could not be determined by the Freeh Group investigation, however the information relayed to them was shared with law enforcement.

Q: What action has Mercy Corps taken as a result of the independent review?

A: Following the Vestry Laight and Nichols Liu reviews, the Mercy Corps Board and Executive Team announced a number of commitments to actions to strengthen safeguarding resources, governance structures and accountability mechanisms, detailed in bi-annual progress reports (July 2021January 2021 and July 2020) and including:

  • The continued investment of global safeguarding resources, with safeguarding support roles in all countries where Mercy Corps operates.
  • The development of additional Safeguarding and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) trainings, updated safeguarding policies and a Community Accountability Reporting Mechanism (CARM) policy with regional and country CARM focal points to ensure community members can provide feedback and voice complaints in a safe, confidential and accessible way.
  • The appointment of Steve Linick as Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, overseeing a stand-alone Ethics and Compliance Department that includes our Safeguarding Prevention Team and the Intake and Investigation Division.
  • Recruitment of new Board Directors, implementing Board Director term limits, completion of a governance review and creation of a new Ethics and Safeguarding Board Committee to strengthen oversight of safeguarding issues.
  • The release of annual Global Safeguarding Reports (Fiscal Year 2020, Fiscal Year 2019 parts 1 and 2)

The full list of Mercy Corps’ commitments to action can be found here. Our most recent progress report from July 2021 can be found here.

Q: Who conducted the external review and how were they chosen?

A: In October 2019, the Mercy Corps Board announced that Vestry Laight would conduct the independent investigation 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. Vestry Laight was selected based on its team’s extensive experience working with survivors in a variety of contexts and ability to understand their needs and concerns. The firm has a depth of expertise in helping organizations respond to and resolve sexual misconduct issues, as well as conducting sexual abuse investigations and developing solutions to improve treatment of survivors. In addition to the Vestry Laight review, the Mercy Corps Board engaged the legal firm Nichols Liu to conduct an external evaluation of current safeguarding policies and procedures at Mercy Corps. Nichols Liu has extensive experience in examining the policies and procedures of organizations that manage large government grants and contracts.

In May 2020, the Mercy Corps Board commissioned an independent investigator, Freeh Group International Solutions (Freeh Group) to conduct an independent 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 by Culver. The Freeh Group International Solution stood out through the selection process as having investigators that bring years of experience working with survivors of sexual abuse and global investigation experience with worldwide networks and offices in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Their commitment to finding the truth and a personal commitment to their clients set Freeh apart from all the others.

Q: Are the original people who were part of the 1990s investigation still a part of your organization?

A: Nobody who was involved in the investigation in the 1990s has any role at Mercy Corps today.

Q: Are the people who were part of the response to Ms. Humphrey in 2018 still a part of your organization?

A: The four individuals identified in the Vestry Laight report as having full information and full responsibility for our handling of this issue in 2018 no longer have any role at Mercy Corps today.

Q: How would you approach a serious sexual abuse allegation made towards an employee if it happened today?

A: Our first concern as we proceed through an investigation is for the survivor and their safety, health and well-being.

If we were to receive an allegation of this nature about an employee today, we would immediately suspend the subject of complaint, unless to do so would put a survivor at risk, in which case we would find an alternative way to ensure no possibility of further harm. We would report all allegations involving children to law enforcement. We would report the allegations to the Board.

We would conduct a survivor-centered investigation of the allegation led by a trained sexual exploitation and abuse investigator, ensuring any survivors had access to support. If an allegation of sexual abuse or harassment were to involve an Executive or a Board Director we would take extra care to ensure the independence of the investigation and the objectivity of the conclusions, and would hire independent expert SEA investigators external to Mercy Corps. All allegations are recorded and tracked confidentially in a central register and included in our annual report. Investigations are overseen by our Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer who reports directly to the CEO and Board.

We look at whether it is ‘more likely than not’ that the allegations are substantiated. All substantiated allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation result in termination and ineligibility for re-hire. We are committed to doing all we can to keep those who have committed abuse from moving through the sector.

Q: How has Mercy Corps strengthened its safeguarding policies and procedures since The Oregonian investigation?

A: 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 continue to strengthen our safeguarding policies and systems, with prevention efforts led by a Global Safeguarding Prevention team reporting to a Director of Safeguarding and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer within a standalone Ethics and Compliance Department. This work and resource investment began prior to The Oregonian investigation. We’ve expanded the team significantly, with full time safeguarding manager roles in some of our largest country programs and 180 safeguarding support roles operational across all countries where Mercy Corps operates. We have also built out our Intake and Investigation (I&I) Division, within the Ethics and Compliance Department, to include a multilingual safeguarding investigations team consisting of a Washington, DC- based case manager, and full-time investigators based in Nairobi, Kenya and Amman, Jordan. Safeguarding focal points, co-investigators and champions undergo regular training.

In addition to increasing our safeguarding staffing, we have conducted additional Safeguarding and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) training for senior management and Board Directors, in addition to mandatory agency-wide PSEA training for all team members. We made significant updates to our safeguarding policies in February 2020, and will continue to review and update our policies regularly. We have rolled out globally a Community Accountability Reporting Mechanism (CARM) policy to ensure community members can provide feedback and voice complaints in a safe, confidential and accessible way. We have CARM focal points in place in all Mercy Corps countries as well as regional CARM advisors to provide targeted technical support to country programs.

To demonstrate transparency and accountability around safeguarding, we’ve also publicly released two annual Global Safeguarding Reports (Fiscal Year 2020, Fiscal Year 2019 parts 1 and 2), which will continue on an annual basis moving forward. The reports provide an overview of our agency-wide approach to safeguarding as well as our case numbers for the year.

Q: What commitments to action are unfulfilled?

A: We know that the work to strengthen our safeguarding systems, governance and accountability mechanisms is never truly done, and will require ongoing commitment, effort and resources.

Now that the Freeh Group’s investigation is complete, we will undertake the difficult but critical task of examining and reassessing how we reflect the role of Culver and others in our organization’s history. The Board has completed a comprehensive review of Mercy Corps’ governance practices, entity structuring and global operating model and has begun implementing initial recommendations, including implementing Board Director term limits. 

We will report on progress to the public twice a year until all commitments have been implemented, and the latest report (January 2021) can be found on our website.

Q: Are you re-opening past complaints and investigations that may have been mishandled?

A: We take all allegations of sexual misconduct (past and current) seriously and will address them as appropriate in accordance with our survivor-centered approach. An examination of safeguarding investigations over the past five years, within programs and teams funded by the United States Government, has been conducted by a third-party. As part of the assessment, it was determined that Mercy Corps’ survivor-centered approach and methodical approach to investigations met widely recognized standards.

Our policies and investigative processes and procedures have also been reviewed as part of donor and sector due diligence assessments including USAID, UNICEF and FCDO and found in compliance with donor and sector standards. Recommendations from these assessments are being implemented, including minimal updates to our policies and monitoring mechanisms.

Q: If there are other victims, where can they report their experiences?

A: We provide multiple avenues for team members, participants and community members to confidentially report concerns, including an Integrity Hotline email address (integrityhotline@mercycorps.org) and an independent, third-party reporting platform. This platform allows for anonymous reporting and can be accessed online at http://mercycorps.org/integrityhotline or by phone in most countries where we operate.

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.