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

Last updated February 5, 2020

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.

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 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 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.

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, 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 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.

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

A: Mercy Corps’ Board of Directors and Executive Team - under the leadership of Interim CEO Beth deHamel - announced Mercy Corps will:

  • 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 during his time at Mercy Corps. The process of initiating the investigation into Ellsworth Culver’s conduct has already begun. As part of this process, Mercy Corps has contacted the appropriate local and federal law enforcement agencies and we will be transparent with them as we proceed. We are committed to supporting any survivors who may wish to come forward.
  • Restructure the legal, ethics and safeguarding functions. We will hire a 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 will report to the Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer.
  • Continue to strengthen Mercy Corps’ approach to safeguarding, including a significant investment over the next 18 months to strengthen our capacity and systems that support the intake, case management and investigative oversight for alleged ethics violations, including safeguarding.
  • Strengthen the Board’s oversight, governance and capabilities. We will create a board committee charged with oversight of ethics and culture, including safeguarding efforts. We will appoint a lead safeguarding director on our board. We will put into place and honor term limits, both for board and committee tenures,while allowing the flexibility to make exceptions when important for the organization’s strategy.

The full list of Mercy Corps’ commitments to action 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.

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 have all resigned.

Q: What is Mercy Corps doing to ensure serious issues like this are properly handled in the future?

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.

Q: Are you updating your safeguarding and associated policies as a result of the revelations and subsequent review?

A: Yes, and you can see our planned updates to policies in our commitments to action here. We’ve already taken action in recent months to strengthen our safeguarding policies and systems in recent months, including: beginning the process of adding dedicated investigators and case managers to manage an increasing caseload, hiring temporary external investigators to increase our short-term capacity and increasing funding for prevention and awareness-building activities as part of our safeguarding strategy.

We will invest significant financial resources to further strengthen our systems that support the intake, case management and investigative oversight for alleged ethics violations, including safeguarding. As part of our investment, we are bringing on safeguarding focal points and co-investigators in each of our country offices to help build capacity for outreach, reporting and investigations.

We are also consolidating our investigative functions for alleged ethical violations into a single department under a new Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, reporting directly to the CEO and the Board of Directors. This team will be responsible for all allegations of ethical violations, from report intake through investigation, and will contain a safeguarding unit focused specifically on issues of sexual abuse or misconduct.

Q: Are you investigating who else may have been <> by Ellsworth Culver?

A: Mercy Corps is in the process of initiating a second phase of investigation to determine the extent of sexual abuse committed by Ellsworth Culver during his time at Mercy Corps. As part of this process, Mercy Corps has contacted the appropriate local and federal law enforcement agencies and we will be transparent with them as we proceed. We are committed to supporting any survivors who may wish to come forward.

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

A: Our highest priority is to ensure current cases are dealt with as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Our next priority will be an audit of historic allegations of sexual exploitation, sexual assault or severe sexual harassment.

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@mercycorp.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.