Donor fund mismanagement, opaque finances alleged by former staff members
A NEW York-based education NGO that began operating in Cambodia last year has seen its projects delayed amid a spate of resignations by disgruntled staffers, who charge that its finances are opaque and its goals unrealistic – allegations echoed by partner organisations.
The Cambodia Project, inc (CPI), which was founded in 2006 and became fully operational in 2008, was designed to expand access to secondary education in rural Cambodia, and founder Jean-Michel Tijerina said in an interview last year that construction on its first school would begin this past December.
Its model called for modern schools that would become financially self-sustaining with the help of related businesses, some of which would be staffed by students.
A design featured on CPI’s Web site includes 28 classrooms; soccer, tennis and basketball facilities; a library and auditorium; a dormitory and an on-site health clinic for students and teachers. CPI has previously declined to say how much the schools would cost.
Staff members who have recently left CPI say that the organisation did not have either the experience or finances to implement the model, with some going so far as to say that its projects were being misrepresented in an attempt to elicit more donations.
Teal Nipp, who started at CPI as public relations manager in November 2008, said that, upon arriving in Phnom Penh to serve as operations director last June, she discovered that no funding had been allocated to on-the-ground projects, and that she was the only in-country staffer.
“Money donated to CPI was spent quite frivolously as donations came in,” she said. “CPI had no form of oversight or system of governance.” Nipp resigned in September 2009.
Another former employee, Hemant Mohapatra, began working for CPI in September 2008 and became its development director in July 2009 before leaving in August. In an email, he said he resigned because there was no treasurer or executive committee overseeing CPI’s finances, and that long-term plans had not been thoroughly researched. He added that he was concerned that CPI’s finances were not transparent.
“I don’t believe the breakup of donations [versus] expenses was public knowledge,” he said.
“Part of the problem was that no one was asking the right questions for a long time. There certainly needs to be a pro-active approach by the current management to keep financial matters completely transparent. As a nonprofit, CPI depends entirely on donations, and it is imperative that it be made public where the money is going and why.”
Nipp also expressed concerns over how funding was raised, saying that by the time she resigned, CPI’s plans seemed to be designed with an eye towards “whatever would make the project look like it was accomplishing what it was advertising in New York”.
“Donations were solicited with campaigns that I felt did not represent what CPI was actually able to accomplish in Cambodia, as I was the only employee working in Cambodia at this time,” she said.
Partner NGOs severed ties
Concerns about CPI have been raised not only by former staffers.
The head of a local NGO who spoke on the condition that both he and his organisation remain anonymous, said he began collaborating with CPI on a proposed school project, but severed ties in August 2008 when it became clear that CPI’s goals were not executable.
CPI “decided they wanted to build not one, but three schools, which we thought was an irresponsible and unrealistic goal, given that they had no previous experience in secondary education or track record as an NGO”, he said. “We urged them to start with a pilot school, learn from the experience, and then build on that experience. When they disregarded this advice, we decided to pull out of the partnership.”
By that point, the NGO had spent a year developing a proposal for a secondary school in Kampot, and the NGO head said CPI has since been using his organisation’s work in seeking donations. “They ended up using the proposal that we gave them as a basis for fundraising,” he said.“We believe they did secure some funding on this basis, but it was not clear what they were using it for, except frequent travel to Cambodia, and presumably, salaries for their New York-based staff.”
He went on to say that CPI failed to honour an oral agreement to compensate his organisation for the time and resources it had invested in the project, and that CPI was generally vague about its financial situation.
“We were initially led to believe that [CPI] had the funding lined up for the school project, which in fact they did not,” he said. “It became increasingly clear that we were misled about their financial position, and we developed serious misgivings about their judgment and their capacity.”
Tijerina said via email that the global economic downturn had prevented CPI from meeting its goal of beginning construction on its first school this past December. He also said that about 20 percent of CPI’s staff left in the middle of 2009, many of them citing frustration over the lack of funding to support the projects they wanted to implement.
“It is true that the summer did not go as we had initially planned, mainly due to an unfortunate, but inescapable downturn in funding. Forced to slow our pacing somewhat, we did lose some team members who had hoped to travel to Cambodia to build our first school and were dissatisfied with the delays.”
CPI had pledged to build three schools by 2012 that would become financially sustainable and be “handed back to the community” by 2015. One component of its model involved affluent students paying fees that would subsidise tuition for students who couldn’t otherwise afford it. The schools would also raise money through related businesses, such as growing local produce for export.
Tijerina defended the feasibility of these goals but declined to say whether three schools would be built by 2012.
“I strongly disagree that the objectives pursued by The Cambodia Project are ‘unrealistic and irresponsible’. Our overall goal of providing quality secondary education in Cambodia remains intact,” he said.
Though he conceded that some objectives CPI had cited while requesting funds had not always been met, he denied that money had been spent irresponsibly.
“We have used a general appeal for funds in the past where we did not reach our goals, and we will be more focused and cautious in the future in doing so,” he said.
“It would be wrong to state that any of our donations have gone to frivolous or unnecessary actions.”
Leng Theavy, education capacity-building officer for the NGO Education Partnership, a networking organisation for Cambodian education NGOs, said she was in the process of completing a report gauging the impact of the economic downturn on education NGOs, and that few had reported being seriously affected.
“I went to interview some NGOs and asked about how the financial crisis affected their projects, but they said they weren’t really affected and were still able to carry out their programmes,” she said.