This is an image from the Facebook feed of a man named Macintosh Johnson. Pictured is Katie Meyler, the founder of a charity called More Than Me that operates schools for poor, vulnerable girls in Liberia, like the girls in the photo. Macintosh Johnson and Katie Meyler were lovers. They ran More Than Me together until 2014 when Johnson was arrested and charged with raping at least 10 girls–likely, there were more–who studied at the MTM Academy, More Than Me’s flagship school. Two years later, after a jury trial in which he was neither convicted nor acquitted of the rapes, Johnson died in prison of AIDS.
All of this is according to ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization, which on Oct. 11 published a long (13,000 words) and absolutely devastating investigative story and a 45-minute documentary, both called Unprotected, about More Than Me. Here’s the trailer for the film, which argues, persuasively, that More Than Me missed opportunities to prevent the rapes and didn’t respond adequately after they became known. The school, for example, failed to test all of Johnson’s potential victims after learning that he had AIDS. This is a heartbreaking story.
Last week, Meyler, who is 36, took a leave of absence from More Than Me. Skip Borghese, the charity’s board chair, has resigned. In a statement, More Than Me said it was “deeply profoundly sorry” and acknowledged that it had failed the rape victims. But Meyler has insisted that her only mistake was to hire Macintosh Johnson. On the very day the ProPublica story appeared, she paid to be interviewed on a Liberian radio station where she defended herself and More Than Me’s work.
Here’s the thing, though: Katie Meyler didn’t build More Than Me on her own. She had lots of help. She has been financed by foundations and U.S. government agencies that, arguably, should have known better, especially once the rapes came to light; she won a popularity contest funded by JPMorgan Chase that awarded More Than Me a $1m prize to build MTM Academy; she was repeatedly lauded by credulous reporters; and she benefited from the persistent appeal of what has been called the white savior complex, a mindset that regards people in Africa, especially children, as helpless victims awaiting rescued by western do-gooders.
Let’s start with the funders. Here are some that backed More Than Me, according to its IRS filings–which can’t be trusted, unfortunately–as well as other public documents and my emails to foundations:
- The UK-based Moondance Foundation ($1.6m in donations)
- JP Morgan Chase ($1m)
- The Novo Foundation ($671k)
- The U.S. state department and US AID ($594k)**
- Global Giving ($577k)
- The Greenbaum Foundation ($317k)
- The Segal Family Foundation (~$270k)
- The Peery Foundation ($100k)
- The Mulago Foundation ($50k to Meyler, as a 2018 Mulago Fellow)
A note of caution about More Than Me’s IRS tax returns: They don’t always match the information supplied by funders. More Than Me, for example, said it received a $125k donation from the Lipman Family Prize, a competition for social entrepreneurs based at Penn. A Penn spokesman that Meyler entered the competition, but that no such donation was made. Why would More Than Me lie to the IRS? The organization has not responded to my email.
What foundations are saying
Some foundation grants went for More Than Me’s work on Ebola relief, which began in 2014. Jim Greenbaum, who runs the Greenbaum Foundation, told me by email:
The Greenbaum Foundation’s donations to More Than Me were all 100% related to the ebola work that Katie Meyler was doing in Liberia. In addition, the largest grant amount, $206,839, was essentially a pass through grant to fund the purchase of a Bloodmobile to conduct a plasma clinical trial to try to find a vaccine for ebola. The $55,000 ambulance was used to serve the West Point community for transport to the hospitals during the ebola crisis.
This money, in other words, did not fund MTM Academy.
The Moondance Foundation is also unapologetic about its support for More Than Me. This, from an unsigned email:
The Moondance Foundation has been supporting MTM to improve the education and health of children in Liberia, particularly girls, for a number of years. MTM has had a tremendous impact on the educational system in Liberia and is working closely with the Liberian Government. MTM has kept the Moondance Foundation informed of what happened in 2014. The Moondance Foundation understands MTM took quick action when alerted to the problem. The Moondance Foundation continues its dialogue with MTM and looks forward to the findings from the independent investigation and organisational audit being undertaken, and will be reviewing MTM’s safeguarding policy.
Andy Bryant, the president of the Segal Family Foundation, defended the foundation’s grant-making to More than Me. By email, he said:
We focus the majority of our grant support on smaller organizations with deep roots in the communities they serve and long-term commitments to do so. MTM fit the bill well when we first connected with them and stood in stark contrast to many INGOs that fled Liberia during the Ebola outbreak.
Throughout our due diligence interactions, we’ve had a largely positive view of More Than Me’s work over time. Several years ago, we were made aware of the incidents of abuse by MTM’s staff member and we reached out to MTM to learn more. They described the incidents that took place, the measures they took to prosecute the staff as well as the changes made to their child protection and HR policies, and we were satisfied with their response.
In terms of learnings, we think there will certainly be some but at this point I think it is premature to draw conclusions. We recognize the challenges with doing humanitarian work in developing countries and always strive to do better in sourcing, selecting, and supporting these organizations. SFF believes in continuous improvement and a learning orientation. We are still considering the article’s claims and trying to discern what new facts it unearthed and how our processes might be changed.
Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation told me by email that Mulago only became acquainted with More Than Me and Katie Meyler in 2015 when More than Me became part of the Partnership for Schools in Liberia (since renamed the Liberian Education Advance Program, or LEAP). That’s a controversial effort, which has been strongly endorsed by Starr. to improve the dismal performance of Liberia’s public schools. As part of that program, More than Me now operates 18 public schools for the Liberian government. Starr writes:
- Any informed opinion we have is based on their closely-monitored, rigorously evaluated performance over the past two years as part of PSL.
- That performance has been exemplary and at present, they appear to be a well-run organization with an explicit emphasis on children’s health and safety.
- On the basis of MTM’s performance in PSL, and their commitment to scale, Katie Meyler was selected to be a 2018 fellow with us.
- She joined her cohort of fellows at our one-week course in mid-September.
- Our fellows get a $50k grant to use as they see fit.
- The fellowship does “double-duty” as portfolio due diligence: Late in their two-year fellowship, when we know the entrepreneur and the organization well, they are considered for inclusion in the Mulago funding portfolio.
- These allegations are the result of a year-long investigation by a journalist with extensive connections within the country. If that’s what it took to unearth the story, it seems unlikely that even the most thorough due diligence by a funder would have revealed it.
- We don’t know the whole truth yet. This is one article and there are several investigations now in process.
- Because we – Mulago – were watching PSL closely, we had two full years of direct observation of the management team, and rigorous data with which to evaluate the organization’s performance and results. That’s quite remarkable. It’s unusual to have that much high-quality data going into a fellowship decision. In this case, MTM’s performance in PSL has been exemplary by any standard, and in a highly-visible, tightly monitored initiative, there has been no hint of the kind of violations revealed by the ProPublica investigation. And still a story like this emerges.
- The situation is also unusual in that the organization morphed completely since 2014. It went from what appears to have been an inadequately-managed non-profit running a single non-replicable private school to a disciplined organization rolling out a scalable model for high-quality education.
- Because we work with a lot of early-stage organizations, it is not unusual for us to hear from the leaders that someone within the organization got away with bad behavior for longer than they should have. It’s usually garden-variety theft, not something as heinous as what happened here, but it is typically the result of some combination of inexperience, naïveté, and inadequate management systems. That’s no excuse, of course, but what is critical for us is that they recognize and acknowledge the mistakes, take effective and immediate action, fix the systems (and sometimes the culture), and show that they really learned from the experience.
The Novo Foundation, to its credit, has suspended its funding of More Than Me, according to director of communications Joe Voeller. Importantly, Novo also wants to help the victims of the crimes committed at More Then Me. By email, Voeller says:
We have one open grant to the group, a $330,000, 3-year general operating support grant approved in 2017. That grant has one final payment scheduled and that payment is now on hold. As a foundation that works every day to promote the safety, dignity and agency of girls everywhere, especially the most marginalized girls, we are profoundly disturbed and concerned by this recent reporting. We fully support an independent, impartial and unfettered investigation and we have placed our funding for More Than Me on hold as we learn more, and so that our immediate focus can be on the safety of the girls and community impacted, whose wellbeing is our first and most urgent priority. Right now our staff are working quickly to try to understand how we can support efforts to ensure their safety, both in this critical immediate period as well as over the long term.
On the question of due diligence, one funder stands out: GlobalGiving, a DC-based nonprofit that connects donors with grassroots projects around the world, removed More Than Me from its platform in 2015. Rarely does GlobalGiving take charities off its platform–perhaps a dozen or so have been removed over the years, according to Britt Lake, GlobalGiving’s chief program officer. About 3,500 charitable projects are currently supported by GlobalGiving.
Lake told me that GlobalGiving heard concerns about board oversight, financial controls and operational checks and balances at More Than Me. (This is a good place to note that no board member at More Than Me had experience in education or global health. Meyler voices a disdain for experts in this poem, posted by PBS NewsHour.) GlobalGiving’s program staff talked to current and former board members, staff members and volunteers at More Than Me, and wrote a report recommending reforms. “It was a very extensive process,” Lake said. When More than Me did not make changes, its funding via GlobalGiving was suspended. “This was not a decision that we took lightly,” Lake said.
This raises a troubling question: If one funder managed to identify problems, why didn’t others, especially after the rape charges became public?
An ill-advised popularity contest
The money to build the MTM Academy came from the $1m prize awarded by JP Morgan Chase in a contrivance known as the American Giving Awards, which were televised by NBC. Charities were selected based on votes from Facebook fans and online customers of Chase, the bank said in a news release. This might be smart marketing if it brings Chase to gather more Facebook fans. But it is a foolish way to make a charitable donation.
Vu Le recently wrote about these popularity contests, saying:
If you are with a company that conducts these types of grants, I am begging you, please shut them down and never have another one again. I know intentions are good; you may be thinking that nonprofits get some resources, and the companies get some exposure, so it’s a “win-win.” In actuality, popularity-based grants are awful, irritating, insulting, inequitable, and hurt nonprofits and the people we serve.
To be sure, the $1m grant to More Than Me represented a tiny slice of Chase’s charitable giving. The bank has since shut down the American Giving Awards. But it bears some responsibility for the rapes at the MTM Academy.
The media: “One woman’s fight against Ebola”
Weeks after Macintosh Johnson was arrested in 2014, Ebola claimed its first victims in Liberia. Other NGOs left the country. Meyler jumped into the fray. She became a media darling.
According to Pro Publica, she courted reporters who flocked to the country and was featured in Vice, Marie Claire, The Washington Post , France 24, CBS, NBC, Vogue, NPR, the BBC (“One woman’s fight against Ebola”), PBS, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN. NBC lionized Meyler in a four-minute segment on The Today Show.
The storyline–a young white woman from suburban New Jersey, saving the kids of Liberia–was irresistible.
The rapes were forgotten.
People magazine named Meyler one of 25 women changing the world.
TIME chose Ebola fighters, including Meyler, as its Person of the Year in 2014. (Photo credit: Jackie Nickerson for TIME)
PBS NewsHour ran a laudatory profile in 2017. About the MTM Academy, reporter Fred de Sam Lazaro says: “There’s a strong emphasis on empowering girls to stand up against sexual abuse.” (Not strong enough, evidently.)
All the coverage was amplified on More Than Me’s Facebook page and in Meyler’s Instagram feed, which has 83,000 followers. Meyler is, if nothing else, a shrewd user of social media.
To its credit, TIME this month published Pro Publica’s investigation into More Than Me.
It’s time now for other news organization to update their stories about Meyler, as NPR has done.
This MSNBC story, for example, could use an update. The headline? Meet Katie Meyler, saving Liberian girls from exploitation.”
More Than Me?
There’s lots more to say about Katie Meyler and More Than Me, but this post is long enough. Someday, perhaps, More Than Me will become a case study in how not to do philanthropy. For now, though, a couple of closing thoughts–one about ego, and the other about race.
Going through Meyler’s Instagram feed and YouTube videos, I was struck by the name that she picked for the NGO she started at age 26. More Than Me? Her social media postings, especially in the early days, were all about her, and her desire to save the world. “I can love ignorance, hurt and hate away,” she declares in this video poem from 2010. Her passion obviously appeals to some, but, after watching this, it’s hard for me to understand how she persuaded foundations and government agencies to entrust their money to More Than Me.
Barbie’s bio reads: “Jesus. Adventures. Africa. Two worlds. One love. Babies. Beauty. Not qualified. Called. 20 years young. It’s not about me…but it kind of is.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to the question of race.
Let’s wrap up with a thought experiment: Think of an exclusive all-girls private school near you. The school’s founder falls in love with a man, who helps her run the school. He is then accused of rape by 10 girls at the school. How many donors keep writing checks? How much fawning media attention will the school attract? How long does she remain in charge? A few days? A few weeks? Or four years?
If this story had unfolded in Bethesda, MD., where I live, or in Bernardsville, the mostly-white, well-to-do New Jersey suburb where Katie Meyler grew up, you can be sure that everyone involved–staff, board and funders–would have been held accountable. Do we owe the girls of Monrovia, Liberia, any less?
** UPDATE: More Than Me replied to an email from me after this was posted to say that its IRS Form 990 that listed a $500k donation from the U.S. State Department and a $125k donation from the Lipman Prize was erroneous. The organization plans to file a new Form 990 soon, I’m told.