5 psychological traits undermining your NGO’s fight against fraud and corruption

As humans, we love to think that we’re rational, sensible people making rational, sensible choices. The problem is that modern research suggests that this is pretty far from the truth, and that there are common biases and errors that affect our thinking.

As NGOs, charities and non-profits, some of these can really impact upon our efforts to reduce fraud and corruption to an absolute minimum. Here’s a little selection of some of those that I think I’ve observed.

1. Availability bias

AVAILABILITY BIAS-2In 2010, there were a number of shark attacks off the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. In the following weeks, it seemed to me that the news was full of shark encounter stories. What was going on? Had sharks suddenly become more aggressive? No – this was availability bias in action, a mental shortcut in which we rely on the most immediately available information to make decisions, without considering how that information became available. All that was happening, was that the media were reporting more on the subject, and that I was more attuned to the matter. (David Mcraney uses a similar example in his great book, You Are Not So Smart.)

Fraud and corruption love availability bias. These two creatures naturally hide, so availability bias means that senior managers are usually responding to more readily-apparent risks, often de-prioritising fraud and corruption. And when these phenomena are off the radar, they can blossom until they’re too big to ignore – and then it’s too late; public scandals are imminent.

Instead, we need to recognise that the unique nature of humanitarian and development agencies gives these risks high likelihoods and impact. So, they should be made a standing organisational priority, with their own reporting framework that provides management information on both the perceived risk areas and the performance of countermeasures.

2. Loss aversion

LOSS AVERSION-2Research suggests that we feel losses more intensely than gains – so if you lost a £100,000 sports car, you’d feel that much more powerfully than you would if you won a £100,000 sports car in one of those airport car lotteries. This emphasis leads to an aversion to losses that can be stronger than the lure of benefits.

Committing to counter-fraud and corruption work means that in the long run, we have more money with which to help our beneficiaries and are more sustainable – our work is more resilient to catastrophic reputational events, and we could enjoy greater public trust. But these less tangible long-term benefits face a big challenge from very tangible short-term losses. Spending more money on anti-fraud mechanisms, or refusing to pay bribes, can mean we slow down (or perceive a lessening in) our operational delivery. That means helping fewer beneficiaries by comparison to our expectations. So implementing a counter-fraud and anti-corruption agenda can appear to come at a loss – not a gain.

Counter-fraud specialists need to clearly articulate the benefits of counter-fraud and corruption work, using every available means. This requires creativity and effort. Further, donor agencies and private supporters need to leverage the NGOs they fund, making it clear that this better way of operating represents their expectation.

3. Rationalisation

RATIONALISATION-2Celebrated psychologist Dan Ariely conducted an interesting experiment in which he placed dollar bills and cans of Coca-Cola around the campus of an American university. When he went back, the dollar bills were all still there – but the Coke cans had gone. (You can read about this, and other experiments, in his fantastic book Predictably Irrational.)

What might be happening here is that the less like money something seems, the less like stealing it feels. This is rationalisation, the process of making something we want to do (even something dishonest) fit with our own self-respect.

This is really important for NGOs, because although we might have good controls for cash handling, do we take sufficient protective care of our physical assets, and the stock in our warehouses? Studies like this one would seem to suggest that these items are at a high risk too.

4. The fundamental attribution error

fundamental-2When you’re driving, have you ever noticed that if someone else makes a mistake, then they’re an idiotic and dangerous driver – but if you make a mistake it’s because you were interrupted by a passenger, the car needs servicing, or you were responding to something another car was doing? This effect is known as the fundamental attribution error – the tendency to ascribe the actions of others to their own internal factors, but yours to external factors.

Something we sometimes do in NGOs is to assume that people who commit fraud and corruption are fundamentally bad people that we need to keep out of our organisations. When we do this, we forget that people are complicated, and can become perpetrators while inside our organisations.

In Donald Cressey’s enduring ‘Fraud Triangle’ theory of behaviour, anyone can behave dishonestly if the pressure on them is sufficient, if they have an opportunity to do it with a sufficiently low chance of detection or meaningful sanction, and if they can rationalise (justify) it in their minds. Though our thresholds for each may vary, we all have a triangle, and might progress towards or away from those thresholds according to the factors acting on us throughout our lives.

This is important for NGOs, because it means that all our physical assets, funds and stock are at risk from all our staff, all of the time.

The best way to respond to this is to commit to an ongoing, holistic programme of activity that deters, prevents, detects and responds to fraud and corruption – and which is considered as fundamental to our business as having an HR or IT function.

5. Learned helplessness

learned-2A few years ago, in a Middle Eastern country, I was delivering a workshop for managers on reducing fraud and corruption. A lady interrupted me to say, ‘but this is just the way things are here!’

When I encounter that view, it reminds me of an experiment conducted by psychologist Martin Seligman. Seligman found (by accident) that if dogs received electric shocks while they were unable to escape, they would learn to accept their fate and even when an escape route became available later, the dogs wouldn’t take it. The effect is known as learned helplessness.

When we work in complex and difficult places, we can sometimes give in to learned helplessness. This phenomenon lies to us with such thoughts as ‘this is just how business is done around here,’ or ‘we can’t do this work in any other way.’

The truth is that for every problem there is an opportunity – even if that sometimes means doing things the long way round, or investing more funds in doing them. Helpful approaches include maximizing local contextual knowledge, incorporating a realistic and informed planning phase, and seeing response activities like investigations as business improvement tools that fuel a virtuous cycle of self-improvement – what can we learn in order to become more resilient?

What other effects have you seen in action, and how best can they be countered?


FFCHGDSFind out more about the risk that fraud and corruption pose to humanitarian and global development organisations, and how they can better deter, prevent, detect and respond to it, in my book! Click here to get your copy of Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector from the Routledge website or Amazon!


Trust issues: Does a ‘culture of trust’ make your NGO effective, or vulnerable to fraud and corruption?

Photo 10-02-2016 10 23 37 (1)

Years ago, as a teenager, I walked past a bakery in my home town which had a ‘part-time Saturday work – inquire within’ sign on the window. In I went, and asked the lady at the till whether I could apply. She summoned a flour-dusted gentlemen from the back, and asked him: ‘What do you think – a young man?’

He gave me a cursory glance up and down, shook his head, and said: ‘No.’

The baker vanished again, and the lady shrugged. I left, dejected and wondering whether they thought a female candidate might be more trustworthy.

friends-1027840_1920Trust is very important in the workplace. We know that ’empowerment’ is probably a key factor in employee satisfaction, and that there might be a link between the quality of staff performance and their sense of that. We also know that there is a level of trust inherent in all controls, and that humanitarian and global development organisations need to devolve substantial responsibility in (for example) emergency operations, distant field offices, and when working with volunteers. Trust is an important lubricant for our operations. Untrusting workplaces feel austere: morale-deserts that suck the moisture of life out of us.

There is, however, a tension between the need to trust, and the risk of abuse – such as fraud and corruption. Some have argued that the scale of trust in charities, NGOs and non-profits elevates their vulnerability to fraud, a perception with which a 2009 survey of UK charities seemed to agree.

When you unpack it, it is hard to find justifications for the idea that charity, NGO and non-profit workers are more trustworthy than those in other sectors. Such an idea would seem to imply that people are either honest or dishonest, and one can determine which is which from their career choices. This is patently untrue – people are complicated, and are the products of factors acting upon and through them.

Instead, there are good reasons to look again at the extent of our cultures of trust.

chameleon-384957_1920Firstly, fraud and corruption are designed to hide and masquerade, like chameleons, stonefish or those alarming wobbegong sharks. Instances can look (for example) like the product of poor training or non-compliance through operational stretch – there’s always an excuse for anomalies. Arguably, if we are too trusting, we never dig deep enough to find out when something dishonest is afoot.

Secondly, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) found in 2012 that 87% of the occupational fraudsters they studied had never been charged or convicted of a fraud-related offence, while 84% hadn’t been punished or dismissed by a previous employer for fraud-related conduct. They were ‘clean (and trusted) skins.’ Noting that this is the second Pesh Framjee reference on this blog (sorry, Pesh), no wonder he said at a recent conference in the UK: ‘In God we trust, everybody else we audit.’

Thirdly, when NGO managers cite a ‘culture of trust’ in their organisation, they need to ask themselves – is this really a conscious, intentional, planned and managed organisational culture – or a phrase being used to cover mismanagement such as conflict-aversion or complacency?

So, how do we reconcile this tension? For many NGOs, non-profits and charities, the first step is the recognition than an alternative is needed – a culture of trust that isn’t at the expense of vigilance. While trust is important, fraud and corruption can be enabled when:

  • The organisational culture is not intentional, monitored and reviewed;
  • Trust is used an excuse for failing to maintain proportionate visibility of work, ask questions, and challenge managers and staff – or for failing to build the capacity of staff, volunteers or local partners to manage resources effectively;
  • Trust is allowed to extend into complacency, such as permitting the absence of, or non-compliance with, meaningful internal controls and risk management.

Here are six suggested ways we can foster trust, at the same time as reducing the risk of fraud and corruption.

1. Ensure that sufficient checks are conducted before a person is let into a culture or position of trust

nose-156596_1280Don’t just seek two employment references – after all, what self-respecting fraudster volunteers damaging referees? Consider:

  • Conducting dip-sample checks on the contents of CVs (some research suggests a significant proportion of applicants lie about qualifications);
  • Joining an information-exchange service such as CIFAS;
  • Ensuring that criminal record checks are conducted in a timely fashion (and consider using a commercial checking agency);
  • Obtaining local legal advice on checking the internet footprint of applicants – contrary to popular belief, it is often not unlawful to Google applicants as part of the background check process.

2. Develop a good understanding of the signs that your trust is being abused


Know what ‘red flags’ – signs that something might be wrong – look like. Organisations like the ACFE and the World Bank publish lists of them online. Being trusting does not mean failing to ask questions or probe anomalies – prompt action is needed where red flags are identified.

3. Have proportionate internal controls…

scales-36417_1280Having a culture of trust does not mean having no, or inadequate, controls. Neither, of course, does it mean an onerous filing cabinet’s worth of policies, procedures and systems (in fact evidence suggests that too many, or too demanding, controls reduces compliance). It means having just enough to manage the risks – an ongoing cycle of design, implementation and review of proportionate internal controls. It also, of course, means having an effective organisational counter-fraud and corruption framework.

4. …and actually follow them

Counter-intuitively, it is the failure to follow policies, procedures and systems that can often be so corrosive to trust in the workplace. Following some but not others makes staff feel untrusted, wondering ‘why am I being checked on this but he isn’t on that,’ and allows suspicions to develop when others are routinely non-compliant without challenge (‘is she committing fraud or taking kickbacks? Did she bribe the manager to turn a blind eye to it?’). Not only does routine non-compliance make it much harder to identify dishonest non-compliance, but it also leaves staff uneasy and confused – the norms of their workplaces unclear.

file0001490820453Instead, to feel safe, secure and successful, we all need to know where the boundaries are, and we all need feedback on our performance. After all, if we are mission-oriented, then ‘oversight’ is about colleagues working together to maximise our effectiveness and efficiency in delivering that mission, right?

5. Articulate the value of policies, procedures and systems

SDRandCo (54)One of the things we can do to reduce the perception that having and following rules represents a failure to trust, is to re-frame activities like due diligence and monitoring. We need to be clear with managers and staff about our expectations, and explain that following policies, procedures and systems is about:

  • Transparency. It means we are all accountable to each other, and it’s easier to spot what is wrong when right is the norm;
  • Teamwork. NGOs can be big organisations, and when we follow procedures, it enables colleagues and teams in other departments to do their job – knowing what to expect from us and when;
  • Totality. Nobody likes going through airport security and being zapped, prodded and rummaged. But we all accept it, because we know it’s needed to deter and prevent a very small number of people who could create a catastrophic event. In the same way, we all need to adhere to policies, procedures and systems, because of the small number of people we need to catch misbehaving.

6. Develop internal culture with intentionality

A defence against the use of a ‘culture of trust’ as an excuse for poor management might be to define the organisational culture we do want, and what the indicators of it might be. That way, poor management behaviours are easily compared against this standard.

Internal culture is something that happens whether it is intended or not – and it only needs a few people in an organisation for one to develop. Taking hold of it and shaping it to be an effective force-multiplier for our missions can be very powerful.

Trust can be a great asset – as long as it is sited within a culture that also actively reduces the risk of fraud and corruption.


FFCHGDSFind out more about the risk that fraud and corruption pose to humanitarian and global development organisations, and how they can better deter, prevent, detect and respond to it, in my book! Click here to get your copy of Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector from the Routledge website or Amazon!