Fraud and corruption: 10 tips for obtaining buy-in from your NGO’s Board

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The Commonwealth corruption conference and anti-corruption summit in London last week saw the full engagement of civil society. Leaders from big household name NGOs were active online and in person, taking the opportunity to challenge a range of related injustices. It was exciting and encouraging, but these events should prompt those NGOs to ask themselves, ‘how effective are our own organisational counter-fraud and corruption frameworks?’ If the question needed underlining, we also learned that the US government is investigating allegations of corruption affecting NGOs in the Syria emergency response.

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US humanitarian aid bound for Syria

What Boards need to do in order to reduce fraud and corruption risk is well-trodden ground. But for international NGOs, one of the great challenges can, in fact, be the Board. As your organisation’s counter-fraud lead, what do you do if members of your Board don’t recognise that fraud and corruption is a problem? Or merely give it lip service, unwilling to invest in meaningful risk reduction efforts? Or worse, are content to turn a blind eye to the risk of physical assets, funds and stock falling into the wrong hands if most aid gets through?

Obtaining the buy-in of an NGO’s Board isn’t about selling them a product – we need their ongoing support and ownership. It’s about changing perspectives; a long haul, not a quick win. So, in helping to generate that ongoing support, I’ve found that these tips (which are not exhaustive and in no particular order) have assisted my colleagues and I; perhaps they might help you too.

1. Educate to effectuate

apple-256261_1920Fraud and corruption has, historically, not been well understood in this sector. Your Board may have a low or rudimentary understanding of the risk and how to respond to it. This means starting at a basic level, making no assumptions, taking the time to address myths and misconceptions and playing a longer game. ‘Educate as you go,’ Willie Oelofse from Deloitte Kenya told NGOs at a conference in January. As we do so, of course, it’s important to remember that counter-fraud is a good news topic – your organisation may be at high risk, but actually there’s a lot that can be done to reduce it. Boardrooms are learning environments too.

2. Keep it simple

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Board members are busy. NGOs (especially humanitarian agencies) are often very responsive, and Board members’ attention is divided between competing thematic risk areas and arising issues. Use your time with them wisely. Proposal documents and assessments, for example, should be short or with executive summaries. Don’t bury key messages in a risk assessment document the size of a telephone directory.

3. Speak from within

people-men-grass-sportCivil society is under attack the world over, and the issue of their fraud and corruption exposure can be something that sends Board members running for their shields and helmets  – especially if it is perceived to come from an out-group rather than in-group. Take charge of how the matter is framed. Don’t let them entrench in defensive positions to ‘fend off’ your ‘attack,’ or sit in a ‘prospective client’ chair to listen to you ‘pitch’. Instead, use their business language, show your understanding of the difficulties they face, and speak from inside their group. Explain the landscape around them, and how you can help them navigate across it.

4. Remember that they’re individuals

colored-pencils-179167_1920People make decisions differently and on the basis of different values. For example, I am a big fan of the MBTI, which is one of a range of models that can help us to understand how we like to work and how best to relate to others. Models like these can really help to improve workplace relationships. So try to understand each member of your Board as a person, and what really drives their decisions. Some will be persuaded by cold, hard data, others by less tangible matters such as how your agenda relates to values, supports people, and so on.

5. Bring the risk to life

DSC06922Fraud and corruption, especially at a strategic level, can be abstract concepts. Help the Board to connect by painting a picture of the risk with case studies. If you don’t have any in your own organisation, then perhaps partners, donors or other organisations have some they will let you use? If not, then find cases in the public space affecting comparable organisations. If you’re really struggling, consider using fictional examples – but remember to state that they’re fictional!

6. Show the benefits

cost-benefit-analysisNGO Boards are often allergic to anything with a whiff of extra expense, especially if it is ‘overhead’ or ‘administration’ flavoured. So explain the benefits of the agenda not just in terms of what it prevents, but also what it gains – efficiency, effectiveness, quality improvement, and so on. Much of counter-fraud work synergises with good management (an example arises from the world of retail – smiling as a customer enters not only deters shoplifting by making the individual feel noticed, but is also good customer service!).

7. Take an evidence-based approach

evidenceNGO Boards manage a lot of risks, only some of which materialize. Using evidence helps them to appreciate how fraud and corruption sits, whether that evidence is perception-based, representative sampled, or from other diverse sources. Cast the evidence net wide – consider staff surveys (especially anonymous surveys), risk assessments, project and programme evaluations, audit reports, security reports, academic research and open source. This may mean that you need to start by improving the detection of incidents, in order to gather enough material. Be cautious with the use of quantification estimates, as these can be inherently open to challenge by those feeling resistant, and with over-stating the case (being debunked seriously damages credibility). Remember to cater for any risks created by the counter-fraud agenda, and to consider any donor or legal obligations.

8. Align with organisational objectives and strategy

marketing-board-strategyJust as is the case with private and public sector organisations, the counter-fraud agenda needs to directly support the organisation’s mission. This needs to be clearly elucidated so that Boards can see that counter-fraud is a mainstream activity, rather than a distraction.

9. Obtain a sponsor

hands-people-woman-meetingIn March’s Charity Finance magazine,  I explained why fraud and corruption needs to be a standing priority for NGO Boards. But in addition to this, the counter-fraud agenda needs a champion at Board level. Benefits of this include how the champion can look out for synergies with other business areas as they’re discussed.

10. Put in the legwork

Startup Stock PhotosA ten-minute agenda item at a Board meeting is not enough to ensure that a Board truly embraces counter-fraud and corruption. Obtain regular meetings with each member to explore their own position and build their buy-in – especially before key decisions are to be made. Similarly, the counter-fraud agenda needs to align not just to the organisation’s mission but to the agendas of those individual Board members. How does countering fraud help, not hinder, the aims of the person in front of you?

11. Bonus tip!

Why not get the members of your Board a copy of Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector? It explains the risk, busts myths and misconceptions, and sets out ways for NGOs to minimise the risk. It’s out now with by Routledge, pick up a hardback or e-reader copy via the Routledge website or Amazon!

FFCHGDS

 

 

 

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Going local: Could national NGOs prevent more fraud than international agencies?

Last year, UN investigations into several small, local partner NGOs in Somalia resulted in estimates that up to 79% of disbursed funds (in the region of US$3m) could have been stolen, with suggestions that some of it could have fallen into terrorist hands.

The local partners of international agencies vary widely; the term encapsulates an enormous number of diverse organisations, from grassroots collectives to municipal authorities, educational institutions, and local (or ‘national’) NGOs. The relationships themselves are also diverse.

Working with partners is crucial, offering international organisations deep insights into the localised causes, enablers and solutions of the issues that their missions tackle, as well as (often) heightened access to beneficiaries. Helping to establish, grow and support local civil societies is also vital to the future of global development.

file0001839386335.jpgBut there is a tension. Case studies such the UN’s experience in Somalia support a perception amongst many in the sector that, generally speaking, working with local partners represents an elevated fraud and corruption risk. A range of reasons are commonly cited for this, but the most common perhaps is where partners carry lower capacity and capability in finance and wider management by comparison to that of the international agencies, or donor expectations.

Another way to look at it

In the current global development paradigm, the perception of this risk may be accurate. But not only shouldn’t it surprise us – research suggests that across all sectors, smaller organisations are the most vulnerable to fraud – it also isn’t the whole picture, and rather belies the role played by international actors, including NGOs, institutional donors and development agencies, in perpetuating this vulnerability.

Ways in which these agencies leave the relationships open to fraud and corruption, and can inadvertently help to maintain the vulnerability of local organisations, can include:

  • Failing to assess or adequately build capacity, or issuing funds in excess of that assessed capacity;
  • Failing to operate in a true partnership – instead treating the partner as a sub-contractor, irrespective of its fundamentally different nature;
  • Unbridled and unmanaged risk transfer – sometimes down a long funding chain;
  • Failure to follow a proper engagement cycle (including strategic planning, assessment and selection, effective engagement and monitoring, and objective evaluation and review) which includes the consideration of fraud and corruption risk at each stage;
  • Cultural insensitivity, failing to factor in cultural differences around the perception of things like contracts and transactions.

But things could be different. In fact, there are some ways that local organisations could be better at deterring and preventing fraud and corruption than their international agency partners.

 1. They have local, contextual knowledge

Somgirharcon1The first is the very reason international agencies often work with them in the first place – they understand their local environment. They know where the risks are, and are in a strong position to evaluate how to reduce them. This can mean more informed planning (how long does it take to get that permit without paying a bribe?) and risk management, if the space is given to it.

2. They are closer to the action

flower-768504_1920Whether in remote programme management or not, local partners are often physically closer to project delivery or able to more efficiently move around and interact. This is a substantial advantage for monitoring, and the detection of red flags.

3. They might be part of local accountability systems

gambia-239849_1920Development expert Jennifer Lentfer tells a great story of an encounter with a Liberian village elder in which he described ‘hot money’ and ‘cold money.’ It was an illustration of how local accountability systems exist, but development money might not connect with them – denying it the investment of local communities necessary for greater oversight. Carefully-selected local partners may be part of such systems in a way that international agencies might not, presenting opportunities for greater deterrence of fraud and corruption.

4. They’re increasingly assisted by technology

mark-516277_1920The global coverage of telecommunications is expanding as fast as its costs are declining, meaning that much humanitarian and development work is happens underneath its umbrella. This means that innovative software and hardware solutions to manage and monitor programming are increasingly available and affordable.

So what?

So how can international actors respond to this – reducing the role that they play in perpetuating the cycle, and instead helping local civil societies to unlock this counter-fraud potential?

1. Actually build capacity

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Counter-fraud workshop for local NGOs underway in the Philippines

However many project proposals mention capacity-building, it often does not happen, or if it does, it does so without the clear assessment of need, a plan, and an evaluation phase that are so important for it to actually have effect. Where the capacity and capability of a potential partner is assessed pre-engagement, this should provide the basis for a capacity-building plan. What can we live with, and how do we need to help the partner to grow?

As international NGOs challenge themselves to look for ways they can devolve responsibility, funding and power to local civil societies, helping them to improve their resilience to fraud and corruption would be a great start.

2. Consider the risk of fraud and corruption at each stage of the partner engagement cycle

Fraud and corruption risks vary as a project progresses. At the outset, kickbacks and nepotism can cluster around selection processes. Towards the end, as short-term employment contracts expire, theft of funds and stock can begin to climb in likelihood. At each stage, both partners should give space to identifying the risks and how best to protect the partnership.

3. Seek their advice, and that of national staff

It should be uncontroversial to point out that expat workers are not local experts. And local experts are available – in the partner, and in international agencies’ national staff. Agencies need to take the time to actually ask these reservoirs of knowledge about how best to squeeze fraud and corruption out of this work, and do so in sufficient time that the information can be applied. When I conduct counter-fraud awareness workshops, it is always exciting to hear local participants’ innovative and contextually-relevant ideas.

Conclusion

friends-1027840_1920There are corrupt local organisations out there, of course, who have the sole or corollary aim of gaining access for their principals to international agencies’ funds. But the vast majority of local organisations whom I have encountered have been full of passionate people doing amazing work in difficult circumstances. Robust selection processes are needed to ensure that these are the partners who are taken on.

There are other necessary changes of course – Mango currently champion universal financial management standards for NGOs, which would significantly improve transparency and accountability. But for now, there is much that international agencies can do to truly contribute to local civil societies – not just write about it in their annual reports.

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!

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!

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