Somaly Mam Foundation Closes, Leaving Lessons in Its Wake

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October 20, 2014; DevEx

On September 30, the Somaly Mam Foundation closed its doors, five months after Mam resigned in the face of media reports that she had fraudulently embellished her past experiences and accomplishments. One Newsweek article in particular cited multiple discrepancies. The revelations left many reeling, although Simon Marks, the primary reporter breaking the story, had been building his case against Mam’s credibility for some time. Mam, of course, was an icon of the human trafficking field—but iconic status can be dangerous for the adored and adorers alike.

The foundation’s “former board of directors” distributed a statement, the bulk of which follows:

“First and foremost, thank you for your ongoing commitment to the work we have dedicated ourselves to at the Foundation. We remain grateful for the unyielding encouragement, not only from our tens of thousands of supporters, but from the strong community of courageous leaders and organizations around the world that have come together to fight against trafficking in all its forms.

“We believe strongly in an organization driven by transparency, integrity and service. We’ve reflected on these values and our purpose to identify the best path forward to continue our critical work.

“There are many outstanding organizations that share these values while dedicated to the eradication of trafficking and slavery. We decided that going forward, the right opportunity for our staff and our supporters would be to support those many great organizations. As of September 30, we officially ceased all operations, ended all grant funding, and permanently closed our doors.

“This was a very difficult decision, but we feel strongly that this is the best course of action for our many wonderful supporters.

“We are grateful for the tireless devotion of the Foundation staff, vendors, partners and advisors over the years. And we want to particularly commend our former executive director Gina Reiss-Wilchins for her strong and loyal leadership.

“While we are disappointed not to continue to work together directly, we are hopeful that your commitment to end slavery will carry on. There are nearly 29 million victims of trafficking enslaved across the globe and they need our support now more than ever.

“We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all that you have done, and will continue to do. You have helped to inspire hearts and minds and remain an essential advocate for creating a world where human beings are no longer treated as a commodity. Our shared dream to end trafficking is one worth fighting for—and the work has only just begun.

“Sincerely, the former Board of Directors, SMF”

This brings to an end any speculation about the foundation’s potential for “rebranding, renaming, and relaunching.” Of course, it is also a painful reminder about how breaches of integrity on the part of even one can deeply affect the work of the many.—Ruth McCambridge