Today’s guest post comes from Jake Calhoun, who shares his story of social impact gone wrong.

When I was at Columbia Business School, I teamed up with a group of classmates to volunteer with a non-profit organization called ‘The Cambodia Project’ led by an alumnus of the college. He had a great pitch: build a school in southern Cambodia and fund it by selling a local cash crop, Kampot Pepper, to French, Belgian and American consumers. Not only would we help build schools, we would increase the incomes of local farmers. We loved the idea, and volunteered to update his business plan to enter it into the prestigious Global Social Venture Competition at UC Berkeley. The idea was appealing to others as well, and along with a select group of finalists, we were invited out to Berkeley to pitch the idea to funders. We were proud of ourselves that we’d made such a compelling business case, using all these beautiful pictures of wide eyed children that the founder had snapped on his last trip to Cambodia, and decided that we might as well take our volunteering further and go out and get involved in the projects.

“The red flags seem so obvious now after many years as an international development professional, but back then we just wanted to help.”

Pretty soon after arriving in Cambodia it became obvious that, though the idea had convinced us and many others to give our time and money, the idea had no traction at all and the founder had no idea what he was doing. The plan had been sold to us as something that was already in motion, when in reality, nothing at all had been done on the ground. We had a hard decision to make: were we going to walk away, as this was clearly a project going nowhere? Or were we going to try to make this project a reality on our own?

We were naïve, thinking it was just incompetence that had prevented the project from working. After a bit of research, we realized the problems ran deeper: we soon learned that the $60,000 USD the founder had raised was “no longer available”, and in fact there was probably other money raised through various web platforms and competitions that wasn’t accounted for anywhere. After a few more weeks of research, it came to light that he had spent all the money on frivolous personal items like business-class flights and fancy hotels. We quit that day and reported him to the New York City Charity Bureau, but it was too late, and the Bureau was too understaffed for a $60,000 fraud.

In retrospect, we were the worst kind of volunteers – not only did we assist in funding the project, but we were negligent in our research. The red flags seem so obvious now after many years as an international development professional, but back then we just wanted to help. My main takeaway was: do your research. When potential volunteers get in touch with me now, I remind them not to be lazy and just jump in because they have heard what they thought was a good idea or have seen a cute kid on a flier. Get validation: externally, from established organizations or development professionals working in that area; internally, from someone who has worked or volunteered in the organization in the past; and financially, by checking out their financial reports and governance documents. I wish I had given myself that advice before jumping in to support an organization that didn’t even really exist!

Written by Jake Calhoun, pictured here among some Kampot pepper plants. An extract from this story is published in the Learning Service book.