Poor Ferdy

Ferdinand Mahfood embezzled thousands of dollars from his own charity to support his mistresses. So why is he hanging around?

Ferdinand Mahfood is here in spirit. Peering down from a white wall inside the tinted glass doors of Food for the Poor, Inc. (FFP), the Deerfield Beach¯ based charity he founded, Mahfood sees everything. Blessed by soft focus, his face exudes a healthy radiance; his narrow lips purse in a smile. Under a flattering halo of portrait-studio lighting, his white shirt seems to glow.

Framed by bushy brows, Mahfood's close-set eyes look lost in blissful reverie. In reality recent months have been closer to a nightmare. FFP distributes more than $1.5 million a year in aid to less-developed nations; the subject of the portrait looks every bit the worldly and polished advocate for the poor. Yet this is the same man who last year was found to have embezzled FFP funds and funneled them to two female employees with whom he was having sexual relations.

After such shattering revelations, things could only get better for Food for the Poor, and in a way, they have. Its founder, affectionately known as "Ferdy," was put on a six-month suspension last fall; six weeks later he resigned his position, citing his long-time struggle with bipolar disorder, a severe mental illness characterized by chronic bouts of mania and depression. FFP swiftly contacted the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), an organization that oversees religious nonprofits. (FFP works in cooperation with Catholic parishes in the United States and abroad and is affiliated with the Archdiocese of Miami.)

In 1999 Food for the Poor distributed more than $1.6 million in aid to people in developing countries
Miami Herald
In 1999 Food for the Poor distributed more than $1.6 million in aid to people in developing countries
Food for the Poor, Inc., and Essex Imports, the company Robin Mahfood founded, share the same Deerfield Beach building
Michael McElroy
Food for the Poor, Inc., and Essex Imports, the company Robin Mahfood founded, share the same Deerfield Beach building
When Ferdinand Mahfood resigned from the organization he founded, his younger brother, Robin, took over
When Ferdinand Mahfood resigned from the organization he founded, his younger brother, Robin, took over

Under ECFA's supervision, a phalanx of outside accountants and consultants, including a former U.S. attorney, descended on the Deerfield Beach agency like emergency room surgeons on a crash victim. Their treatment included a top-to-bottom audit of the organization and its procedures in the United States and abroad and a regimen of institutional changes FFP has since implemented.

ECFA director Paul Nelson says FFP handled a worst-case scenario with the best possible response. But not everyone is happy with the outcome. Two long-time board members advocated that Ferdinand Mahfood be immediately ousted and prohibited from returning rather than merely suspended. Several top executives spoke out against the board's decision to replace Ferdy with his younger brother, Robin Mahfood, who was then serving as vice president. (Nelson has also expressed discomfort with the choice.) Critics feared Robin might be a puppet for Ferdy or at the least would be seen as such.

These naysayers did not last long. Key employees who opposed the board's decision either were fired or quit. Three high-ranking officers were dismissed after refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement. One subsequently filed a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit.

Then, at the end of 2000, FFP's executive committee forced out three board members -- including the two who recommended Ferdy's permanent removal. The executive committee is composed of Mahfood family members and FFP's in-house attorney, who has taken Ferdy's place on the board.

Meanwhile another legal battle from the troubled final years of Ferdy's leadership looms in the future. In December 1999 former employee Dorothy Atkerson filed a civil suit against FFP in federal court, claiming then-president Ferdy discriminated against her, then fired her, on the basis of her race and religion. The case is scheduled to go to trial in August.

FFP supporters and employees are understandably eager to put their founder's fiasco behind them. Yet in the context of the national debate over President George W. Bush's plan to give federal money to faith-based charities, the organization's troubles take on even greater significance. Closer to home the charity faces the Atkerson lawsuit and an ongoing FBI investigation into Ferdinand Mahfood's diversion of funds to support his two paramours. And despite all of the chaos his indiscretions have wrought, Mahfood appears close to returning to FFP in some capacity. Indeed some people wonder if he ever really left.

Here, down a dim corridor at FFP's Deerfield Beach office, just out of range of his troubled brother's unflinching gaze, is one man who could put such questions to rest.

"Mr. Mahfood won't be out for hours," insists a brusque, bespectacled receptionist named Maryanne for the third and final time.

In other words Robin Mahfood isn't talking to the press.


Ferdinand Mahfood was born in 1937 in Jamaica to a Lebanese Catholic family of shipping magnates. He came upon his fervent faith in midlife and midair, aboard an airplane on a business trip in 1976. In the years to come, Ferdy would turn this fateful flight into anecdote, tossing it out at fundraising meetings. Worn smooth from use, it skipped lightly over the crowd like a stone upon water.

"I probably had the story memorized," chuckles Gary Faysash, a Broward County banker and FFP donor and volunteer. "It didn't really impact me. What impacted me was what he was doing."

What Mahfood was doing was nothing short of miraculous. His oft-cited religious awakening was the impetus for his 1982 founding of Food for the Poor, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation. He used his skills as an import-export businessman to solicit aid from wealthy nations and distribute it to his homeland of Jamaica, then expanded the organization's coverage to include Haiti and developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Then as now, FFP works with churches to determine the needs of a community, providing the goods requested either by purchasing them and shipping them to the recipients or by securing them through in-kind donations. His was a more direct approach than those of many similar organizations, and it proved more successful, too. What was once Mahfood's pet project run from his family's business became the 66th largest charity in the Philanthropy 400, an annual listing published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy that ranks the top nonprofits worldwide according to the support they receive.

His good works did not go unnoticed. In 1992 he received the Caring Award, a national award given by the Caring Institute; that same year FFP expanded its program to the United States, offering relief in nine major cities.

FFP was also lauded for its remarkably efficient use of funds. In 1999 it claimed an average administrative overhead of 9.9 percent, though this is perhaps best credited to the business acumen of Robin Mahfood, who served as vice president. The writer of a newspaper article published in February 2000 noted that, while Ferdy understood the big-picture needs of recipients, he was more likely to delegate the details.

"He tends to embellish facts and figures, and explains it by saying he's not good at keeping numbers in his head," observed reporter Marita Lowman in the February 22, 2000, issue of The Scranton Times in Pennsylvania. "He offered three different figures for the cost of land, for instance, and gave higher numbers than his managers gave for the number of people fed and housed at some Food for the Poor projects."

Mahfood's accounting inconsistencies aside, Food for the Poor appeared to be a model organization. But as the world would soon discover, its founder is no role model.


Dorothy Atkerson started working at FFP in 1994 as a donor-caller for FFP, though she had ambitions for higher positions. In the lawsuit she filed in December 1999, she alleges that FFP repeatedly passed her over for promotion and that Ferdinand Mahfood harassed her on the basis of her race (she is African-American) and religion (she is a born-again Christian).

Her complaint describes a workplace that, while supposedly interdenominational in nature, was intolerant of born-again Christians, and claims that in staff meetings Mahfood would "make fun about born-again believers and their faith and Christian beliefs."

Atkerson contends Ferdy told African-American employees that they had to work harder than anyone else in their department: "Mahfood stated that the blacks (Black Americans) had to work harder than anyone else because Mahfood only gave service to blacks in the Caribbean." Inexplicably the complaint also alleges that "[o]n several occasions Mahfood asked Atkerson if she was from Jamaica and Atkerson assured him that she was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."

In addition Atkerson's complaint alleges that Mahfood threatened to fire other employees if they spoke to her or associated with her. She also asserts that she had come to question FFP's practices, particularly with regard to what employees would tell callers soliciting donations versus what they would tell donors. In a statement that would later seem eerily prescient, Atkerson charges that she faced retaliation for pointing out inconsistencies in FFP's practices and for her concern that donor money was not always used for its intended purpose.

"There was no system of checks and balances with regard to carrying out projects," her complaint reads.

Mahfood fired Atkerson on November 17, 1998. By that time rumors of his sexual impropriety had been festering for several months, if not longer. Still, it was not until April 1999 that a female employee filed an internal sexual harassment complaint, which included a threat to sue.

New Times could not confirm the identity of this individual or the other woman with whom Mahfood later admitted involvement; thus pseudonyms are used here. In her complaint "Jane" said she came forward because another woman, "Mary," had confided in her about a long-time affair with Ferdy. Jane said that, when Ferdy propositioned her and tried to persuade her to take a trip to Jamaica with him, she decided to report the incident because she perceived that Mary had been hurt by Ferdy and that others would be, too.

Ferdy denied the charges; after an initial internal probe, the investigation was called off for lack of evidence.

FFP employees continued to tamp down talk of Ferdy's indiscretions. But then, in August 1999, an unrelated internal audit uncovered diverted funds and gifts that corroborated the charges in Jane's harassment complaint. According to documents filed in a later lawsuit, the ensuing inquiry eventually revealed that Ferdy had in fact had sexual relationships with both Mary and Jane and had given ill-gotten cash to both women.

It was the beginning of the end. Subsequent internal memos by both director of development Rodney Taylor and executive director Jim Cavnar describe the following scheme to siphon money from FFP. Folding chairs purchased in Florida by Food for the Poor and shipped to FFP in Jamaica, ostensibly to be donated to churches there, were instead sold on the island for a profit. The proceeds were then funneled to slush funds for the two women with whom Ferdy was involved.

The scandal simmered within the charity's walls for nearly a year before it boiled over. In late July or early August 2000, Mary became so distraught at the revelation of her relationship with Ferdy that she attempted suicide by cutting her wrists and had to be put in a psychiatric hospital, delaying her planned dismissal by a week while she recovered, according to an internal memo. Ultimately FFP managers fired both women. Three relatives of one of the women were also dismissed a week later for having accepted money from FFP.

Ferdy's fate was less cut-and-dried. On August 14, 2000, the board of directors suspended him. To outsiders his "administrative leave" was unexplained and indefinite. In an August 22, 2000, memorandum, however, Cavnar recounted being told that Ferdy would be suspended for six months, during which time he would receive psychiatric treatment. At the end of that time, the board would reevaluate the suspension and decide whether or not to restore him to FFP's presidency, albeit with new management systems in place to prevent further problems.

As he stated in the memo, Cavnar believed that mere suspension was not enough to set things right in the public eye. "I believe that the misconduct on Ferdy's part gravely threatens the survival of FFP," Cavnar wrote. "I believe that it will eventually become public knowledge. I believe that we likely face very costly legal settlements and even criminal prosecution. The only way I can see FFP surviving this scandal will necessitate terminating Ferdy's role at FFP permanently."

Cavnar also pointed out that FFP employees, when questioned directly about rumors of Ferdy's affairs, had denied them. Hearing that memo read six months later, Cavnar, who now works for another nonprofit organization, lets out a world-weary sigh. He himself had quelled rumors of Ferdy's misdeeds -- rumors that turned out to be true. "I was wrong," he says softly.


Despite Cavnar's vehement objection, Ferdy remained suspended from the board while his younger brother Robin was appointed by the board as president/CEO. At the same time, Robin stepped down from the head of his own company, Essex Imports, an import-export business. In changing jobs, Robin didn't have to go far; Essex handles FFP's shipping business, operates out of the same building, and shares a loading dock with FFP at a Deerfield Beach corporate park.

In the wake of the crisis, FFP attorney and new board member David Price drew up a confidentiality agreement that employees were required to sign by September 22, 2000. The agreement forbids employees from engaging in "the making or publishing of written or oral statements or remarks that are defamatory." It also states that any breach is grounds for "immediate dismissal," as is failure to sign the agreement.

To some employees it looked like a strong-arm tactic to hush them up. Several refused to sign the initial agreement; it was subsequently revised. One who was not satisfied with even the final draft of the agreement was Rodney Taylor, director of development. His wrongful-termination lawsuit, filed October 3, 2000, in Broward County Circuit Court, is the source of a number of internal FFP memos quoted in this article that detail the circumstances surrounding the scandal.

Taylor's case was dismissed February 24. Calls to Stuart Rosenfeldt, Taylor's attorney, were not returned, and Taylor could not be reached for comment. But in court documents Taylor casts himself as a whistle blower fired for taking his information regarding Ferdy's financial wrongdoing to the Broward Sheriff's Office on September 15 -- after Robin Mahfood refused to do so. BSO can find no record of the complaint, but the allegations did make their way to the feds. A spokeswoman for the FBI's Miami field office confirmed the existence of an ongoing investigation into the matter but declined to comment for this story.

In an FFP internal memo dated September 15, 2000 -- which appears in his case file -- Taylor explains his reasons for going to law enforcement:

"In a memo to the board last week I expressed my concern that the process would be corrupted by personal and family interests on your part. This concern was confirmed by two actions on your part:

"1) You arranged and participated in a meeting with Ferdinand Mahfood, at his house, with another key executive of Food for the Poor. This confirms my suspicion that Ferdy is still running this organization through you and that his "suspension' is a farce.

"2) In a series of meetings you have misled employees about the true nature of Ferdy's action. This is not true disclosure.

"In the end you have left me little choice."

The key executive to whom Taylor refers is Russ W. Russell, North American Ministries Director, who attended the secret September 13 lunch at Ferdy's home. Days later Russell wrote an impassioned letter to Robin Mahfood criticizing this secrecy, defending his colleagues, and refusing to join in what he characterized as a smear campaign against them. This letter also appears as evidence in the Taylor case file.

"I cannot allow myself to be placed in a position of undermining the integrity and forthrightness in regard to what they believe should be the outcome of the allegations made against Ferdy," Russell wrote. "I fully believe in the integrity and feel that the attacks on their personhood are unchristian and immoral."

Russell accused Robin Mahfood of trying to coerce him into taking sides against Taylor and Cavnar for their opposition to the handling of the scandal and stated his refusal to do so.

"During the course of the private meeting held with you, Ferdy and myself, I became increasingly aware that the allegations were criminal and immoral in nature and also realized that the two of you wanted me to conspire against Rod Taylor and Jim Cavnar," Russell wrote. "I was reminded of how loyal Ferdy has been to me, particularly in my time of need and that my loyalty to the two of you was needed now. After you told me, and I quote, "This meeting never happened,' it confirmed in my mind that what I hoped was not true, was indeed true."

Russell goes on to say that he, too, objects to the Board of Directors' decision to select Robin Mahfood as president: "I feel that their recommendations were biased because of their long personal association with Ferdy, and (by the fact that) some of their ministries are served by Food for the Poor." Russell, like Taylor, was later fired for refusing to sign the confidentiality agreement.

William Carden, who had served on the board of directors for 18 years, says he doesn't believe his long-time friend and colleague Ferdinand Mahfood ever considered turning FFP leadership over to an outsider. "It's very tightly controlled by the Mahfood family," he says. "They've had control from the beginning, and they're going to keep the control. I don't really know why they feel that way," he adds, "because it's not like anyone wants to take [FFP] away from them."

Carden, having served on the board since its inception, says he objected to Ferdy's suspension, instead preferring that the founder step down immediately.

On September 25, 2000, Ferdy did resign, citing his struggle with bipolar disorder. "We all suffer from human weakness," he told the Sun-Sentinel in an article published October 4, 2000. "I have been in love with the human race for the last 18 years. You should focus on that... and not on any particular women that I am alleged to have had a friendship with."

Mahfood's explanation was at once candid and cryptic. In his resignation letter, Mahfood "spoke openly about his bipolar condition," the article states. "He said his inability to control the disorder led him to partake in "unacceptable' behavior. He did not elaborate." The letter was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel story.

It is not clear if Ferdy's illness was public knowledge. Some insist he spoke openly about it, even joking about the medications he took; others say that, even though they met and worked with him, they did not know of it.

Ferdy's resignation was just the first of many sweeping changes in FFP leadership. In December 2000, long-time board member William Carden received notice he had not been renominated by the board's new nominating committee, which is comprised of Robin Mahfood; Ferdy's wife, Patricia; and new board member and in-house attorney David Price.

"That's how it ended, after 18 years," he mutters. "I got a "Dear John' letter."

Norm Dugas, who had been a board member for 14 years, also received such a letter. Like Carden, Dugas was surprised by the missive. "We knew nothing about it ahead of time, that's for sure," he says.

In fact, Dugas adds, FFP's announcements of changes to the board -- in particular, of the addition of two bishops -- were misleading because they failed to note the outgoing members, all of whom are lay people. "I was surprised that they sent out a press release fully knowing that it was not truthful," Dugas says. "It's supposed to be a Christian organization."

Another board member, Herb Moller of Wellesley, Massachusetts, also received such a letter. Moller, who had served on the board for one year, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Despite the abrupt dismissal of each from FFP leadership, none of these former board members wants to disparage FFP. Even the most critical of former employees feels the same way, noting the good works the organization has done in spite of its recent troubles.


When the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability stepped in, it was payback time. ECFA director Paul Nelson says independent accounting firms confirmed that money embezzled from FFP has been returned to the organization "by the Mahfood family." He praises FFP's swift and open response to the scandal. A press release issued by FFP through ECFA states that $275,328.84 in funds "redirected by Ferdinand Mahfood" has been "restored."

Furthermore the release says Mahfood "directed FFP-Jamaica to issue cashier's checks totaling $130,000 to [a then-]employee. He subsequently retrieved and cancelled all but $11,000 of the $130,000 in cashier's checks. The remaining $11,000 has been reimbursed to FFP-Jamaica. KPMG has also confirmed this reimbursement."

As charity scandals go, FFP's problems were hardly the most extreme. In 1992 United Way Chairman William Aramony made headlines for funding his lavish lifestyle with money from the charity. Aramony's transgressions were outrageous; chauffeur-driven limousines shuttled him, his staffers, and his mistresses on the company dime, or rather $92,265 worth of donor funds. Through the years Aramony had billed the charity for countless indulgences, including Concorde flights and frequent high-rolling trips to Las Vegas. For this he was convicted of fraud, sentenced to seven years in prison, and ordered to repay some of the money.

FFP's troubles also invite comparison to a 1990 scandal involving Fr. Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, an innovative home for New York City's street kids. After rising to prominence and adulation for his groundbreaking program, Ritter was accused of having sexual relations with residents of the home and making overtures to several others. Ritter repeatedly denied the allegations. Though he was never convicted of any crime and never lost a civil lawsuit, he was eventually forced to resign from the charity he built.

It was later revealed Covenant House was controlled almost entirely by Ritter and staffed with friends and family who carried out his wishes. Following a state probe, Covenant House was required to sever all ties with Ritter. Exiling himself to a small town in upstate New York, Ritter lived out the rest of his days in solitude. He died in 1999.

Covenant House, on the other hand, went on to repair its reputation and rebuild its donor base, though not without a struggle. Some say Ritter's permanent and complete disassociation from the charity was key to its survival.

These parallels were not lost on the staff of FFP, some of whom cited them when anticipating the possibility of Ferdy's return. Jim Cavnar wrote on August 22, 2000: "Consider the example of Covenant House in 1990.... Even though they immediately removed him, did an independent investigation, set up an independent oversight committee and hired a new CEO with no ties to Ritter, it took three years for their fundraising to recover to the level prior to the scandal. If they had tried to return Ritter to the organization I believe they would never have recovered."

It is not clear whether Ferdy will return to FFP, and if so, in what capacity. For its part ECFA now says Ferdy's permanent disassociation with FFP was not a condition of their inquiry.

"They committed to us that he would not return in any significant role at FFP," says Dan Busby, ECFA's vice president for donor and member services. "I think the door is left open if he were to volunteer, but that wasn't finalized beyond the big picture."

Likewise Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami, who was appointed to FFP's board in the wake of the scandal, says that as he understands it, Ferdy's possible return is an open question. Wenski says he knows of no stipulation made by the archdiocese on the subject.

Marina Pavlov, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Nonprofits, believes that Ferdy's return would be, if not illegal, at least problematic: "I don't know it if would be wise," she cautions. "When you're trying to raise millions of dollars a year in donations and someone did something wrong in the organization, PR-wise, I don't think it's going to be very good for your fund development. Just as a practical move, I'm not sure how smart it would be. Once you've done something like that, I think people have a watchful eye."

Indeed, Pavlov says, succession can be a tricky topic, particularly for family-run organizations like Food for the Poor. "It's a big thing that nonprofits deal with. Very often organizations that have strong leaders don't institutionalize. They have such strong leaders at the helm, but if that leader were to disappear, the organization would disappear. You don't want an organization that does that much good to fold just because of the leader."

But Pavlov says nonprofits also need to consider more than image or legality. "A lot of this stuff is legal, but the question is whether it's ethical. With nonprofits I think they're held to a higher standard [by the public] and with religious nonprofits, an even higher standard."

Or as ECFA director Nelson puts it, "When you hold yourself out as a faith-based organization, you have just raised the bar in the mind of the public."


Ferdinand Mahfood is already back in town. Having reportedly completed two to three months of residential treatment in Connecticut for his bipolar disorder, he has returned to the Lighthouse Point home he shares with his wife, Patricia, just blocks from where his brother Robin lives.

New Times' efforts to get the Mahfoods to comment for this story were ultimately fruitless. When asked if he would discuss the events surrounding his brother's resignation and the future of FFP, Robin Mahfood said, "I'll deal with it," then abruptly hung up his office phone. He did not return subsequent calls to his home or office.

Weeks later FFP public relations officer Kevin Locke called New Times and asked about the nature and tone of the article. He declined to answer questions. "I've looked at your paper, and frankly, I'm not impressed," he said. When asked to explain, Locke said the newspaper is "antagonistic to Christianity" but agreed to reconsider his decision.

He did not reply until a few days later. After learning that a New Times photographer was attempting to reach Robin Mahfood, Locke e-mailed New Times and asked that all queries be directed to him. He also asked that "[y]our purpose in writing the story (angle, interest, interest in photographs)" be submitted to him via e-mail, adding, "Feel free to submit questions to me -- also via e-mail -- so that I may supply you with information for your article."

New Times e-mailed a list of questions to Locke and received this answer: "Food for the Poor, Inc. has no comments to the questions submitted."

As for Ferdy himself, New Times reached him by phone at his home. In the lilting cadence of his native Jamaica, even his refusal to be interviewed somehow sounded profound. His voice was deep and slow, like that of an orator.

It's that Ferdy thing -- charisma. "He's a very powerful spokesman for FFP, and for his faith, and for the poor," says donor and volunteer Gary Faysash, who last saw Ferdy about 18 months ago, just prior to the scandal. He says he met Ferdy about five years ago and often saw him at functions.

"He used to do one-day retreats where he'd talk about centering prayer. It's contemplative prayer," he explains, comparing the practice to a form of meditation. In fact several FFP donors first came to know the organization by meeting Ferdy through such programs. He drew people to him, and they were impressed with his intensity. Officially, little has been said about Ferdy's illness, though it is referenced in the letter Mahfood wrote to donors last August and in talking points given to FFP's telemarketers that were later filed as evidence in the Taylor case. Faysash says Ferdy had long been open about his struggle with mental illness, and Faysash knew about it. "Everybody did," he says, "because he talked about it. He's been working on it for years."

In fact not everybody knew. Wenski, the board's newest member, says he's known Ferdy for years, in large part because the bishop has worked with the Haitian community in Broward and Miami-Dade counties for nearly 20 years. He met Ferdy shortly after the organization's founding, visited FFP programs overseas, and even gave an invocation at a fundraiser. He knew Ferdy well, he says, but not well enough to know of his illness.

"I knew he was kind of an intense guy," Wenski offers. But that isn't unusual in relief work: "You have to have a certain intensity to work with the very poor. It's not easy."

Knowledge of Ferdy's illness was likely confined to his inner circle of friends, colleagues, and the major donors who were invited to travel with him on FFP's pilgrimages. For example Ralph and Sally DeGruttola, FFP volunteers who live in Pompano Beach, didn't learn of Ferdy's condition until the story hit the media.

"All I know is what I've read in the paper," says Ralph DeGruttola. Likewise his wife, who works in FFP's mailroom one day a week, says she didn't know about Ferdy's mental illness or problems with the organization. Even after she learned of Ferdy's resignation, Sally DeGruttola didn't ask anyone at FFP about it and says the volunteers and employees with whom she works never discussed the stories or FFP's problems.

"I read [about] it, but other than that, I didn't pay very much attention. I'm a volunteer, and that's all I go to do, and I'm not interested in [FFP's] inner workings."

Such an attitude is not uncommon among supporters of religious nonprofits, says the ECFA's Nelson. In fact, he notes, ECFA itself was founded in the late 1970s by Christian leaders looking to safeguard donors from a burgeoning number of otherwise unregulated fundraising ministries, particularly those of televangelists. (Food for the Poor joined the ECFA in 1998.)

"The public is not only very generous but also very forgiving," he says. "You go back to the celebrated PTL case. In some ways PTL was the mother of all scandals. The organization went under. And yet today Jim Bakker is receiving a pretty good reaction because he's come forward and said he's wrong."


The recent troubles of FFP have already been discussed in local newspapers, both religious and secular; in trade publications covering nonprofits; and finally in national religious magazines like the Catholic publication America.

On January 29, Ferdy's foibles hit the mainstream, when FFP was mentioned on Talk of the Nation, a National Public Radio current-affairs show. The topic was President George W. Bush's new office for faith-based community initiatives. A caller mentioned Food for the Poor as an example of the danger in relying on faith-based organizations to manage the nation's social services needs.

Ferdy's problems may have been an isolated incident, the manifestation of one man's personal demons. It's a perspective widely held among people close to the organization. However, in the national debate over faith-based organizations, FFP's problems raise red flags. While the niche market of religious nonprofit sponsors is not easily swayed from supporting organizations, the general public may be less forgiving.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has not rushed to judgment on FFP or its founder.

"The Church believes in redemption," Wenski explains. To his knowledge FFP was never in any danger of losing its listing in the Catholic directory, which would have effectively severed the organization's official ties to the Church. "I don't think there was anything that warranted it," he says. This is in large part, he notes, due to FFP's swift and thorough response to the problems identified by ECFA.

For FFP the continued listing is a good thing, too, because affiliation with the Catholic Church provides a significant, if indirect, source of donor income. "It gives FFP access to its donor base," Wenski explains. "Most of its solicitation is done through pulpit appeals. They get access to a pulpit at a sermon and pass out their literature, although they don't take up a collection."

Whether or not last fall's revelations pose a long-term threat to donor confidence remains to be seen. The FBI investigation remains a potentially embarrassing loose end, but the charity's problems in civil court seem to be fading. The Robert Taylor lawsuit has been dismissed. In the October Sun-Sentinel article about the scandal, Ariel Raab, a Fort Lauderdale attorney, said she was representing one of the women in a lawsuit to be filed that week. No such suit was ever filed; Raab did not return repeated calls to her office for comment. Whatever negative connotations the Atkerson trial may have could be blunted if Ferdy stays away; FFP has made a number of institutional changes designed to preclude similar scandals.

But some suspect Ferdy can't, or won't, stay away long. Taylor and Russ Russell also raised the possibility, in their memoranda about the "secret meeting" Ferdy held during his suspension, that he never truly left the charity and continues to run it in exile. In any case Ferdy's alienation from the organization he built is doubtless painful for him, and this is perhaps one reason why it seems no one -- not Nelson and ECFA, the Catholic Church, or FFP volunteers -- wants to bar him from returning.

In their opinion Ferdinand Mahfood and the charity he founded have suffered enough.

"If [FFP] craters," Nelson wonders aloud, "who ultimately is going to be hurt but the very people the organization was formed to help?"

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