The donors and volunteers were moved by the images and stories of need.
In one photo, 9-year-old Aya, who fled war-torn Syria for a tent in Lebanon, wears a pink Minnie Mouse T-shirt as she stands along a dirt road, mounds of garbage behind her. What she would like more than anything would be to own a doll, states the synopsis on the website.
In another photo, 8-year-old Yasser is barefoot, his hands clasped behind him, standing on a patch of dirt next to plywood and other debris. He and his four brothers haven't attended school since they left Syria with their mother to avoid induction into the armies waging war, the website informs. They need food, hygiene kits and a new tent away from the main road, the synopsis continues.
These stories, and hundreds of others depicted on Boulder-based Humanwire's website, made the nonprofit an internet success in the past two years, helping it raise nearly $1 million in aid to help displaced persons. It offers itself up as a one-to-one connection between donors and refugees, promising to remove "the charity from the middle" and connects donors directly with those needing help. "Follow the progress of your donation into the very hands of the person you can connect with," the Humanwire website promises.
But as Humanwire has grown rapidly, so have concerns from donors and volunteers who say they now feel misled by its promises, still prominently displayed on the website, that pledges would go directly to needy refugees with "0 percent" going to operating costs. Those concerns grew more pronounced this past summer as more than 100 Syrian refugees Humanwire moved from camps into apartments in Turkey and Greece faced evictions and other deprivations due to delays in promised aid, say former Humanwire volunteers, workers and donors.
While the refugees waited for help, the nonprofit struggled with ballooning operating costs, organizational chaos, questionable financial practices and resignations of key personnel, according to a review by The Denver Post of internal e-mail communications and bank records, and interviews with seven people familiar with its operations. The nonprofit could go bust by this spring if sufficient operating money doesn't come in, said Andrew Baron, the web entrepreneur who co-founded Humanwire.
Among those put in harm's way: a pregnant, illiterate Syrian refugee mother of three needing legal aid and airfare from Greece to reunite with her husband in Germany, where she hoped to be when she gave birth, according to a donor and volunteers familiar with the case.
About $1,200 of the $5,000 Jenny Otto of Boulder donated to and raised for Humanwire to help that family was never delivered, Otto said. In the end, Otto and a former Humanwire volunteer had to make other arrangements to pay for the family's rent, airfare to Germany and legal costs for filing emergency reunification paperwork, Otto said. And the refugee family, already struggling to survive in a foreign country, went into debt, she said.
"If this was a real estate deal gone wrong or a Mary Kay pyramid scheme, it's bad," Otto said. "I can deal with that, but to potentially hurt human beings is where I really get mad. You don't play with the life of another human being, especially when this is your business."
Records show withdrawals
Amid the alleged delays in promised aid, bank records show a steady stream of withdrawals from Humanwire's accounts by Baron. In interviews with The Post, he estimated he has taken as much as $80,000 from the nonprofit in the past two years to help him deal with his own financial stresses. He denied that those withdrawals jeopardized the family Otto was supporting. He said he believes Humanwire paid for the family's legal expenses and airfare, but he has no documentation, while Otto provided emails showing she gave him invoices that he rejected as invalid.
In August, he put up new caveats on the Humanwire website. The new terms, harder to find on Humanwire's website than the more prominent promises that pledges for refugees won't go to overhead, now state Humanwire reserves the right to use 100 percent of donations for operating costs, if necessary. He said the terms codify long-standing practice.
Baron acknowledged he spent aid that donors targeted for specific refugees on other needs at Humanwire. Redirecting the money caused shortfalls for refugee families this past summer when fundraising lagged and operating costs ballooned, he said. But the criticism is overblown, he added, and many of Humanwire's problems are part of the logistical hurdles a nonprofit faces when trying to care for refugees overseas.
"The No. 1 mistake we made was we mushroomed expenses without being aware enough with what we were depending on," Baron said.
"We're a startup, and we're still learning," he said, arguing it's not fair to compare Humanwire's practices to those of larger, established charities.
He is trying to find grants for the nonprofit's unwieldy operating costs, Baron said. The new expenses this year included a tent-to-home program for Syrian refugees in Greece, food initiatives, new staffing, a school for refugees in Lebanon, a center that provides housing and food for LGBT Syrian refugees in Turkey and an expansion to help refugees in Iraq, Jordan and China.
“The problem we got into is simply a delay," Baron said. "I wasn't thinking Ponzi schemes or things like this, but I was thinking like, ‘I see a risk here.' I saw that risk of, like, what would happen if one day we did plummet. How would I pay for all this stuff?"
The costs at the nonprofit included a steady stream of withdrawals from its coffers to help pay Baron's living expenses, according to bank statements a former volunteer provided to The Post, which Baron confirmed.
Baron said he is not sure how much he has taken. He at first estimated that in the past two years he has withdrawn from Humanwire more than $80,000 to support himself, his wife and his 4-year-old son. He later said he thinks he took less and that he's still trying to calculate a specific amount as he prepares the nonprofit's tax filing. He needed money for his living expenses because money he received from an inheritance and past business initiatives has dwindled, he said.
The withdrawals from the nonprofit's bank account were a form of salary for the sweat equity he has put into the nonprofit and also reimbursement for $50,000 to $70,000 of his own money he put up to help launch Humanwire, Baron said. "I need to scrape by," he added. "I haven't had any money for so long, so this shouldn't be a problem. I take a little bit, and I'll figure it out later.”
Humanwire has not followed best nonprofit practices, said Rick Cohen, spokesman for the National Council of Nonprofits, an advocacy organization with more than 25,000 charities as members. Cohen said salaries should be set by an independent board of directors and not something the founder puts into effect on his own. Nonprofits also should be transparent about operating costs and how they are funded, and should not intermingle private accounts with a nonprofit's bank account, he said.
Baron at first used one of his old business accounts to accept Humanwire's donations. That caused issues when New York state sought to garnish the account due to an old $30,000 fine over an unemployment insurance dispute at the defunct business. All donations now go into a Humanwire bank account, he said.
A web entrepreneur
Baron had some renown as a web entrepreneur. In 2004, he founded Rocketboom, an online daily video news program based in New York city, and then later Know Your Meme, which documents and deconstructs internet memes. Money from those businesses has dried up, Baron said, in part because he engaged in day trading of stocks and lost big, he said.
Visits to his wife's homeland of Lebanon and the plight of refugees there moved Baron to launch Humanwire two years ago, he said. He started accepting applications from refugees who had fled Syria and launched the Humanwire website to bring attention to their suffering.
As an entrepreneur, Baron had big plans for Humanwire, recalled Gordon Clark of Denver, who gave the nonprofit $45,000 to help refugees. Baron told him in meetings that he planned to build Humanwire into a billion-dollar enterprise, one that would be a fundraising juggernaut, Clark said. Baron also wanted to sell software he developed for Humanwire to nonprofits and private companies, Clark said. Baron had wildly inflated expectations on the amount of donations Humanwire would generate, he said.
"There was initially a schematic in mind for creating a model that was for-profit, and we spent a lot of time trying to disabuse him of this," Clark said, adding he thinks Baron should hand Humanwire's operations over to someone with nonprofit experience.
Baron said he still hopes to market the software. He also plans to have Humanwire's board of directors, which he chairs and includes only one other person, co-founder Mona Ayoub, approve an annual, set salary for him. He said he should not have commingled pledges for families with separate donations for operating costs. He plans in the future to establish separate accounts for those purposes.
"We've generated $1 million in (to Humanwire), which I'm pretty proud about," Baron said. "That's pretty significant, almost all in micro-donations. I either need to figure out how to break through to get to the next level or find the right people to help. I don't know how to get it to be a $10 million company, for example."
Records and interviews detail chaos hit Humanwire hard this summer.
"During the recent issues regarding the distribution of campaign funds, refugees have been lining up at the office, calling and messaging us at all hours, threatening and begging us," Owen Harris, the former director of the Istanbul office of Humanwire, wrote in an email he sent to Baron in August. The email was provided to The Post by a former Humanwire volunteer.
Harris recently resigned from the nonprofit. In his email, he added that "donors also are contacting us at all hours, including via our personal social media accounts." He added that the donors want to know "why the distributions are not being made and the beneficiaries of their donations are suffering."
About 50 refugees in Turkey convened a meeting this past summer and confronted Baron over the phone at 2 a.m., accusing him of using their images to solicit money that hadn't been delivered, Baron said. He blamed the delays on organizational disarray that he said has since been corrected.
Harris declined comment for this article. Other volunteers and donors similarly complained in interviews that they are struggling to keep Syrian refugees from being evicted from Humanwire housing.
"They have nothing," said Kayra Martinez, a volunteer who worked with Humanwire to help relocate Syrians from refugee camps in Greece. "They have PTSD. A lot of them have never been treated for any sort of trauma or anything they've been through. For them to have to go through this now is pretty severe."
Family facing eviction
Those jeopardized by Humanwire delays include Hosam and Manar Alrahmoun and their two daughters, ages 10 and 8, according to volunteers. In May, the family celebrated Humanwire moving them into an apartment in Greece, a welcome relief from the refugee camps they had been living in, one with conditions so dire that the mother, Manar, had resorted to sucking on the ears and faces of her children to keep them clean. They found the new apartment so blessed, it was "like a wedding feeling," Hosam said, a place where their children liked sitting in the bathtub.
Facing eviction from the apartment due to a lack of support from Humanwire, the Alrahmouns now probably will have to relocate to a more cramped apartment provided by United Nations relief workers - one they will have to share with another family, according to former Humanwire volunteers. For now, those volunteers say they are using their own money to keep the Alrahmouns afloat.
The volunteers say they've moved 47 refugees in Greece out of Humanwire housing and into units provided by United Nations relief operations and started relying on other nonprofits.
About $40,000 donated to Humanwire to help 149 refugees in Greece was missing from the $157,225 that had been raised for them, according to an August spreadsheet a volunteer prepared. Another accounting for that same month of Humanwire's operations in Turkey found $45,278 the nonprofit raised to help refugees in that country had not been delivered, along with $13,286 in unpaid salaries and miscellaneous expenses.
Baron said that while Humanwire may have delayed assistance over the summer, those delays were manageable and not as severe as the records indicate. He characterizes the issues as one of timing delays as he waited for fundraising to pick back up. He said a recent donation of $20,000 to help defray operating costs is helping matters. He disputed the volunteers' accounts that one wealthy benefactor had put up sufficient money to take care of the Alrahmouns' recent needs.
Baron recently announced organizational changes to help Humanwire regain its footing. Ayoub, the co-founder and director of the nonprofit's Lebanon office, is now in Denver to help with Humanwire's finances and accounting.
Baron said in a July email to a volunteer that current monthly bills at Humanwire had ballooned by that time to $20,000 per month - an amount nearly equal to what the nonprofit took in donations in all of July. In an interview, Baron said those costs helped explain why he dipped into the funds donors pledged for families.
"If we got money in, it doesn't seem like we should just let it sit there and wait," he said. For example, if money donated for rent for one family is supposed to be paid on a monthly basis for the next six months, that unspent money should be available as other pressing needs arise, he said.
Anna Segur, who helped Humanwire launch the tent-to-home program in Greece, quit in July over concerns pledges weren't going to the families. In February, Humanwire "began to experience problems of availability of funding despite the fact that all of the families had their campaigns fully funded," she said. In June, the nonprofit began to miss nearly every scheduled payment for the refugees in Greece, Segur said. The organization began to make do by using new donations to pay out past obligations for families that already should have been fully funded from earlier donations, Segur added.
Segur and Martinez said they repeatedly have asked Baron to remove from the Humanwire website photos and stories of refugees whose cases had been transferred to other nonprofits or who no longer needed assistance. Instead, Baron continued soliciting aid for those refugees, she said.
Baron said he maintains those campaigns because he believes Humanwire still has an obligation to help those families. He said he has slashed the nonprofit's operating expenses by more than 60 percent. He cut aid for a center in Turkey that houses and feeds LGBT refugees from Syria, which he claims lacked sufficient donor support. He said he redirected pledges for the center to pay the salaries of several Humanwire employees because he believes they should be reimbursed for time they spent launching the center.
The dispute over the LGBT center is a sore spot for one donor, Justin Hilton, who said he raised $20,000 for Humanwire to finance that center. Hilton said at least $6,000 of that money remains unaccounted for by Humanwire, as well as additional amounts he raised for Humanwire to give to refugee families in Greece and Turkey. Hilton said he grew so concerned that he flew to Istanbul to check on Humanwire's operations. Finding chaos during his visit there, Hilton said he has taken to bankrolling on his own the LGBT center and families he thought Humanwire was supporting.
"It's quite disappointing for donors like me who were inspired 100 percent to help these refugees," said Hilton, who lives in San Francisco. "Then you find out the refugees aren't getting the funds or are having trouble finding a place to live or getting food to eat."
Hilton said he confronted Baron twice in telephone calls. Baron told him during those conversations that he used some of Hilton's donations to pay other expenses and that he planned to eventually reimburse the organization, he said.
"Every conversation he has had with me, he admitted he took the funds," Hilton said. "I said, ‘What were you thinking, that you thought it was OK to take refugees' money for anything other than paying them rent and feeding them?'"