This story was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom based in New York.
It was the breakthrough moment for More Than Me. On Dec. 7, 2012, Katie Meyler’s tiny New Jersey-based charity defeated 24 other nonprofits to win $1 million at the Chase American Giving Awards, a weeklong competition for Facebook votes that culminated in a star-studded, nationally televised event.
Most of the competing nonprofits dwarfed MTM in experience, exposure and cashflow. Some had annual revenue over $3 million; Meyler’s charity had $300,000. The previous year’s winner had over a million Facebook followers. Even now, after years of accolades, MTM has only 30,000.
But More Than Me’s mission — educating girls in Liberia and saving them from sexual exploitation— had seemingly resonated with the voting public. That night, Meyler told the audience about a 12-year-old girl named Abigail, who she said was a child prostitute who dreamed of going to school. Meyler said a grassroots movement of passionate supporters had made it happen:
“Thousands of you wrote I Am Abigail on your face, on your arms, even on your pets,” Meyler said. “You pushed your dad to email his network, and he smiled as he did. You stood in front of hundreds of people in lecture halls, and you spoke for Abigail; you were shaking, but that did not stop you…”
The victory propelled Meyler and her charity to a new level of funding and prominence, and enabled her to launch an all-girl school in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia.
This October, ProPublica published an investigation, in collaboration with TIME, revealing how MTM had missed opportunities to prevent prominent employee Macintosh Johnson from raping girls in the charity’s care. After the story, the charity issued an apology and Meyler stepped down pending the outcome of investigations by the Liberian government, the charity’s board of directors and its Liberian advisory board. Protestors marched in Monrovia, board members resigned and a major donor suspended funds, citing the organization’s lack of honesty.
Few questions were ever asked about how the charity won the money that triggered its rise.
ProPublica interviewed more than a dozen people about the million-dollar win, reviewed private emails and other documents and found that More Than Me relied on more than just grassroots support. Its victory was achieved with the help of a newly minted Silicon Valley CEO, payments to a social media marketer in Pakistan and a broken promise to a philanthropist with some very famous friends.
More Than Me says it did not cheat. It did not make Meyler available for an interview for this story and she did not respond to questions, but a charity spokesperson offered answers on her behalf.
“She is proud of both the support More Than Me received during the competition, and that MTM was awarded the grant within the boundaries of the rules and parameters of the competition,” the spokesperson said.
Yet in early 2013, at a guest house with friends in Liberia only months after she told the audience of the movement to help Abigail, people present say Meyler explained MTM’s victory differently. In an email, Steve and Jen Butwill, Christian missionaries who were both present, told ProPublica they recall how Meyler began the story:
“It was something along the lines of like, ‘You know how we won the million dollars, right? We cheated.’”
In 2009, one year into a financial crisis that left America reeling, JPMorgan Chase announced some good news. Though it already donated $150 million to $200 million every year, it would crowdsource a portion of its charitable giving and allow the public to decide who got the money.
The bank, which was embroiled in high-profile lawsuits over its conduct in the years leading up to the meltdown, launched a charity voting program called “Community Giving.” Anyone with a Facebook account could vote, and the charities that attracted the most votes would receive the largest grants. By 2011, the bank had taken the online philanthropy to NBC, launching a separate, televised “American Giving Awards” with a $1 million top prize. Twenty-five selected charities in five categories competed during the weeks leading up to the ceremony. The contest earned it millions of Facebook followers and prime-time publicity. Critics called it “greed-washing.” The President of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation said the bank was “celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things in communities.”
By 2012, when MTM was selected to compete, Chase had given away over $20 million to some 500 American charities.
Traditional foundations have standard procedures for reviewing potential grant recipients and assessing their track records. Some limit eligibility for large grants to those whose budget has reached a certain level — an achievement that suggests they can manage and use the money prudently. But success in the American Giving Awards required only online votes, which was largely dependent on an applicant’s ability to tell a heart-wrenching story and offer a compelling solution.
California nonprofit Invisible Children was the first to master this approach, winning $1 million from a Chase contest in 2010. Then, in 2012, its video attempting to “Make Joseph Kony Famous” went viral and increased global attention to the brutal acts of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. The campaign attracted criticism for spreading inaccuracies and perpetuating “white savior” stereotypes about Africa. Founder Jason Russell, who directed and starred in the video, had a public breakdown, and his charity soon closed its U.S. operation.
Later that year, for the Chase campaign, Meyler starred in MTM’s own visceral video, about girls “forced by poverty to open their legs to men so that they can make just $1, so that they can buy a glass of water.” Meyler explained she was going to save such girls by opening a boarding school in Liberia. The school, which would take 1,000 students, would be self-sustaining within 5 years, she said, because MTM would also run social enterprises including a guesthouse.
Since MTM had started working in Liberia in 2010, Meyler had spent an average of two months there each year. According to IRS filings, the charity had “two agents in Liberia, that continually monitor the scholarship recipients to ensure they are attending school.” The charity’s first two employees in Liberia were male. In time, both would be reported to police for alleged sexual abuse. The boarding school would never materialize, and the social enterprises would never take off. The winnings would fund a day school for 150 girls, initially run by American volunteers.
Chase offered small charities like MTM an unprecedented chance at winning game-changing funds. But growing an online community is hard. This is perhaps why, every year the Chase contests operated, they were dogged with accusations of cheating.
Chase did not respond to questions for this story. These questions were directed via email to a JPMorgan Chase media relations executive who was the bank’s media contact for the American Giving Awards in 2012, and via phone and email to the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. The questions included a request to provide more detail about its contest rules, its monitoring of fraud and the metrics for MTM’s votes.
In 2010, it was reported that the leaderboard identifying voters appeared to show that The Isha Foundation, a U.S.-registered nonprofit founded by Indian yogi and mystic Sadhguru to promote global harmony, had attracted support from newly created Facebook profiles with unintelligible names. Competitors accused it of fraud. The charity’s supporters denied the charges, and the charity placed second. Chase offered no public response. The Isha Foundation did not answer ProPublica’s questions for this story.
In 2011, bloggers reported more claims of vote buying, and that some charities appeared to have had thousands of votes removed from the leaderboard. But then, there were counterclaims that those making the accusations had, in fact, paid for competitors’ votes in an attempt to get them disqualified. The charities in question remained in the running.
Alex Aliksanyan, founder of the DogsInDanger.com charity, told ProPublica that in 2012, he watched the Egypt Cancer Network gain tens of thousands of votes within hours, from accounts he suspects were specious as they displayed no activity outside of voting. His charity issued a statement and made a complaint to Chase, but received no response. The Egypt Cancer Network, a U.S.-registered nonprofit that fundraises for cancer hospitals in Egypt, won $250,000. It did not answer ProPublica’s questions for this story. A Chase spokesperson said at the time that the bank “actively monitors voting for improprieties with technology and a third-party organization.”
In doing so, the bank faced a serious challenge. There’s a vast online trade in which likes, follows and votes can be arranged through shadowy brokers paid to boost a client’s digital popularity. Some use marketing techniques that target people most likely to be receptive. Others use what are known as “exchanges,” where likes, shares and votes can be earned by “exchanging” the same with others, or by paying the site to do it on your behalf. At the most extreme end, often in countries where labor is cheap, so-called click-farms can be hired to deliver online votes. Sometimes fake accounts are set up. For a premium, the accounts can be made to look real. This makes fraud almost impossible to detect.
In November 2012, Chase was running the American Giving Awards with no leaderboard or voter information made public. Participants had no way to see how many votes charities were gaining or who was voting. To try to estimate their standing, contestants scrutinized the number of likes their charity profile received on Chase’s Facebook page. Competition rules said: “Charity may not entice voters by offering any type of consideration, gift, or award, including merchandise, cash or anything deemed to have monetary value.” Chase could also disqualify charities that, in its judgment, acted “in an unsportsmanlike or inappropriate manner.”
The 2012 contest would be the last. Chase would discontinue it.
The day voting began, Meyler told a New Jersey news website, “I’ll do anything to win.”
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In 2012, Meyler was in a relationship with Josh Tetrick, another charismatic young American with a tough backstory and big ideas to improve the world. He was a law graduate changing the future of food. “Selflessness can be profitable” was his mantra.
With no background in food technology, Tetrick persuaded investors that he was going to make eggs obsolete with a vegan replacement. They gave him $2 million of seed funding. In the years to come, he would be widely feted as he built a food-tech startup valued at over a billion dollars.
However, like Meyler, Tetrick would face problems when journalists looked more closely at the stories he told. His company, Hampton Creek, was accused of flimsy science and exaggeration, changing employee contracts without their knowledge, and inflating his company’s sales figures by buying its own product. Tetrick denied many of the claims, and said the buybacks were primarily to ensure quality control. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice closed investigations without taking further action. Hampton Creek’s entire board resigned in 2017, and the company rebranded as JUST.
Meyler would say Tetrick played an important role in an MTM origin story she has told countless times. When she initially doubted that she could start her own charity, it was Tetrick, then just a friend, who had told her this was about more than her.
Despite an article profiling them as an engaged couple that year — in which Meyler was quoted about their upcoming wedding — a spokesperson for Tetrick said he and Meyler were never engaged.
However, a few months later, Tetrick was very involved in helping MTM win $1 million.
“I remember it being a big push,” said Megan Fisklements, an early employee of Hampton Creek. “Josh took days of his time to focus on her campaign. I remember there being lots of hustle and bustle.”
Tetrick declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokesperson for JUST told ProPublica Tetrick helped Meyler in his personal capacity.
Javier Colon, Hampton Creek’s operations manager at the time, said he remembered Tetrick telling him that payments should be made to a man in Pakistan. Colon, who departed Hampton Creek in 2013, told ProPublica he wanted to go on the record. “I’m not afraid of anything. What I’m saying is all true.”
“It was all a secret,” Colon told ProPublica. “He didn’t want me talking about this guy, he didn’t want me mentioning this guy, he didn’t want anyone to know he had this guy in Pakistan, and that was very clear. He just wanted me to pay him, no questions.”
The man was Muhammad Ramzan, a social media and internet marketing consultant based in Pakistan. He advertises his services on a website for freelancers, where testimonials show many happy customers for fixed fee assignments with titles such as “10,000 Facebook fans,” “500 likes,” and “contest entries.” A testimonial reads: “Still a mystery to me how he does it, and however it is, it’s great stuff!” His advertised hourly rate is $11 per hour.
One client stands out among the life coaches, fortune tellers and cosmetic dentists. In a little-viewed video posted to Ramzan’s YouTube account in January 2013, Meyler calls him a godsend. “He was able to help us win a contest for $1 million,” she says. “And we had no chance of winning that without him.”
Colon told ProPublica he didn’t know exactly what Ramzan was being paid to do, but he saw things he perceived as odd happening in the Hampton Creek office during MTM’s campaign. He said he remembered cute animal photos being turned into memes and foreign language comments having to be deleted from the Facebook accounts of both Hampton Creek and MTM.
“They were laughing about how easy it was to get likes,” he said of Meyler and Tetrick.
A spokesperson for JUST said that Tetrick located Ramzan for Meyler on Elance.com, and that they “cannot speak to the motivation, recollections or defamatory claims of someone who was terminated from his employment for cause.” Colon provided a letter signed by Tetrick, informing him his employment was being “ended due to redundancy.”
Earlier this year, when asked what exactly Ramzan did in support of the campaign, Meyler told ProPublica, “it was some kind of website that he was able to post onto… and then we would put a really cute photo up there. Sometimes, it would be of a girl and sometimes it would be of an animal. And it would say, ‘Vote to help a girl go to school.’”
A spokesperson for JUST said “Ramzan knew the administrator of a Facebook page (or pages) that had high engagement and millions of fans. The administrator posted compelling images and the copy associated with those images was provided by Ramzan on behalf of the charity. That copy included a link about the importance of the charity’s work and took them to a page to choose whether to vote for the charity.”
Via WhatsApp, Ramzan told ProPublica, “I just helped them to know how they can show their message to more people. This is what I do.” He specified that he “built a list of good traffic pages and blogs and then we sent a message to blog owners and page owners to help us get our message to their fan base.” He said that while he couldn’t remember specific names, the pages were based in America.
Contradicting the memories of both Colon and Meyler, Ramzan said pictures of animals were not involved. “There was a pain in their message that’s why people voted. Girls were suffering from rapes for just one glass of water. I do not believe in fake things.”
Bob Byrne runs one of the Facebook pages that Ramzan includes in an online portfolio of his former clients. A screenshot of his page on Ramzan’s profile includes a large superimposed arrow pointing to the number of “likes.” Contacted by ProPublica, Byrne remembered buying 1,000 likes for around $50. “You allow a certain account to become an administrator on your page. Within seconds, accounts are being invited to like your page.” He said the “scam” is that these were fake profiles with pictures of beautiful women. “Those fake accounts then invite real losers to like the page.” It was even possible to select the nationality of his new fans — “I said, ‘I want them all to be from America.’” He recalled his likes going “through the roof,” but the success was short lived. Within three months, most of the profiles, and their “likes,” had disappeared.
He said he couldn’t remember Ramzan specifically because all communication was through the interface of the now-defunct website Elance.com, but that he only ever paid for Facebook likes once.
It was Ramzan’s services that Meyler told friends about at a guest house in Liberia in February 2013, they said. Three people present remembered Meyler saying that Tetrick had come up with the idea and handled it; they all recalled she said they’d broken competition rules. “She definitely used the word ‘cheated,’” said Jen Butwill, an early MTM supporter who runs a rural health clinic in Liberia with her husband Steve. “We both were surprised that she was sharing this information with us.” Her husband confirmed the recollection.
A More Than Me spokesperson denied wrongdoing and said Meyler did not remember the conversation.
A spokesperson for JUST said “We cannot speak to what sources recall from a conversation that took place elsewhere in the world. The campaign was successful, and the votes were legitimate.”
MTM declined to provide details or documentary evidence on the nature of Ramzan’s work, saying only, “Mr. Ramzan provided professional guidance to maximize social media opportunities within all boundaries and guidelines of the American Giving campaign.” Asked if the board approved the contracting of Ramzan, the spokesperson said, “While the Board approved a marketing budget for the competition, it did not weigh in on the selection of individual vendors.”
According to MTM’s form 990 submitted to the IRS, the charity spent $8,434 on advertising and promotion expenses in 2012. The MTM spokesperson told ProPublica that the charity only paid Ramzan $4,687 in 2012, and $5,384 in total, but did not confirm whether these were the only payments on MTM’s behalf that Meyler was aware of.
However, via email earlier this year, and again when contacted before publication, Ramzan said he was paid a much higher figure — $23,000 for work promoting MTM, with around $17,000 of this specifically for work on the 2012 contest campaign. He said that he thinks he was paid in installments as he reached milestones, and that the payments came from the charity — he had “re-confirmed” with them.
The MTM spokesperson said the charity was not aware of any payments made by Hampton Creek on its behalf. But Colon, responsible for Hampton Creek’s bookkeeping at the time, told ProPublica Hampton Creek funds were used to pay at least $15,000 to Ramzan for work on MTM’s campaign.
“This was totally just for Katie,” Colon said. He said the money was paid to Ramzan in installments — “Josh didn’t want to get screwed.”
Ramzan also told ProPublica: “I was not hired for [Katie’s] organization… I was working with Josh at the time when this event pops up.” In a testimonial video Ramzan posted on Feb. 1, 2013, in which Meyler also appears, Tetrick described himself and Meyler coming to Ramzan “about a campaign for our company and Katie’s organization.” He describes Ramzan as “incredibly creative,” and one of three people “instrumental” to his company’s success in its first 11 months.
A spokesperson for JUST provided a letter from the company’s chief financial officer stating the company had done a full audit and found no payments were made to Ramzan via Elance in 2012. Asked if Tetrick could confirm that no payments were made that year to Ramzan, by Hampton Creek or by him, using Hampton Creek or his personal funds, for the purposes of MTM’s campaign, a spokesperson for JUST responded: “No company funds were paid to Ramzan that year. The charity paid for his marketing services during the campaign.”
The spokesperson said that “beginning in 2013, the company paid for his marketing services” and that the services “pertained to company business.” The spokesperson supplied a document listing Hampton Creek Elance.com transactions to Ramzan in January and February of 2013, amounting to under $5000.
Ramzan told ProPublica that in any case, MTM’s victory involved more than his work.
“Katie and Josh are well-known people,” he wrote. “Their many friends help us as well.”
Tiffany Persons is a Hollywood casting director who in 2006 set up an educational organization called Shine On in Sierra Leone, a country neighboring Liberia. In November 2012, with the competition approaching, she was introduced to Meyler by her friend, MTM board member Chid Liberty. Persons told ProPublica that at the time, her charity was running a school for 450 children, had distributed 5,000 microloans and established four computer literacy centers. “That was why Chid wanted us to come together, so our experience could benefit them,” Persons said.
According to her, they discussed setting up a holistic program that would educate girls and help them to be self-sufficient. Meyler suggested they team up for the Chase campaign. If Persons would get her contacts in the entertainment industry to promote MTM’s campaign, then MTM would share a portion of the money with Shine On, to fund the program they discussed. Persons followed up with an email to Meyler and the MTM board. She arranged a call “to discuss working together in Liberia to create an unparalleled education/business model for girls!!”
In an email to Meyler the day after the call, Persons sought to confirm an agreement. “Though we are in the early stages, we should agree that if won, a portion of the funds should be dedicated to our project,” Persons wrote.
She asked Meyler to consult her board and let her know. “It’s not a decision you can or should make alone.”
Meyler replied later the same day with one line: “The board says of course.”
Persons told ProPublica that she proceeded on the basis that they had an agreement. She set about reaching out to her famous contacts, sometimes directly, sometimes through mutual friends. According to emails seen by ProPublica, she explained how Shine On and More Than Me were partnering for the competition, and how if they won, some of the money would go to Shine On. “I would never have done that for just Katie, or what she was doing,” Persons told ProPublica. “I didn’t know her well, or her character.”
More Than Me tweeted: “Huge thanks to @ShineOnSL for partnering w/US for girls’ education! Let’s WIN #GivingAwards for a brighter future. Voteabigail.org.
Rosario Dawson, one of Persons’ contacts, posted on Twitter: “Shine On and More Than Me join to extinguish child prostitution: PLEASE VOTE NOW.” On the final day of voting, More Than Me supporters posted an estimate that they were in 5th place.
MTM had tried to get celebrities on its own. Johnson would photograph the girls holding hand-painted signs addressed to each famous person, and Meyler would tweet at them, asking for votes. The strategy had only moderate success. Serena Williams netted 32 likes. Anthony Bourdain, 1,300 likes.
Then, that last day, Persons wrote to Meyler: “Need one for Pinkett Smith right away!!”
An hour later, Johnson sent Meyler a picture of 15 girls holding a sign addressed to the actress: “Jada we need u. Fight for our chance to get to school!”
Meyler immediately forwarded it to Persons.
Just over an hour later, with less than 10 hours to go, Pinkett Smith posted the photo on Facebook with a message: “To all my Facebook Soldiers: We need 11,000 more votes so these young girls can go to school versus a brothel in Liberia.” She posted the link. Over 43,000 people liked the post.
Charities had no idea who had won until the televised event in California a few days later. Meyler invited Persons. During the event, as MTM was named top vote-getter among education charities, putting them into the running for the top prize, Meyler posted on Facebook: “Thank you Jada Pinkett Smith!! We just won in our category!! Holding on for the $1m!!!”
Some Hampton Creek employees watched the awards show in the startup’s office. Colon says it was when he saw Tetrick next to Meyler, jumping up and down and punching the air, that it dawned on him: “Nobody even knows what they did last week, so how did they get this many followers and this many likes? And I knew. You pay this Pakistani guy.”
As for Persons, a few days after the victory celebrations, she wrote an email to Meyler and her board scheduling an in-person meeting to finalize the details of their partnership. She signed off: “We did it!”
However, despite Meyler’s email to Persons saying she had board approval to share the money, MTM’s board members said they knew nothing about this. There would be no partnership.
An MTM spokesperson told ProPublica: “The two organizations generally discussed expanding education and orphan programs in Liberia, but there was never a formal proposal. The board never received a proposal nor approved an agreement to split the American Giving Awards grant with another organization.”
After the competition, Persons wrote of Meyler in an email to Liberty: “She literally used us to get what she wanted.
“And you and I know all too well, if the money is gotten by ill means, it is not the fortune it intends to be.”
Finlay Young is a Scottish freelance journalist, legal consultant and researcher. He lived and worked in Liberia from 2009 to 2012 after graduating from law school. He has returned to the country for extended periods each year since. Reach Young at firstname.lastname@example.org.