Is Operation Underground Railroad Legit?
Some criticisms worth considering
Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) has been around for nearly a decade, but World Human Trafficking Awareness Day 2020 brought the level of attention to the organization to an out-sized level. For my part, I couldn’t find a source that succinctly explored criticisms of the organization, so I decided to write this up.
If anything I’ve written here is incorrect, overblown, or misleading, I will happily update accordingly. My intention is only to point to the red flags as I see them.
According to their promotional materials, Operation Underground Railroad is a nonprofit that goes “into the darkest corners of the world to help local law enforcement liberate enslaved children and dismantle the criminal networks.”
On the surface, it’s a worthwhile cause. Sex trafficking is a widespread issue that deserves attention, and dismantling criminal networks can be noble work to the extent it’s part of broader, long-term initiatives.
And yet before donating to the Operation Underground Railroad, there are a few questions worth asking about the organization, particularly around finances.
To set the scene: In their 2017 financial records, Tim Ballard, founder of Operational Underground Railroad, was listed as CEO of his nonprofit and compensated $199,336. In 2018, he was listed as a former employee (founder) and compensated $343,022. In 2019, he was again listed as a former employee (founder) and compensated $106,354 (for what looks like a few month’s worth of work).
While this level of compensation is not unheard of in nonprofits of this size, it’s important to note that Ballard’s full compensation extends well beyond Operational Underground Railroad. Ballard is also the CEO of the Nazarene Fund, an LLC that had income of $3.7 million in 2019 and is listed as a related organization in the O.U.R. financials. Ballard’s compensation details for the Nazarene Fund aren’t public, but it’s likely he gets compensated at CEO levels for his work there as well (an additional $300,000+, if it matches his O.U.R. compensation).
In addition, Ballard gets compensated from speaking engagements about O.U.R., his documentaries about O.U.R., and an upcoming feature film about O.U.R. where he’s the main hero, played by the guy who was Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. And that doesn’t even take into account O.U.R.’s $1.6 million in travel expenses in 2019, which covered his travel costs.
Put simply, Ballard is making bank. Now, in a world where Jeff Bezos is on track to become a trillionaire by 2026, Ballard’s compensation is not the world’s most pressing problem. But it is something that people who donate to O.U.R. should be aware of. They should know that Ballard has benefitted tremendously at a financial level from this nonprofit work.
For some, this may be a non-issue, or perhaps even a sign Ballard’s organization is worth donating to even more. (If so, go for it!) For others, it might be a signal to find another worthwhile nonprofit to give to.
But there are still other important questions on this topic that remain unanswered.
Namely, in a video where Ballard responds to controversial questions posed to O.U.R., he says that he has been a volunteer at the organization since April 2019. Then he says that in 2018, he bought a big dog, a security system, and a fence around his house to protect his family, and his attorney’s told him that in order to properly compensate him they’d have to expense those costs as salary, which is why, he says, he received $343,022 in salary in 2018. He adds that he doesn’t get any health benefits or other benefits that other employees get from O.U.R.
What goes unsaid in all of this — and this is critical—is whether Ballard gets any other form of compensation from O.U.R. You see, the financials also show that Operational Underground Railroad spent $2.4 million in 2019 alone on contract work from White Mountain Research, whose CEO is the COO of the Nazarene Fund (the same LLC where Tim Ballard, again, is CEO). The financials also show operational support from an organization named Deacon, “a for-profit corporation that employs independent contractors to perform security and tactical operations.”
The questions Ballard should answer are around total compensation and from which sources. If he’s getting compensation from White Mountain Research or the Nazarene Fund or Deacon for O.U.R. contract work, things get really messy really fast.
In addition, the tax documents show that “multiple officers and directors have a family relationship. Todd Reynolds (director) is Tim Ballard’s brother in law. Julianne Blake (director) is Tim Ballard’s sister. Tevya Ware (CFO) is Tim Ballard’s sister in law. Mark Reynolds (secretary) is Todd Reynolds’ brother.”
It all gets a bit murky, with so much money and organizational sway tied back to Ballard’s friends and family, who dominate the leadership at O.U.R.
Profiting From Fear
It’s also worth considering how O.U.R. motivates people to donate via fear. Given that the first calls to donate to the organization at its founding in 2013 came via Glenn Beck, a man with a vast history of fear mongering, this isn’t surprising. For years, Beck played up fears about impending doom to get people to invest in Goldline, which later had to refund $4.5 million to the customers they defrauded.
Fear mongering, or the practice of exaggerating fears to make the problem seem impending in order to manipulate action, is key to O.U.R.’s fundraising. Many of their marketing materials give the impression that sex trafficking is generally the result of an abduction by strangers, when in reality that happens in less than one percent of abduction cases.
There’s more to dig into here, such as how much financial help survivors are receiving from donations to O.U.R., but here are some remaining questions:
Additional Questions to Consider
- Why has Tim Ballard been so vocal about his support for Donald Trump when prosecutions for sex trafficking have fallen considerably under Trump? Ballard says the Trump administration “has done more than any other administration has ever done,” but that’s flatly not true. In reality, federal prosecutions are down by a lot… and yet Ballard applauds Trump on this front as well as for wanting to build a wall between the US and Mexico (which carries serious downsides for those trafficked).
- Why does O.U.R. make Tony Robbins such a big part of their marketing efforts, when he has a long history of verbal and sexual abuse? This seems incongruous with the organization’s ethos.
- Why does O.U.R. spend so much money ($4.4 million in 2019) “assisting law enforcement,” when orphanages supporting rescued O.U.R. kids are vastly underfunded? What efforts are being taken to make sure that law enforcement isn’t part of the problem of sexual assault, as often seems to be the case?
So… is Operation Underground Railroad legit?
In the sense that they operate stings to catch human traffickers, Operational Underground Railroad indeed seems legitimate. I don’t see a reason to disbelieve that they help arrest real traffickers and get real victims out of horrible situations. To that extent, the organization seems to be doing legitimate good in the world.
However, it’s worth asking whether it’s noble to do something right—and helping sex trafficked kids is absolutely right—if it’s done the wrong way. In other words, is it right to donate money when so much of the effort is about Tim Ballard’s ego and total compensation? When it comes to human trafficking, is it truly good to focus so much on theatrics and revenue for the founder?
For more, check out a Fox13 report that O.U.R. is under criminal investigation as well as a video series investigating O.U.R.