Greg Mortenson and our false ideals about social change

Greg Mortenson appears to have made some significant missteps. But further vilification doesn't help him or those who do similar work. Instead, we should look at what this case reveals about the state of fundraising, philanthropy, and the culture of “do gooder celebrity.”

Last week, "60 Minutes" aired a startling expose on the work of Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI) and author of two best-selling books, "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools." Drawing on research by journalist Jon Krakauer, a concerned CAI donor and one-time champion of Mr. Mortenson, as well as its own investigation, the "60 Minutes" piece revealed numerous discrepancies, not only in Mortenson’s blockbuster books and speeches, but also in the expenditures of CAI.

What followed should come as no surprise. In this culture of 24/7 news, swollen with schadenfreude, Mortenson appears on the brink of becoming another tragic figure – the most recent saint to fall from his pedestal of six-figure book contracts, sold-out speaking engagements, and CAI’s millions in annual donations.

Mortenson appears to have made some significant missteps along the way, and it is his fate to face them. But further vilifying Mortenson is neither fair to him nor the good work of CAI, nor is it helpful to those of us who do similar work. Instead, we should be looking at what this case elucidates about the current state of fundraising, philanthropy, and the fairly new culture of “do gooder celebrity” that people like Mortenson exemplify.

We often speak of the publicity onslaught that corrupts the souls and elicits embarrassing behavior from teenage stars, thrust into the spotlight without the capacity to handle the glare of Hollywood. There’s actually something strangely similar going on with some of today’s brightest stars of social change.

The pitfalls of 'do gooder' celebrity

The 2003 "Parade" cover story about Mortenson transformed him into a humanitarian sensation overnight. Among other huge endorsements, he accepted on behalf of CAI a much-discussed $100,000 donation from President Obama (from his Nobel Peace Prize award). The money flowed in fast and furious, along with the attention, and it appears that Mortenson didn’t actually have the tools – either pragmatically or ethically – to handle it all. The scale was too big; the speed was too fast.

The hallmarks of this new “do gooder celebrity” culture are many: the CNN Heroes awards, the highly-secretive MacArthur “Genius Award” Fellowship, the prestigious TED Prize or even giving a TED talk, book contracts, television appearances on Charlie Rose and Oprah, speaking opportunities that can net as much as an un-anointed nonprofit executive director makes in a year of exhausting, day-in-day-out work.

The spotlight brings great rewards and impossible expectations. With explosive success comes increased anticipation of even more success. What’s more, it also decreases supporters’ capacity to allow for failure.

As we have seen with Mortenson and CAI, the result is that too many social justice leaders are compelled to downplay their failures, at best, and fabricate successes, at worst. A slippery slope of fudging the numbers, exaggerating the effects, and plumping up the successes leads to a mutually complicit culture of deception – all in the name of feel-good philanthropy.

Pressure to 'sell' success to funders

This sort of pressure is not just put on the darlings of the social justice sector, but on almost all nonprofit leaders who are forced to “sell” their success to discerning funders. It creates a vicious cycle, one Mortenson laments or even foreshadows in "Stones into Schools," saying “…the duties of speaking, promoting, and fund-raising into which I have been thrust...have often made me feel like a man caught in the act of conducting an illicit affair with the dark side of his own personality.”

The recently disclosed photographs of various CAI schools standing unoccupied are, in part, so jarring because there is little discussion or revelations of failure in the nonprofit sector. Such admissions directly conflict with the kinds of results that foundations demand in order to justify and renew their funding, and are in opposition to the kinds of miraculous success stories that open the minds, hearts, and wallets of donors.

The real pace and nature of social change

The case with Mortenson and CAI is at once a call for greater accountability and honesty, and also acknowledgement of the reality of social change. It is often slow – as evidenced by Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz’s notion of “patient capital.” It is also, even when scalable, small at first. And it is inevitably characterized by setbacks and the learning that follows.

This scandal is not just about Mortenson; it’s about all of us. It’s not just about empty schools; it’s about a sector that too often doesn’t allow for genuine learning. Unless we – nonprofit executives, development experts, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and donors alike – can be honest about the pace and nature of social change, we are not only perpetuating a false ideal, but also doing a disservice to the people we profess to help.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of "Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists," among other books. John Cary is the author of "The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients."

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