What Mortenson’s Failures Teach About ‘Do Gooder’ Celebrity Culture

April 25, 2011; Source: Christian Science Monitor | Has Greg Mortenson been sufficiently vilified for his lack of truthfulness about the work of the Central Asia Institute? Are there bigger lessons that we should be focusing on instead about the nature of trying to advance social change?

In an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Courtney E. Martin and John Carey write that the answer to both questions is yes. They say that further "vilifying" the author of two best-selling books, "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones into Schools." will do no good. 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."

To Martin and Carey, both who've published books on citizen activism, 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 inherent danger in this celebration of people doing outsized things is that it increases "anticipation of even more success. What’s more, it also decreases supporters’ capacity to allow for failure." The authors go on to say, "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."

Martin and Carey say that among the lessons that should come out of the disclosures about Mortenson's work is that we need to be "honest about the pace and nature of social change." Otherwise they say, "We are not only perpetuating a false ideal, but also doing a disservice to the people we profess to help."—Bruce Trachtenberg