It seems that many people have a natural tendency to trust people who work in aid, and distrust people who work in corporations. This blind trust in people who claim they are "doing good," as opposed to those who we view as "just out to make money," means we often give development and aid workers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to evaluating their work. This overly dismissive approach to evaluating our support for NGOs can lead to a lot of waste, which is why I advocate for a guilty until proven innocent approach to donating.
But in addition to wasting money on less effective projects, our blind donations to those who say they are doing good is creating another type of bubble: an ego one.
We're well aware of the size that CEOs' egos can get in business, as we watch financial markets crumble, with many CEOs claiming checks but not responsibility. But what about in aid?
Hero-worshipping in the social sector is actually much more common than in business, as although a corporate CEO or analysts around him might declare his work the panacea of prior problems the company had faced, when it comes to aid work, the media and our praise all to often focuses on the story of the "hero-preneur" themselves, not the work they do. In fact, in business, with a bottom line of profit, required reporting which is more widely understood, and in the case of public companies, a plethora of shareholders expressing their feedback (as biased as that may be!), there is an impetus and a system for monitoring that leader's "success." With aid, it often seems that all you need to do is state the dedication of your life to some cause, and that statement of altruistic intent alone is all you need to get the media and donor community supporting your stock.
Kjerstin Erickson, who founded Forge, at a very young age and garnered significant media attention for her work, has this to say about the subject of hero-worshiping in the social sector:
...the mythology of The Social Entrepreneur revolves the whole story around the individual. Through a shrewd sleight-of-hand, our attention is turned away from the collective movement and toward an individual onto whom a Hero's Journey is imposed. The drama of such a tale is high, but at what cost? Kings and Queens are made, and many a speaking career launched... but what is sacrificed? What collective narrative, what real representation of holistic social change, what inclusive vision for proudly joining hands as small cogs in a big wheel?
By focusing on the individual, we not only miss out on supporting the opportunity to learn about or highlight the true impact of the work, but we also fuel a market of praise which attracts non-profit leaders who might be more interested in the publicity than the impact. During the six years I lived in Cambodia, I saw a lot of what I began to call NGegOs -- egos masquerading as NGOs. People raising funds for organizations that weren't really in existence, didn't have other staff, and didn't file their paperwork, or donors funding corrupt and harmful projects because the director was able to create good sob stories about their work. One of the most famous Cambodian NGO "heroes" is not regarded that way by many people on the ground, with a number of people I met in Cambodia who have worked for her organizations sharing stories... yet they can't get the story out.
These "heros" are not only revered by their donors, and the people who read their books, but also the media, and the journalists behind them. Once journalists, corporations, or celebrities, put their name behind an aid hero, it would certainly be very embarrassing to have that hero dethroned, so they not only have no incentive to write new stories when news of waste, corruption, or abuse comes out, but sometimes also might go so far as to prevent news of these issues coming to light. I find that to be the most frustrating part of all this: We need to be honest and let these stories be told, even if it means breaking a few hearts. And though you might think they DO come out, as big scandals like the Greg Mortenson stories do sometimes come to light, there is very limited discussion in the public both about how common these stories really and, and more importantly, how hard people worked to get the stories are to get out into mainstream media.
Two things need to change. On the one side, we, the consumers of aid marketing, need to ask more questions. Just because you read the Ford Motors book on how great their cars are, you usually don't become a spokes person for Ford unless you've actually ridden in one. We need to do the same when it comes to aid hero-preneurs, and not just read a book and then adamantly defend the author's words as truth without having ever even stepped foot in the place they are speaking about or having much understanding of the context for their work. On the other hand, the media channels and journalists need to put their own egos in check: So what? You got it wrong? Now tell the truth. If journalists are more worried about protecting their own reputations for having backed the wrong development project or aid worker, then we'll continue to be encouraged to fund projects, even once they've been found to be ineffective or damaging.
Daniela is working with a team of co-authors on a book about Learning Service - aimed at sharing lessons about the pitfalls of international volunteering and how to avoid them. She and Kjerstin Erickson are also pursing a book project -- "NGegO and Heropreneurship in the Social Sector," aimed at giving entrepreneurs and aid workers tactics for keeping their egos in check when striving towards having a positive impact.
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