Greg Mortenson and Our False Ideals about Social Change

By Courtney E Martin; John Cary | The Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Greg Mortenson and Our False Ideals about Social Change


Courtney E Martin; John Cary, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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