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
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. …