LONGMONT, Co, April 18, 2011 — Count me among those saddened by the 60 Minutes expose uncovering improprieties and debunking many of the stories told by Greg Mortenson, best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea.
The “60 Minutes” investigation alleges that the multimillion-seller Three Cups of Tea is filled with inaccuracies. Additional accusations are that co- author Greg Mortenson’s charitable organization, Pennies for Peace, has taken credit for building schools that don’t exist.
My family purchased his books. My wife read the young-adult version of Three Cups of Tea to our children. We fell into the trap of thinking that purchasing books would support children in another part of the world. That may not be true.
The tragedy for Mortenson is that it didn’t have to be this way.
As best-selling author Jon Krakauer, once a supporter and now accuser of Mortenson, said on the 60 Minutes report, “Let’s be clear. He (Mortenson) has done a lot of good. He has helped thousands of school children in Pakistan and Afghanistan… He deserves credit for that. Never-the-less, he is threatening to bring it all down, to destroy all of it, by this fraud and by these lies.”
I don’t feel “betrayed” by another disgraced “hero.” As a fan of professional baseball and bicycling, I became jaded toward embracing people as heroes a long time ago. I’m more concerned about what this episode says about us.
We tend to place greater value on the work of individuals over that of groups and institutions. We elevate individuals to celebrity status. We jump on their band-wagons, supporting their cause du jour with little or no knowledge of whether their ideas are good or their claims are true.
Rather than saying shame on Mr. Mortenson we should be saying shame on us. Yet this pattern repeats itself over and over again.
In education, we believe that celebrity mayors and celebrity billionaires have better ideas to reform education than those who have dedicated their careers to finding more effective ways to motivate and support children.
In politics, we look to celebrity politicians who have more media than policy experience to lead us through the most challenging times in decades, dismissing those who have worked in the trenches as being part of the problem.
In philanthropy, we put people like Greg Mortenson on a pedestal while the work of groups such as Rotary International go largely unnoticed by the media and general public. Indeed, the work of Rotary stands in stark contrast to the efforts of Mr. Mortenson.
Rotary International, through the PolioPlus program, is a leading force in the worldwide effort to eradicate polio. There have been no book tours. There are no celebrity leaders. Rotary clubs made up of anonymous individuals raise and contribute dollars and volunteer time to eliminate this dreadful disease. The Rotary story does not make a good read. It is just good work.
The best aspect of Rotary International’s work is that it does not depend on a celebrity. Individuals come and go. But, the organization and the work continue.
Philanthropic organizations are certainly not immune to scandal. United Way and Red Cross, for instance, have had to clean up after executives guilty of severe improprieties. But, organizations can survive scandals. Those responsible for imprudent or illegal activities can be fired or arrested. The good work of the organization can continue.
Celebrity based organizations aren’t as resilient. Mr. Mortenson has done laudable work. But if he falls from grace, the support for Pakistani and Afghan children may disappear as well. That’s the real tragedy of the recent revelations.
The next time a Greg Mortenson comes around, and one will, think twice. We need to ask ourselves whether it is better to support an individual with a good story or an organization that can sustain good work.
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John Creighton writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. John is also a member of the St. Vrain Rotary Club in Longmont, Colorado. Read more of John’s work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times.
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