We Can be the Greg Mortenson’s of the World

This post is not about whether Greg lied – this is about how I interact with stories of service. About what I am doing or not doing.

This morning I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about Greg Mortenson. Under-attack hero. 3 Cups of Tea spilled.

I thought how much I want heroes out in the world doing the hard work so I don’t have to. How when someone is doing something so huge, it lets me off the hook from doing much of anything.

I thought “What an ego he must have!” but then I wondered, could I do better? Could I stay humble, grounded, when millions revered me? My daughter Lilly and I want to do service together this summer and as we talk, we go right for exotic, far away, save the poor, cuddle the orphan ideas. We want to be heroes, too. Don’t we all?

I thought, “How could the donors give him money so blindly?” then I learned this week that a popular organization I have given money to may be doing more harm than good. I gave money to them because it was hip, easy and everyone was doing it. I could have asked more questions, poked around more. Not that I could ever know for sure how many my money was being used but I could certainly be more discerning. Heart and head.

I thought, “Maybe he didn’t listen to what people needed in country.” Yet am I sitting and listening to those in need in my community right now to see where I could best help?

Greg’s possible blunders are a liberating wake-up call to my own power.

I’m thinking this is not an time for heroes, or white knights, or a “you know better than me” approach.

This is a time for trusting ourselves. This is time for liberating our longing to do something. This is a time for asking hard questions.

This is not a time for outsourcing our desire to make a difference.

We must not let Greg’s possible mistakes be used as an excuse not to give. This has historically happened with every major scandal – justified or not! – in the non-profit world. Giving plummets, no matter what the facts.

Giving plummets, and the world suffers – sometimes for years!~

Service action I’ll be doing this week: talking about Greg’s story as awake up call to serve and to give rather than a cynical “see nothing ever works” reason to quit.  Reminding people it’s not about what he did or didn’t do but that we loved that someone was doing something, and why do we love that? Because we want to do something, too.

P.S. Watch Tori Hogan’s “Beyond Good Intentions” documentaries to  learn more about international aid effectiveness.

P.P.S. Greg responds to allegations here.

 

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Molly Gordon - April 29, 2011

Greg Moretenson and CAI have responded in writing to the 60 Minutes allegations. I found the answers compelling. The world is more complex than soundbites can convey. I would encourage anyone who is upset by this to do more research.

Link to the Central Asia Institute financial statements
http://www.ikat.org/about-cai/financials/

Greg Mortenson’s response to 60 Minutes questions
http://ikat.org/wp-includes/documents/gmresponse.pdf

The CAI board’s response to 60 Minutes questions
http://ikat.org/wp-includes/documents/60minutesresponses.pdf

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    Anonymous - April 29, 2011

    I hope the dialogue continues and people learn from it, that is my wish, Molly.

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Lianne Raymond - April 30, 2011

“This is not a time for outsourcing our desire to make a difference.”

I think it’s our desire to make a difference that is a big part of the problem.

Not the desire part, the “make a difference” part. I believe the pure desire we feel in these moments is to be with others in their suffering – I believe desire is at it’s root about connection (remember the desire in falling in love?).

It’s when we take that honest desire and start to believe that we are going to be the answer to someone’s suffering, or that it is our responsibility to alleviate the suffering of another that we get messed up. What would it be like to not say “I am your answer!” and simply say, “I am here with you.”?

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    Anonymous - May 1, 2011

    I have been thinking and thinking about your words -the animus wants to take action and the anima to receive, to be receptive. I believe that Savor & Serve is about balancing both. It is imperative to be with rather than save or minister too… and to also take action from that place, as we would for ourselves. I am still so struggling to understand and live this Lianne, and I am so grateful for you for helping me along the way.

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    Leigh - May 2, 2011

    This blows me away, Lianne. I think this is part of the issue I take with the word “empower.” It implies that I have the ability to confer power to someone — power that is inherent, rightfully theirs, and always present even if buried or hidden.

    But, being present? I’m learning (through my work in Cambodia) that recognizing + seeing someone and then allowing them to ask for what they need (rather than assuming I know better) is a pretty potent process.

    Case in point: I want to reinvest the profits my company makes in early childhood education. My employees? They want clean water and toilets in their homes. How can I argue with that? My own bias kept me from seeing what they really need, however, they’ve been given the opportunity to voice those desires.

    So much of aid work (like any work) is learning, adapting, remolding. It’s the most challenging and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

    Rambled a bit off topic here, Lianne, but your comment sparked some thoughts!

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Bobbye Middendorf - April 30, 2011

Dear Jennifer,
I love your take on this! Making something good out of the media frenzy. There’s a wonderful antidote out there to the “Greg Mortensen Syndrome/Hero” syndrome. If you haven’t already, connect up with Meg Wheatley and Deborah Frieze’s new book, Walk Out, Walk On. The stories in there serve as a powerful wake-up call that the hero syndrome is over; and yet, at the same time, by deeply engaging with the people involved, ALL the stakeholders in a situation, allows everyone’s gifts to shine. In that sense, everyone becomes the hero in a community of re-visioning what is possible. Change happens, created by the actual community of people involved. It’s powerful, inspiring, and holds the potential for deep structural change. I attended a live event with the authors in Chicago. whew! Amazing! Thanks for being out there !

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    Anonymous - May 1, 2011

    will do Bobbye, thank you!!

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Mary Jane - April 30, 2011

Jen,

Very insightful comments and so true. I have looked to heroes at times in my life. This has not tended to go well. In my case, I find that I project my need for safety or hope onto a hero. I have followed the Mortensen situation, as I spent time in Pakistan some years ago, and could appreciate the obstacles he faced to build schools there. This situation has been a valuable learning curve for me on many levels.

I am finding that at this time in my life, as I put myself back together again after a really rough time, that self care and compassion for myself are the source of service. Because otherwise, service can come from ego and lead to burnout. I am finding right now that I can be of service in small, humble ways. By extending kindness and a smile to strangers I interact with during my day. By letting someone pull into traffic in front of me. By showing respect to others in a world where rudeness and entitlement are on the upswing.

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    Anonymous - May 1, 2011

    beautifully said Mary Jane~! So true and so eloquent, thank you. And as Nick Kristof said about Greg M. he still did more than most of us will ever do. For me, another lesson has been how we don’t question that big and growing is the only way. I fall into this too! Small is beautiful.

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Michelle Marlahan - April 30, 2011

Either way, this is a great turn around and a wonderful invitation to look at our own actions. Thank you!!

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    Anonymous - May 1, 2011

    thank you for understanding the intent of my post Michele!

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Ellen Berg - April 30, 2011

“My daughter Lilly and I want to do service together this summer and as we talk, we go right for exotic, far away, save the poor, cuddle the orphan ideas. We want to be heroes, too. Don’t we all?”

I love how you took this situation and extracted the learning from it. It was a nice little tap on the shoulder to reawaken my responsibility to make the world a better place.

I understand the desire to do something big and splashy and sexy, but when I think about doing those things, I realize that *for me*, my ego is engaged. Yes, it’s about the helping, but it’s also about the gold star, the pat on the back, the “look what she did” aspect of it all.

If we shifted to a service model in every interaction, though, how would our world change? If we were truly present in every conversation, if we helped the people in front of us out in whatever small way we were able to, what would happen then? It is in the space between two people–in relationship–that the magic truly happens, and lives and situations are changed.

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    Anonymous - May 1, 2011

    your words make me shiver with joy and excitement – so amazingly yes! “f we shifted to a service model in every interaction, though, how would our world change? If we were truly present in every conversation, if we helped the people in front of us out in whatever small way we were able to, what would happen then? It is in the space between two people–in relationship–that the magic truly happens, and lives and situations are changed.” YES!

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creativevoyage - April 30, 2011

My mother and I outfitted two school libraries in South Africa. Which makes us sound like two big time philantropists but what really happened is that a university friend of my mom’s Jo became the school librarian of a school which no books. When visiting us in Scotland she went to thrift shops picking up good books to take back with her. So under her guidance we started to buy suitable books and mail them to her sea mail. She gave us feedback on what was most popular and we knew what we sent was being used. Once a year my mother invited a few neighbours around for a coffee morning to raise money towards postage and also to send money direct. Jo changed jobs and we started supporting the next school library she went to work at. After 6 or so years she retired but it was just regular parcels of books going every week or so which all added up over time.

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    Anonymous - May 1, 2011

    I want to help people see how easy this can be. Would you be willing to write more about this as a guest post? A sort of short and sweet yet step by step? If so, I’d love it!

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      creativevoyage - May 3, 2011

      Hi Jen I’ll try and think about it ! the key is finding someone on the ground who really knows what people need rather than what we think they need. Similar org but for knitters who are keeping AIDs orphans warm in South Africa http://www.knit-a-square.com

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Anonymous - May 1, 2011

Pam thanks for the good feedback. I DEEPLY agree that pressuring for big corporations to pay taxes is so important and I also know that Greg M has done lots of great work.. and it appears made a number of big mistakes. What is important for me is to learn from what I projected onto to him, and everyone else for that matter~!, and stay active and engaged, rather than thinking someone else is doing it for me. Hope that makes sense!

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Leigh - May 2, 2011

I live and work in Cambodia where there are as many harmful aid organizations as helpful ones. I want to implore well-intentioned folks to do their due diligence before they donate, but at the same time respect the myriad ways in which we are all called to serve. It’s a very fine line.

Since you mentioned (albeit maybe in jest) working with orphans, I will say this: please do not go to any orphanage that allows you to waltz in without any screening or skills checks. Think of how you’d respond to orphanage tourism in your own country — kids need to feel safe + secure and a parade of short-term volunteers or tourists undermines that mission.

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    Anonymous - May 2, 2011

    Leigh thank you for your timely comments. When talking to Tori, she said the same thing. I mentioned orphans in the post because my daughter loves children so much that it’s the natural thing for us to do but again, as I am learning more and more, what we want or think is a good idea, maybe not so true. I’m honored you are reading my blog.

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Natasha - May 2, 2011

I have supported Greg Mortensen’s cause for several years — back in 2007 or so it was the book of the year in the “One Book, One San Diego” project. It was required reading for all incoming freshmen at SDSU and as a faculty-spouse-in-residence in a Residence Hall, it became one of my jobs to read the book and facilitate discussion.

The book was very inspiring. And as a henna artist, I organized an event involving 2 residence halls, catered Afghani food (provided by a very generous local restaurant), popular music from Pakistan and Afghanistan… and of course, henna designs. We had a Pennies for Peace box at the front desk, and managed to jolt at least a few students out of complacency.

Mismanagement of funds is constant problem when you have non-profits founded by visionary people not accountants. But when you look at the great good served vs. the amount of money evaporated, it usually balances in the right direction.

Helping others helps all of us. I’ve read Mortensen’s rebuttals and I’m satisfied with the responses. It’s not going to stop me from sending my contributions. I still believe in the mission and the methods.

But I’m also diversifying my giving so it’s not all going in one pot.

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    Anonymous - May 2, 2011

    well said Natasha and glad you “jolted” students out of complacency – so important for us all.

    Reply
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