“The search for the next killer app or the next big star makes us vulnerable to fads and, simply, to the characteristic failures of many organizations focused on a single person or a single gripping idea…This is a tough dilemma, because the reality is that you need gripping people and gripping new ideas to excite funders, policymakers, and the public, to attract the resources and support one needs to make things happen.”
–Harold Pollack, Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago in his blog post “Greg Mortenson and the perils of “great idea-great man” philanthropy”
The world loves heroes and heroic ideas. Especially in problematic situations that require solutions. So, when these solutions need funding to make them happen, a “great man or great idea” is often the ticket. It’s glamorous. It’s sexy. It sells.
Lately, we’ve seen many examples of this model failing and we’re rethinking what works.
As part of its mission, Ecodana has always partnered with grassroots NGOs working within their own communities. It works. But it’s not glamorous or sexy. It’s not easy to sell.
“Not too many have heard of IDEP or Anh Duong [Ecodana’s NGO partners],” said Marc Henrich, founder of Ecodana. “There’s no hero in Anh Duong. They’re just people doing their work.”
These organizations help people in the developing world with the basics to improve their standard of living while protecting the environment — so it’s things like adopting eco-friendly farming practices, producing biofuel from animal waste and building and using compost toilets. How glamorous is that? “Their stories are about processing paperwork, doing budgets and going to talk with people and hearing their problems, “ said Henrich, “It’s about trying to nudge people and prod them to change their habits.”
There’s no hero, it’s just an organization.
But if you consider it a little more deeply, that just may not be true.
“So many of the organizations we work with are just small groups of people and they have these meetings and do their little part and if anything, it’s really the organization that is heroic,” said Henrich, “They’re putting all this work into trying to do this thing that is hopefully going to create change, and at any moment when you’re trying to do that, there’s some heroism in that. They’re willing to take risks and there’s a fair amount of potential failure attached to it. These organizations realize there’s not much money in it. People doing this work won’t make the kind of money they could in the commercial sector. They know this.”
This kind of heroism is quiet. Unsung. Unknown.
But it’s an essential part of making change in the world. It’s the part that Mortensen seems to have forgotten about.
“Part of the blame is on the media,” says Henrich, “The insatiable appetite for heroes and stories often blinds donors to the reality of what it takes to make change possible. I think Mortensen got so caught up in “The Story of Greg Mortensen” that he forgot his mission. I don’t doubt that he really tried and that he’s somebody who actually cares but he didn’t hire who he needed to hire, and make sure the money was being taken care of. It takes more than just being a celebrity to get things done right. Just look at Madonna.”
Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned from all this. You can have your sexy hero out front but make sure you have quiet heroes in the back room, taking care of business, doing the work of making change possible.