I have worried that there is a danger as a social entrepreneur teaching a class on social entrepreneurship (especially one that features a series of amazing guest lecturers who are also social entrepreneurs), in painting an exclusively rosy picture of the field. The real story is of course more complicated, and my belief is that in order to really understand all that is great about the field, it is essential to also understand its shortcomings and limitations.
To this end, throughout the course I have asked the students to consider social entrepreneurship through a more critical lens, including perspectives such as Marshall Ganz’s piece that Social Enterprise is Not Social Change and Jon Krakauer’s book, Three Cups of Deceit.
For those unfamiliar, the book is Jon Krakauer’s expose of how (according to Amazon): Greg Mortenson, “humanitarian hero,” lost his way. In many ways it’s an unlikely choice for the class because it’s the story of how someone who was celebrated as an incredibly successful social entrepreneur turns out to have lied about a bunch of rather significant details of his story and engaged in some pretty unethical behavior in his leadership of the organization he founded, the Central Asia Institute (CAI).
I do assign it though because, for me, Mortenson is the least interesting aspect of the story. I assign the text because of what it says about the larger ecosystem in which social entrepreneurs operate - the roles of philanthropy, boards of directors, donors and the media. I assign it because I want the students to look more closely at the stories we tell about social entrepreneurs and the ways that these stories both reflect and reinforce age-old biases, while also incenting behaviors and beliefs among everyone involved, not least of all the social entrepreneurs.
It’s worth noting that Jon Krakauer himself is a minor character in the story. Krakauer was a not-insignificant donor to the Central Asia Institute, and his ire at being duped by Mortenson is palpable throughout the read. Three Cups of Deceit is very readable - Krakauer is a great writer - but I was disappointed by his oversimplification of the story: the philanthropists and donors are gullible innocents swindled by Mortenson, who is portrayed as an almost old-fashioned con man. There is little acknowledgement of the myriad ways that the system incentivized and then lavishly rewarded Mortenson’s behaviors. While Mortenson is obviously an extreme example of a social entrepreneur run amok, I kept thinking that his behaviors were not all that surprising to me. He probably is a con man, but I suspect like most great con men, he believed his own con. I came away thinking that it was surprising that more nonprofit leaders didn’t fall into the same trap: it is the rare human who can successfully sell the hype without buying it himself.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Three Cups of Deceit is the story it tells about CAI’s Board of Directors. Nonprofit board membership is a critical component of the nonprofit sector and perhaps the single most important organizational structure to ensure that a nonprofit is actually operating for the public benefit. It is a huge responsibility that almost no one who does it is fully prepared for, trained to do, or entirely understands. And when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, they are the humans left holding the bag. The bag the CAI board was left holding was a particularly large and messy one.
Kevin Starr’s piece on the accusations against Mortenson in a 2011 SSIR article, “It’s Not About the Tea,” captured the situation well. I particularly appreciated the observation, “The whole thing had an unhealthy cult-of-personality vibe.” Most notably, though, Starr (CEO of the Mulago Foundation) is emphatic that while the lies in Mortenson’s stories are offensive (”it’s not nice to portray one’s hosts as kidnappers”), the greater offense was in misrepresenting accomplishments and in wasting so much money. To the point that the story is most important in what it says about the other actors involved, Starr adds, “In the end, though, the responsibility for this mess lies with the donors. By and large, CAI’s supporters went for a feel-good story, didn’t do their homework, and didn’t ask the right questions. It appears that there was never a systematic attempt to verify whether schools were up and running, and the fact that there was only one audited financial statement over CAI’s history is jaw-dropping. If you smothered me with adulation and gave me a ton of money without much oversight, I’d probably run amok too.”
Earlier in the semester, the social entrepreneur Alexandra Bernadotte (see my earlier blog on her guest lecture) asked my students to consider the idea that the systems we choose to fix are not broken, as is so often said, but rather they are operating exactly as designed. I think that is perhaps the most critical idea inherent to Three Cups of Deceit. Greg Mortenson’s story fulfilled a narrative of a white man rescuing a broken people, despite allegedly being kidnapped and threatened with death, paying back his debt of gratitude for having healed him in his moment of need. It is the perfect noble savage trope, with an American hero who was going to defeat the Taliban by building schools. Even as people came to realize that Mortenson himself was unwilling to fulfill the most basic of reporting requirements - financially, to the board, with the staff - his ability to raise money and inspire people who wanted to hear this story made it feel impossible to those responsible for doing so, to stop him. It is important to recognize that Mortenson experienced what for most of us was unimaginable fundraising success because his behaviors and stories, while unethical and fabricated, were exactly the behaviors and stories that the system was designed to reward.
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.