Why Turning Social Innovators into Celebrities is a Bad Idea

by Kriss Deiglmeier

A Fallen Star

Newsweek’s May 2014 article, “Sex, Slavery and a Slippery Truth,” surfaced numerous inconsistencies and untruths in the personal story of Somaly Mam, tarnished heroine of the global crusade against sex trafficking. Mam’s fall from grace is unfortunate but sadly not a surprise.

We are a funny lot when it comes to social change. On one hand, we rally to provide food and funding following devastation by hurricanes, riots in Ferguson and thousands of children flocking to the US border. On the other hand, we are star-struck by glamour, celebrity, and the luster of a beautiful protagonist who presents a solution to one of society’s most ugly and complex problems.

Our Dangerous Hunger for a Hero

Turning social innovators into celebrities can attract attention and resources to a cause. But it is a dangerous move to make, because humans are only human, after all. And when our heroes fall, it is easy for people to discredit the good work their organizations do, discount entire causes, or disengage entirely and stop caring about problems that can seem too big to fix.

What should we do?

We have a role in this tragedy. We – as supporters, donors, and believers that change is possible –want to believe in the selfless leaders working tirelessly at the front lines to move the dial on big problems. We want to believe in these heroes.

But we must be careful. In asking charismatic individuals to speak for those who are vulnerable and trusting them to represent causes more complex than we have time to study, we bestow upon them influence and power.  And as we know, power can corrupt. Stars rarely want to fall out of the limelight and I’ve never met an organization wanting to reduce its budget after a peak fundraising year. What we can do:

  • Beware of snowballing stardom. Somaly Mam won attention from Oprah Winfrey, was featured in a PBS documentary, recognized among Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2009, and named a CNN "Hero" in 2007. Hillary Clinton, Meg Ryan and New York Times Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof all toured Mam’s organization AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) in Cambodia and praised her work.  Sheryl Sandberg, Susan Sarandon, a venture capitalist and a supply chain expert all serve on the advisory board of her foundation. As the rich, famous, and smart jumped on the bandwagon, it seems as though each new supporter found affirmation in the presence of other A-list names. At some point the snowball of Somaly Mam’s stardom may have taken on a life of its own, hungry for ever more attention and funds and losing sight of the importance of the truth as she made her case for support.
  • Watch out for the “identifiable victim effect.” It’s been proven that vivid, specific examples of tragedy are more powerful sources of persuasion than abstract statistics. It’s sad but true that Americans are more likely to donate based on the story of one unfortunate little girl than for millions of children in the same situation. It’s the personal story that makes big problems feel real. In Mam’s case, the more gruesome the story she told, the more support she got for her cause. So we need to be aware of this fundamental bias in human behavior. Be especially wary when children in pitiful situations are used to raise funds. Identifying this bias is proven to reduce its power in our decision making, so seek evidence to round out the sad anecdotes that you hear and don’t succumb to sensational stories.
  • Know more than one player in the field. Mam did a wonderful service of building awareness about sexual slavery and raising resources to tackle the problem. She deserves to be acknowledged for that.   But for all the attention and money Mam attracted, was her organization the most effective, most innovative or most in need? Did AFESIP’s outcomes validate the incredible publicity she received? Many organizations are working on this issue in Southeast Asia and around the world.  I know the founder of Verite, Dan Viederman. Verite’s approach is holistic in nature, understands the inter-connectedness of human trafficking and low-wage labor, works with companies to address the problem of employment, and also strives to influence public policy. Their work is complex to communicate and takes a long-term view of solutions, working not only to intervene for individual victims of trafficking but also to create change on the systems level. Hagar International is another well-respected organization working in this arena, with a thorough approach that integrates prevention, recovery, economic empowerment, social enterprise, and reintegration in its approach. Knowledge of several organizations within a field will help to provide perspective. How much time do leaders spend in the field? How do they treat their most low-ranking staff members? Who are their local allies and supporters? How do they allocate their resources?
  • Remember that real solutions require more than a dynamic individual. Most social problems can’t be understood, let along solved, without involving the nonprofit, public and private sectors. While we must support individuals working to create change, we must recognize that even the most impressive social entrepreneur is a piece of the puzzle, not the whole pie. And though the hero are likely to fund is often a Westerner, we must remember that the most effective catalysts for change in far-off countries are usually local, may not speak English, and may not be telegenic.
  • Listen carefully and embrace leaders that value inquiry and reflection. We must stay connected to the roots of the causes we care about. By reading credible research, conducting site visits, talking to locals, and interacting with employees from all levels within an organization we have opportunities to add depth and texture to our assessments. When we listen actively, we must notice the loaded pauses we may hear, watch for eyes to shift, and notice when answers are redirected or cut short. Because manipulation, abuses of power, and misrepresentation are always hidden beneath the surface, we must be inquisitive and patient in looking beyond the first pitch. We must seek out and reward those leaders that genuinely uphold cultures of openness and transparency at all levels of staffing and operations.

Why does this matter?

Do we want stardom to drive who gets money, access to those of influence and ultimately public attention? I don’t think we do. We want evidence of impact to drive our decision-making, and for resources to flow to the people and organizations that are doing the best work to help the most people.

When we prop up social innovators like movie stars, incentives get twisted and expectations soar. Then, when bad press hits, the ripples of damage have far-reaching and dangerous consequences. Somaly Mam was working to help real people in need, and those women and children will be there even after this scandal blows over. However, when the public’s trust is shaken, donations drop and reduced support will most heavily impact the people we most wanted to help in the first place.

More broadly, this kind of scandal can tarnish the reputations of the organizations and causes that these leaders represented, and taint the entire nonprofit field. We forget that one bad egg is not necessarily representative of the whole. And unfortunately, political will, donor generosity, and human hope are fickle commodities.  With some disappointed supporters, after this kind of disappointment we won’t get another chance.

The good news is that we have myriad examples of great (mostly) unknown leaders with dedicated teams working to get real results. By staying focused on the challenges, working with diverse partners from all sectors, rallying financial and human resources, sparing our social innovators the pressures of stardom, holding ourselves accountable, and committing to the long haul we know that we can be a part of solutions.  Hope springs eternal and the biggest danger of all is apathy.

Amanda Greco contributed to and edited this piece, a true partner.

Note: On October 14, 2014 The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that, "The Somaly Mam foundation, an anti-human trafficking organization that was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year after its namesake founder was accused of fabricating parts of her personal biography as a trafficking victim, has been shuttered."

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