Posted by: Tayo Akinyemi | April 21, 2011

Perhaps I’ll Have Coffee?: A Footnote on Storytelling and Three Cups of Tea

At the risk of jumping onto the proverbial bandwagon, I feel compelled to comment on the unfortunate events surrounding the work of Greg Mortensen, his NGO, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), and his best-selling book Three Cups of Tea.  Two days ago I wrote about the power of personal story-telling and the need to believe the most “realistically optimistic” version of a narrative in order to affirm and empower ourselves.

Well, apparently this approach doesn’t necessarily translate at the institutional level.  As Heather Esper of NextBillion points out, “narratives are not enough” when the goal is to ensure accountability and transparency.  She rightly emphasizes the need to collect data as a way to demonstrate impact.  Perhaps more importantly, she highlights the growing realization that a framework for openly discussing failure is necessary, particularly as a way to learn and improve.

I don’t know what stories Mr. Mortenson told himself about his work, and don’t aim to guess.  However, for better or worse, the stories he told others are well-documented.  What’s pretty clear is that if you’re a public figure, your personal and public stories have to match up.  I suspect that this is much harder than it sounds.  The nature of (social) entrepreneurship requires that the problem-solver literally bend reality Matrix-style to match his or her version of the truth, i.e. how things should be in a better version of the world.  In order to do this, said entrepreneur better be a skilled story-teller.  Firstly, she has to believe with all the restless fibers of her being that what she wants to achieve is possible.  Secondly, she has to convince a whole crowd of skeptical others.  The challenge is maintaining a healthy balance between vision and reality.  That’s where data, an active board, and members of the community come in.

Nonetheless, I imagine that one’s self-esteem as a social entrepreneur can become intertwined with the (perceived) success of the venture.  In some cases, there is a great deal of external validation to be had in the life of a “social sector celebrity”.  From prestigious awards and fellowships to elevated social media status, the stock of the heroic founder can rise quite dramatically.  Unfortunately, sometimes this happens on the strength of the story rather than the work itself.  Of course, it’s the personal tales that captivate us the most.  That’s certainly the case with Mortensen.  And why shouldn’t they?  The compelling ones have surely inspired a generation of change-makers.  However, as participants in the narrative we need to be committed enough to stick with the plot, and  see what happens in the end  Indeed, this is why Desiree Adaway’s post on “founder’s fatigue” is so timely.  In her very appropriate words:

I am done with the founder that becomes the star, the hero, the savior.  …The founder whose reputation, brand, charisma and personality are so bound with the organization that they are one. I am tired of organizations, companies and products with big stories but no substance.  All narrative with no data just leaves me wanting,  disillusioned and hurt.

 An organization is never about one person, one story, one voice. The work is richer and deeper than that.  We like to simplify it for mass consumption and in doing that we have created a system which encourages and rewards easy answers to complex situations.

All of that said, I’m with Nicholas Kristof in his call to “reserve judgment” for the time being.  The truth about Mortensen’s apparent misdeeds—exaggerating the tale of his Taliban kidnapping, mismanaging CAI funds, claiming credit for schools he didn’t build or are currently unused— is probably fairly nuanced.  It probably lies somewhere between the absent-minded, well-intentioned “disorganization” that Kristof and Mortenson himself cite, and the outright fraud that former supporter Jon Krakauer attributes to him.  (See this exclusive interview conducted  by Alex Heard of OutsideOnline for Mortenson’s take on his management struggles.)  Perhaps that’s not surprising given the nature of the “truth”; it’s usually much more complex and much less subjective that we’d prefer.  Perhaps that’s why this impact assessment stuff is so darn thorny.

In any case, it’s not my aim to accuse Mortensen of anything further, or to speculate about what caused this situation to explode.  His story simply made me think about the nature of this type of work, and what roles we play for ourselves and others.  At minimum, I think it’s important to ask yourself, as often as you can, whose story you’re telling (or selling) and why.

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