15 February 2011 ~ 101 Comments

The Dangers of Hero Worshiping (in the Social Sector)

I heard a disturbing story this week. A friend who works in Battambang, a northwestern province of Cambodia, told me that she had recently met a young traveler from Australia in her late teens who said she was starting an orphanage.

When asked why she came to Cambodia, she said:

“I was so inspired by a story I saw on TV that I decided to come here myself.  Cambodian kids are SO cute!  Now I have three of my own!”

Uh oh …

The most disturbing part of this statement is the issue that this girl is treating Cambodian kids like Barbie dolls—as if she can just pick the cutest one off the shelf, take it home, and call it hers. But I want to focus on the bigger picture. Why did this girl think coming here to “save” Cambodian children was ok? Where did she get the go-ahead to do this?

She got the thumbs up from us. From society at large. From what the media chooses to highlight. And from hero-worshipers who focus on the WHO of social causes and not the WHAT.

This teenager had been inspired by a TV feature she had seen about another young girl who came here to Cambodia at 21 years old and later, as the media describes it, “saved Cambodian orphans” by becoming their “mother.”  She was given awards in her home country for setting up an orphanage and the media produced a documentary starring this girl, reenacting not only her original rescue of 17 kids from a horrible orphanage, but also her own reenactment of how she took in additional kids she had found who were living with other families whom she felt needed a better home.

Although the media was clearly trying to highlight this girls bravery, her story of leaving a wealthy society behind to help the poor, and her remarkable instinct to act while so many others might have been too scared, for a range of reasons, to do so, the media and the award judges probably did not consider that other young people might view this as permission to go to a poor country and “getting a few cute orphans of their own”?  It seems like they should have.

I think we as a society need to be careful how we highlight philanthropy and who we choose to idealize. The stories people hear about development work around the world tend to be those of people who have led lives others might envy (working in film, Hollywood producers or starts, wealthy New York elite, etc). The media LOVES it – they love talking about how beautiful people, who could have continued to pursue popular and idealized careers, “gave it all up to help the poor.”

But they rarely focus on WHAT those people are doing—or better yet, HOW is they are doing it? Before we turn “do-gooders” into national heroes we need to move beyond the hero story of leaving fame and fortune behind and ask the tough questions. We need to do due diligence and dig into the WHAT of these organizations, not just the WHO, to be sure we are promoting responsible, educated, long-term efforts which can be models for replicable positive change.

In Cambodia, the Ministry of Social Affairs has guidelines around orphanages, and they—and so many other child protection groups around the world—state that keeping children with their families or extended families should be top priority where possible and, if that is not possible, one should consider foster care or small (8 children per adult recommended) family-style living. By promoting media pieces, awards, and articles which make it almost seem easy to take a child out of a bad situation and put them into a better one just by the nature of only rewarding and recognizing the act of removing the kids from where they were, we are giving others permission and incentive to repeat those actions.  The media rarely digs into best practices around an issue. In the case of orphanages, the media didn’t think to discuss alternatives or to do into questions about what globally respected child rights organizations describe as best practices in this area. When people fall in love with the hero stories they see on Oprah – people building schools, digging wells, building libraries – they often take a deep look into the story of the person taking action, but gloss over the details of the organization’s actions.

If we skip over those things, all we see is a hero’s story. The desire to help is something we need to embrace and then harness for good in the most responsible way. But, good intentions are not enough, and we can’t continue to praise people because their IDEA was good, or their INTENTIONS were good. This post is not intended to say that things which start out without following best practices can not be great or praise worthy in the future.  This post is to remind people who vote for “hero” awards, people who work in media, and all of us who talk about/donate to/volunteer for/idealize those who have gone out to “do good” in the world, to BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU PROMOTE THROUGH YOUR PRAISE!

By praising things which make development work look easy, which make it seem like any person with no specific training can come in and start a successful NGO project, which only focus on praising how something started but overlook the discussion of the long-term systems in place to ensure a positive impact, we are setting up more opportunities for development work disasters. This isn’t the first time a young, self-identified-as-unqualified person has been praised for taking in orphans in a “poor country.” Nicholas Kristof promoted this type of action in the New York Times by highlighting a 19-year-old girl who started a children’s shelter in Nepal (see Maggie’s story in this DIY Aid article).

I feel passionately about this issue because I was once the young idealistic 20-something myself who started something I too was unqualified to start (and I sure am glad that what I started didn’t involve taking children into my home!). The reason I have this blog is to share the lessons I have learned in order to help prevent people from making the same mistakes I made. When I was twenty-six, some friends and I organized a bike trip across Cambodia, and we thought we could improve education by building a school.  We were fortunate to realize that starting a school on our own would not have been the wisest decision, so we found an NGO building schools and raised funds for their work. Were we praised for this “heroic deed” or building a school in a poor country when all of us came from rice places like the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Finland?  Yes, of course!  Lots of people wrote notes or articles about our heroic deeds.

But what were they praising?  A bunch of kids building a building which would sit there empty if we left it at that.  It has taken us five years of hard work to try to make that initial investment of a building worth while as we realized that other organizations were more concerned with building buildings than building education.

We started off funding this work by offering “voluntourism” trips, where people could “save the world in a week” and come volunteer in Cambodia.  What we learned early on was that we were doing two major disservices by offering trips which were focused on giving rather than learning: 1) by rushing to help, we were encouraging people to take action before they fully understood a problem or a goal, which can often lead to unnecessary mistakes; and 2) we were creating experiences which made US feel good, which were catering to the universal desire to be a hero, and which were more about filling the needs of the looking-to-feel-needed traveler than of the “beneficiaries” of the projects we claimed to be supporting. We realized through our own missteps that we have to learn before we can help, and that sustainable change takes time and expertise.

My friend Nik made a great comment about this mentality when she said:

While I understand the desire to help kids who are in bad situations, I can’t understand why people think the logical solution is for the kids to be then entrusted in the care of a young girl. If we come across someone who says their community needs a well, no one would just start digging on the spot and fudge their way through it, would they? It would be obvious that you didn’t know what you were doing!

But sometimes it isn’t obvious to the “doer”, and that is why I think we need more development education initiatives in schools, for travelers, and for the philanthropists.  It also isn’t always obvious to the media, and then the media sells heroes to the public based on their personal story of taking action without the knowledge to back that up, as if that were a GOOD thing.

So why do we allow this when it comes to KIDS—real humans—rather than wells? And why do we incentivize it by making people heroes, thereby encouraging others to do the same? After seeing too many cases of people who have been praised as heroes who then leave the project they started after a few years when it gets too hard, I think we need to redefine a hero as someone who takes the time to research, learn, and make sustainable choices in an effort to make their project NOT all about them, but about the impact the media seems to always overlook.

The media is not afraid to dig deep into the hero story. They are looking at THEM with a microscope – interviewing their parents, finding out about her past – but they are not looking at THE WORK they are apparently being praised for with the same microscopic lens.  Where is the interview of the the stakeholders? Where is the discussion of long-term plans for the wells, for the schools, for the kids?

It is interesting that, for all of the general population’s talk about wanting to understand the impact that an organization has before we make a financial contribution, we seem to say one thing and yet do another. We get blinded both by great advertising and by fame, yet we state that we understand the responsibility of donating. When we donate, we are voting with our funding – we are voting for what we want to see repeated. If we don’t do our homework and we fall victim to flashy branding or tear-jerking stories, we are voting for something we know little about. In this case, the media voted, and more teenagers are coming to Cambodia to start their own orphanages.

Let’s focus on impact rather than on the “hero” if we want to praise successful models which we’d like to see repeated. This is not to discredit the entrepreneurial spirit – I love people who see a problem and come up with new and previously unimagined solutions to the world’s problems – we need those people! But I’ve learned that those of us who are inclined to jump into action with our ideas need to take a breath, look around and ask questions, and examine other possible solutions which have already been tried and tested, ESPECIALLY when it comes to kids. We continue to dole out praise for this type of work at the same time that the mainstream media is finally recognizing that orphanages and orphanage-based volunteer work can cause such negative impacts!

Kjerstin Erickson, founder of Forge, gets it right when talking about the focus on “The Social Entrepreneur.” Her complaints from her SocialEdge blog against focusing on the founder’s story can apply here:

“…the mythology of The Social Entrepreneur revolves the whole story around the individual. Through a shrewd sleight-of-hand, our attention is turned away from the collective movement and toward an individual onto whom a Hero’s Journey is imposed. The drama of such a tale is high, but at what cost? Kings and Queens are made, and many a speaking career launched…but what is sacrificed? What collective narrative, what real representation of holistic social change, what inclusive vision for proudly joining hands as small cogs in a big wheel?”

She knows all about the problems of focusing on the “hero” rather than the work because she herself went to Africa as a teenager and then started up a development organization.  She too was recognized around the world as a talented young woman who had every opportunity available to her through her Stanford education and yet she chose to “do good.” It must have been frustrating for Kjerstin to get praise around her hero’s journey all of the time when she was probably more proud of the cases when people dug in deeper and learned about her work enough to praise her for her IMPACT, not her decision to put her pretty face into a poor country.

THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THESE HEROES CAN’T OR DON’T GO ON TO DO GREAT THINGS!  If anything, let’s hope the praise and fame incentivizes them to continue to improve their work.  In my own story, once all of these people had donated their hard-earned money to help us build a school and praised us for our efforts, I felt a need to prove them right.  When we realized a school does not teach kids, people do, we could have walked away with a pretty building with our name on it, but instead we stayed.  We started off unqualified, and in my opinion, NOT worthy of praise.  I would NOT recommend anyone to move to Cambodia and start an NGO when they know very little about the people/place/systems.  We didn’t deserve praise when we got it. BUT, now, after five years, there are parts of our work and our programs that I think can and should be viewed as repeatable models, and many other organizations are coming to look at or train with our programs to see them repeated.  In other words, for all of the heros we have commended for how they STARTED, we should check in and check in to commend them for how they IMPROVED as, we don’t want to provide incentives for unqualified people to start things.  We want to inspire people to support or learn about models which work to positively impact their goals and target areas, and that takes a lot more time/effort/know-how and commitment than just the heroic act of starting something.

There is a debate going on in the comments of this blog right now which has gotten into this “hero’s journey” dilemma as well. One of the commenters admits that his respect for the popular organization, charity:water is due in part to his love for the founder’s “leaving big fancy job to save the world” story. If we are going to focus on impact, we need to dig deeper and know what we are funding behind the famous face.

We need to dig into the WHAT of these organizations, not just the WHO, to be sure we are promoting responsible, educated, long-term efforts which can be models for replicable positive change. We should be praising people who go out and learn – who go out and educate themselves on the responsible ways to have an impact before they act, ESPECIALLY when it comes to taking kids in. If we don’t and if the media continues to depict acts of young people with little or no qualifications working directly with kids as heroic, then we are providing incentives for more development disasters with other young people “getting a few cute orphans of their own”?  What a shame.

Watch what you promote.

NOTE: This post was changed to remove a name/organization, but the message and previous examples are still the same with additional examples added in.  The point is still the same: Promote good impact. Not just good and interesting people.

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE: I recognize that criticism is less helpful than suggestions for improved future actions. Read this next post about actions you can take as a budding-do-gooder and a wanna-be-responsible-donor which can help us avoid funding or starting irresponsible aid projects.  This is by no means a complete or thorough list – please add your thoughts!


How to evaluate an orphanage, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do, by Ian Birrell

Cambodian Orphanage Tourism, on Aljezeera

Orphanage Tourism: The Catch-22 of Orphanage Funding, by Eric Lewis

Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia: Good Intentions are Not Enough, by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

A Protest Against Orphanage Tourism, and other orphanage tourism related posts on this blog

Sasha Dichter of Acumen Fund reminds us to be generous and use our heart, but to “ask the tough questions”

  • danielapapi

    Three and a half years later, Tara and her organization, Cambodian Children’s Trust, are still in Cambodia… but they no longer run or believe in orphanages, and Tara too shares a concern about the dangers of hero-worshipping in the social sector. After this heated discussion a few years ago, Tara and I met up and have been exchanging emails over the years… here is a guest post from Tara about some of the lessons she has learned and cautions she has from others looking to do similar work: http://lessonsilearned.org/2014/09/tara-winkler-guest-post/