It’s easy to get wrapped up in an attractive story: the Harvard grad who gave up a comfortable life on Wall Street to move to Africa and start a microfinance institution or the pretty 17-year-old model who abandoned a promising career to rescue orphans in Cambodia.

Daniela Papi, of PEPY and PEPY Tours, points out that not only is this “hero worship” superficial, it’s also harmful. On her blog, she relays a story she heard from a friend:

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!”

Papi goes on to implore society to “be careful how we highlight philanthropy and who we choose to idealize.” This applies to the media especially.

Last fall, Nicholas Kristof profiled three women in an article titled D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution. One of the women, 24-year-old Maggie Doyne, started an orphanage for Nepalese refuges when she was just 19 with money she had saved up from babysitting.

As part of the media, I can understand the lure of focusing on the individual instead of the issue. When talking about sanitation, for example, it’s much more palatable to talk about Jack Sim, the effervescent founder of the World Toilet Organization, rather than the deplorable state of sanitation worldwide. It might be more appealing, but is it beneficial?

Papi continues, “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.”

What it all comes down to is measuring impact. VILCAP listed 2011 as the year for something to come of social metric reporting, which was a “big deal” in 2009 and 2010. The Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) and the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) created Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS), and B-Corp is set to release the Global Impact Investing Rating System (GIIRS). In the microfinance sphere, the Grameen Foundation started a certification process for its system, the Progress Out of Poverty Index, last year as well.

The difference is between saving 30 Nepalese orphans and being able to demonstrate how you have improved their lives with robust data such as improved learning levels. That is far more valuable than a pretty face and a nice story.

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1 Comment »

  1. K Sree Kumar Said,

    February 18, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    Nicely put, Abby – emphasises how important it is for the social / development sectors to build a solid, widely-accepted framework for measuring real impact. Won’t be quick or easy, but maybe we can move a little closer to the point where the improvements in measurable parameters, rather than the celebs and the faces, are the story.

    It still hasn’t entirely happened in other sectors, but some of them are at least a little further along that path … :)

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