Three Empty Cups of Tea

This week I was honored to guest lecture at the prestigious Monterey Institute for International Studies. The topic was nation building but because I am the founder of MicroCredit Enterprises, which finances microloans for poor women in the developing world, the discussion shifted to people building.

My talk was open to the public (what a splendid idea for all universities!) and in the audience a raised hand came from a gentlemen with deep faith convictions. He described how his church addresses the multidisciplinary nature of poverty in African villages by drilling wells, building schools, erecting health clinics, etc. while also distributing bibles and proselytizing the gospel.

photo credit: Danny Gallant

As I suggested to the class (pictured here) that all economic development promotes one sort of gospel or another. Microfinance, for example, inherently proselytizes the virtues of free market capitalism. Microfinance embeds gender equality, women's empowerment and human rights -- development for the whole person, if you will. Enduring economic development upsets the status quo.

What disturbed me about this particular gentlemen was not his faith motivation which was genuine, but his unwavering conviction that his church's time and money is actually doing good on the African continent. Whether it is or not, he is never going to know because he is not asking any self-examining questions about his impact on the lives he purports to save.

From beginning to end, he unconditionally follows the personality cult of his Savior and the doctrine of his religion. He is a change agent without doubts.

He not much different than the donors, journalists and other apostles who believed in Greg Mortenson, best-selling author of Three Cups of Tea and founder of a school-building program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His compelling (but allegedly hyped) personal story created a media blizzard of belief in him and a dearth of data about his impact.

For two very thoughtful commentaries read Three Cups of BS by Alanna Shaikh and It's Not About The Tea by Kevin Starr.

One regrettable defense for Mortenson is that he is simply a bad manager. This narrative feeds an urban legend pushed by ideologues and market fundamentalists who want to believe an alternate reality. Nonprofit is a tax status, nothing more. It does not establish management quality or results. It is certainly not an excuse for anything.

Yes, some nonprofits are poorly run, as the Mortenson dustup and opulent church altars surely suggest. However, by the same fuzzy yardstick, British Petroleum confirms the mendacity of all corporate chieftains and Donald Trump is an icon of political truth-telling. We can reject the charlatans of social change without concluding that dedicated nonprofit executives don't care a whit about the efficacy of what they do, wantonly waste money or poorly evaluate programmatic results.

Let's reject social change by personality cult and embrace empowering the poor to speak up, speak out and speak for themselves. That's what good nonprofit leaders have always done.